For those of you who have challenged your friend to a duel, married a prince or at the very least experienced unrequited love, “Onegin” is the show for you. Ballet West presents this celebrated ballet at the Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake. The theater, designed to encapsulate the southern Utah landscape, has walls flushed with panels like red rock and a ceiling you can go star gazing under. The stage though reflects the somber and enchanting story of “Onegin.”
“Onegin,” not to be confused with a drink that one may order at a bar, follows Tatiana, a young woman who falls in love with a stranger named Onegin. The ballet’s plot comes from Alexander Pushkin’s novel “Eugene Onegin,” which was then adapted into an opera by Tchaikovsky. John Cranko, a versatile and influential choreographer from the 20th century, later took the concept and transformed it into dance. Amusingly, Cranko actually selected Tchaikovsky’s music, but not the music he had composed from the opera. All the same, this decision acts as a homage that harkens back to the rich, intertextual genealogy of this ballet.
Although a surprising amount of emotion and plot can be conveyed through dance, the viewer might misinterpret scenes if they don’t have an understanding of the material. The ballet opens with Tatiana (Arolyn Williams) reading a book while her sister Olga (Jenna Rae Herrera) and her mother (Emily Adams) sew party dresses for Tatiana’s birthday. Country girls come and take turns looking in a mirror. Although the significance of this scene becomes obvious, it is not clear from the scene alone that they are playing a game in which if they look in the mirror, they will see their love. Despite the uncertainty, the choreography still clearly conveys Olga’s delight when her fiancé Lensky (Joshua Shutkind) appears behind her as she looks in the mirror. This also elegantly sets up Tatiana’s embarrassment when Onegin (Rex Tilton) suddenly appears behind her in the mirror.
The first immediate appeal of this ballet is the set. A whimsical, rustic pallet, the beautiful design often makes the scenes feel like an impressionist painting. While still a modern conception, using fake snow and forced perspective chandeliers, the audience is constantly reminded of the story’s age. If not through the traditional costumes, the ballet’s blatant heteronormativity and gendered expectations reveal just how dated the piece is. While it would be impossible not to respect Tatiana’s strength and conviction in rejecting Onegin, the expectation of her marriage and fidelity are equally present. The ballet reminds us of the strain that occurs in keeping traditional forms alive while still being awake to the present age. On the other hand, the original intentions of this piece could be reinterpreted through a modern lens. Tatiana’s fight against Onegin’s unwanted advances takes on fresh meaning in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Ultimately, the delightful skill of these performers, the excitement of a live orchestra and the remarkable set create a production that never once loses its interest. And for those of you that think of ballet as something reserved for the elite, check for the seats that include reduced student pricing.
“Onegin” will be playing at the Eccles Theater until Apr. 13.