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Jiri Jelinek and Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin:a formidable pairing.

Aleksandar Antonijevic


  • National Ballet of Canada
  • Four Seasons Centre
  • in Toronto on Saturday

An unusual thing happened at the finale of the National Ballet of Canada's production of Onegin. The audience started clapping before the end of the ballet, and continued until the curtain fell. When the curtain rose again to reveal dancers Xiao Nan Yu and Jiri Jelinek for their bow, the audience exploded in a rapturous ovation.

The moment that triggered the initial applause is in the third act. Tatiana rips up the letter Eugene Onegin has written her declaring his love. This mirrors the second act when the urbane Onegin returned Tatiana's passionate love letter in such dismissive fashion. Then, Tatiana had been a young and provincial country girl, unworthy of Onegin's interest.

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It's only many years later, seeing that Tatiana has blossomed into a sophisticated and alluring young woman, that the restless and rootless Onegin realizes what he has lost. Although Tatiana is now married, she still has strong feelings for Onegin. Nonetheless, she sends him out of her life.

Clearly, the premature clapping indicated that the performances of Yu and Jelinek had overwhelmed the audience. The late choreographer and artistic director John Cranko also deserves credit for creating this brilliant 1965 dance drama for his Stuttgart Ballet based on Alexander Pushkin's 1825 verse novel.

Jelinek is the newest principal dancer at the National. He joined the company this season from Stuttgart, so Onegin was bred in the bone, so to speak. His performance in the title role is far more physical and expressive than that of most interpreters.

At the start of the ballet, Onegin is meant to be a city snob visiting a country estate.While Jelinek was certainly distant and remote, he also showed emotion, his face telegraphing irritation when the humiliated Tatiana burst into tears.

Another key factor was Onegin's flirtation with Tatiana's sister, Olga (Heather Ogden), aimed at dispelling any neighbourhood gossip about him and Tatiana. He literally pushed aside Olga's fiancé, Lensky (Guillaume Côté), and put on quite a show of pretending to enjoy his dance with Olga. In fact, Jelinek's pseudo-enthusiastic façade highlighted Cranko's cheeky and insouciant choreography for the Onegin/Olga partnering.

The moment when Lensky challenged Onegin to a duel crackled with high drama, and there was shocked silence in the house when he slapped Onegin's face.

Jelinek was also able to convey the passionate spirit beneath Onegin's cosmopolitan veneer. He was a broken man at the end, and his final searing duet with Yu was gut-wrenching.

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In Yu, Jelinek had a perfect Tatiana, and their dance partnership is going to be something wonderful that unfolds in future pairings.

She was simply exquisite, as both the innocent and the mature Tatiana. Her profound grief at the end of the ballet, as she stands alone onstage, was palpable, just as her earlier humiliation was heartbreaking. Both she and Jelinek are able to mask their formidable technique within their acting skills, allowing for rich interpretation.

Kudos to both Ogden for her luminous portrayal of the shallow Olga and Côté for his sensitive Lensky. They too were perfection. The opening night also brought the great Rex Harrington back onstage as Tatiana's elderly husband, Prince Gremin. Harrington's tender duet with Yu brought the house down.

Santo Loquasto's new sets and costumes make their debut with this performance. My question is, if something isn't broken, why fix it?

Jürgen Rose's original design for Onegin was lovely. Loquasto's is bland.

His cookie-cutter, muted dresses for the women of the corps de ballet are unremarkable. There is no richness in colour. His sets, while marginally more attractive, tend to be dark, and James F. Ingalls's lighting is positively gloomy.

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The National Ballet's production of Onegin continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Jun. 25.

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