John Cranko’s 1965 masterpiece, Onegin, has a long history with the National Ballet of Canada. On its company premiere in 1984 it was staged by current Stuttgart Ballet artistic director Reid Anderson and since then had many brilliant performances by legendary performers in its history. The only commercial filming of Onegin took place in this company in 1986 starring Frank Augustyn in the title role.

Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin © Aleksandar Antonijevic
Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin
© Aleksandar Antonijevic

These days many companies around the globe are adding Onegin to their repertoire, but for National Ballet of Canada this is a special piece with a rich history all their own. You can see their tradition breathing when you look at the fine ensemble of this ballet, telling the lives of 19th century Russian society very well.

Their current production was created by Santo Loquasto in 2010, replacing the original design by Jurgen Rose. The white birch forests and the olive to brown gradation of the scenery creates a romantic and Byronic atmosphere, well suited for the epic tragic story, and the ornate gold and red sets for the ballroom scene are a perfect fit for the Russian aristocratic society.

This ballet is titled Onegin but, depending on the performers, it can either be an Onegin ballet or alternatively a Tatiana ballet. Tonight it was an Onegin ballet. The tall first soloist, McGee Maddox in the title role, embodied a sophisticated dandy, very much bored with rural life but concealing his emptiness by acting superficially gracious. Maddox’s interpretation was plausible, in spite of his youthful baby face. He gradually bares off his mask and shows a complicated, tormented figure with much inner turmoil. A strong and solid partner, he was handling Tatiana with much ease and confidence in the Mirror pas de deux. And in the last act, his desperate feelings burst out in vain in a way that could melt anyone’s heart, only to be rejected by Tatiana, making us feel his pain.

Evan McKie and Elena Lobsanova in Onegin © Aleksandar Antonijevic
Evan McKie and Elena Lobsanova in Onegin
© Aleksandar Antonijevic

Xiao Nan Yu was excellent in showing her transformation from the bookish rural girl to an elegant queen of high society. Although looking quite mature from the beginning, her long limbs show her delicacy and dreaminess, fascinated in love stories and imaginative, and would easily be attracted to this tall dark stranger. In her final scene, she seemed to have be determined that she would not fall for Onegin, as her happiness with Prince Gremin looked so blissful. But then, after banishing Onegin from her life, her grief and remorse was so clear.

The role of Olga, Tatiana’s sister, was replaced in the last minute by Jillian Vanstone but she could show the lighthearted, attractive but thoughtless character though her delightful, virtuous dancing with much ease. The tender love appearing in the pas de deux with her fiancée Lensky was touching, but with a sign of their coming parting.

Lensky was performed by guest artist Evan McKie form Stuttgart Ballet, where this ballet originated. Considered one of the best Onegin dancers in his generation, it had been several years since he last performed this role of Lensky, but his understanding of this ballet is immense, having a positive effect on the whole cast. Lensky’s idealism, vulnerability and despair were woven into poetry with much lyricism. The solo before his duel is one of the most beautiful and tragic solos by a male dancer, and McKie’s long lines, flexible back and phrasing so much integrated with the viola solo symbolized the death of innocence, not only for Lensky but for all four main characters.

McGie Maddox and Xiao Nan Yu © Aleksandar Antonijevic
McGie Maddox and Xiao Nan Yu
© Aleksandar Antonijevic

The music of the ballet Onegin is not based on Tchaikovsky’s opera score. It was arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinz Stolze, and assembled from Tcahikovsky’s works such as Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini and The Four Seasons. The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor David Lamarche, created marvelous effect on the drama with excellent understanding of the ballet.