WA Ballet's Onegin one to remember

Jo Pollitt

By John Cranko
WA Ballet
His Majesty’s Theatre

Review: Jo Pollitt

The passions that drive the heart of WA Ballet’s Onegin are deeply romantic in this dramatic story of double unrequited love. Performed with grace and aplomb by the burgeoning company, the ballet unfolds in three succinct, memorable acts.

Accompanied by the cinematic and spacious sounds of Tchaikovsky, navigated with exactly the right emotional edge by conductor Myron Romanul and the WA Symphony Orchestra, John Cranko’s sophisticated choreography demands an expressive interpretation.

Centred on four main characters, the ballet is framed by a set imported from Prague, and an enthusiastic corps.

In the first act, the highly stylised choreography and direction is a little predictable, but acts 2and 3 swiftly progress to deliver this still contemporary tale of power, personality and irrational romantic love.

Essentially a portrait of a selfish, brooding man whose downfall spirals from a sense of power and privilege (and boredom) in the world, the twist comes in the journey of Tatiana who has the final moving word in the impassioned despair and resonant strength of the breathtaking finale.

Initially crushed by Onegin’s rejection of her, Tatiana’s journey moves from the romantic longings of a young girl to accepting of a life of compromise and a societal affirmation in marrying a man of status and kindness.

As the curtain falls however, we are left applauding her personal tragedy rather than her sense of duty.

Jane Smeulders as Tatiana, and Jiri Jelinek as Onegin each bring masterful interpretations to the stage. Smeulders is a mature and unique artist at the height of her game, and her risk-taking, generosity and trust well enable the choreography. Her exquisitely supple arms and torso making light work of the intricately syncopated footwork.

Though a touch too wise to be believable as the young girl, we are quickly drawn into her complexity to understand the life she eventually chooses after witnessing the stable calm in her marriage/duet with Gremin, perfectly portrayed by Christian Luck. Also notable was the effortless and charming portrayal of Tatiana’s sister Olga by Melissa Boniface.

Onegin is played by newcomer Jelinek - an anti-hero of easy elegance and languid sensuality, with a cool and arrogant elevation that suitably distances him from the rest of the cast. Commanding partnering work was a feature throughout, but the rare lyrical breath in Dane Holland’s portrayal of Lensky’s sensitive moonlit solo was a distict highlight.

Holland encapsulates the poet with equal parts pride, vulnerability and exquisite form. Here we see evidence of the value of passing the choreography from dancer to dancer via the coaching of Egon Madsen on whom Cranko created the role.

Though somewhat antiquated in terms of gender roles, stereotyping and occasional over-acting, the sweeping tale of Pushkin’s Onegin is resonant in its historical grandeur. The creative team and contributors to this production span centuries – from Pushkin’s verse-novel of 1833 to Cranko’s choreography of 1965 to the performers’ interpretation today.

With new artistic director Aurelien Scannella at the helm, and former artistic director Ivan Cavallari returning as rehearsal director for this production, what struck me most was the unapologetic confidence, maturity and keen individuality of the company.

A successful rendering of the poetic world of a writer known as Russia’s Shakespeare, Onegin was an immersive event, complete with a duel to the death, heartbreak and growth – what’s not to love?

Onegin runs until October 5.