Brazilian dancer and choreographer Deborah Colker is a storyteller in the grandiose sense of the word. Her proptastic extravaganzas - most notably physical theatre pieces Knot (2005) and Cruel (2008), as well as Ovo, created for Cirque du Soleil - are not shy about fiercely shoving human relationships under the microscope to expose, as Colker likes to call it, “cruel love”. Her use of enormous, oft-perilous sets has become a trademark of her work, as has her voiced desire to use movement to transcend cultural boundaries.
Her latest work, Tatyana, is an adaptation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and on paper, it appears to be perfect fodder for Colker. The tale of lovestruck Tatyana and her infatuation with the dashing but emotionally cold Onegin speaks volumes to anyone who has ever loved from afar. Unrequited love; the ultimate “cruel love”. Adaptations are plentiful (the opera and ballet are playing concurrently at the Royal Opera House) and the reason for this is Pushkin’s finely drawn, complex characters. Naive, romantic Tatyana; cold, calculating Onegin; youthful idealist Lensky and his flirty, floozy fiancé Olga, who happens to be Tatyana’s younger sister.
It is these four characters that form the backbone of Colker’s adaptation, with frequent appearances by a white-haired man who, we’re told in the programme, is meant to represent Pushkin. Each character is performed by four dancers, a stylistic device that evokes initial confusion. There’s little that distinguishes one character from another (the wigs worn by the women doesn’t help matters) and the dancers’ self-possession is thin on the ground. The men who portray Lensky do well to convey his heartbreak when Onegin openly flirts with Olga but ultimately there’s too much happening on stage for the audience to effectively grasp the gravity of the fatalistic situation.
Act II is stronger, primarily because the final devastating scene in which Onegin professes his love - too late! - to a now grown-up Tatyana is set to Rachmaninov’s moving Concerto 2. It is a sublime music choice but, try hard as it might, cannot convince us of Tatyana’s despair, nor Onegin’s horrifying realisation that his arrogance has robbed him of love. It’s a pity, because the dancing is technically flawless with great fluidity and superb control, and the material is practically begging for a modern-day retelling. Tatyana is beautiful to watch, but ultimately devoid of substance.
- Vanessa Keys