There are at least three adaptations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin being staged in London this month. With the Royal Opera House showing both John Cranko’s ballet and Tchaikovsky’s opera, the Barbican offers the most contemporary response: Deborah Colker’s Tatyana.

Deborah Colker Dance Company, Tatyana © Leo Aversa
Deborah Colker Dance Company, Tatyana
© Leo Aversa

Actually it’s not that contemporary – whatever that means. Tatyana draws much of its vocabulary from the classical and modern lexicons, albeit with some added acrobatics. The dancers pointe and pirouette their way through Pushkin’s verse-novel, using their strong classical technique as a base. The cast are brilliant but I find myself wishing they were allowed to let go a bit – they stand and gesture with a stiff-backed, artificial precision that prevents any real sense of character ever coming across.

Deborah Colker doesn’t normally create narrative works and Tatyana is arguably no exception. Even with the synopsis I struggled to follow the plot. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a failing – dance of this kind has neither the means nor the need to express the specifics of plot. Tatyana, however, adds little comment, depth or perspective to the story.

Colker’s innovations to the telling of Eugene Onegin lie in her portrayal of the central characters. Firstly, she casts each role across multiple dancers. Occasionally this is used to good effect and early scenes become pacey sequences of interaction but Colker seems reluctant to hold back and one group dance blends into the next with little shift in shade or tone. Her other innovation is the insertion of Pushkin as a major character and affecting force. Later scenes in which Pushkin’s costume, movement and interaction mirror that of Onegin draw parallels between the author’s life and the lives of his characters.

Colker’s long-time collaborator Gringo Cardia designs an impressive set for the first act. A giant wooden tree provides a frame for the performers to crawl, climb and pose all over and sets the scene for a number of twee, pastoral scenes. The soundtrack to the first act is one huge non-sequitur, an awkward mash-up of music from classical pieces to jungle drums and minimalism. It culminates in a rather tame duel, in which the antagonists’ weapons of choice are a fan and a cane. They chaine and twirl at each other until the loser arches in his dramatic death throes in the victor’s arms. The second half is a little more tasteful.

Tatyana is light on intellectualism and shallow in its approach to Pushkin’s novel, but the dancers are good and the choreography lively. If you’re looking for a deep reflection on Eugene Onegin’s themes or some comment on human nature then stay well away. If you want to see some very able dancers doing what they do best then you have until 9 February to go.

**111