Deirdre Kelly


The National of Canada revived its production of John Cranko’s Onegin last week, a full-length work inspired by the Pushkin prose poem of the same name, and finally the Toronto-based company has found a way to make the work come alive.

Leads Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Cote imbued the ballet with passion and nuanced dancing that lent the story of a jaded aristocrat in the Russian provinces an urgency and vitality missing last year when the National presented the ballet also at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

A 1965 story ballet in which serfs, samovars and duels at dawn form much of the  pre-revolutionary Russian atmosphere, last year’s revival featured new sets and costumes which elicited a great deal of attention. But it was a missed opportunity because the National Ballet failed to rise to the occasion.

Blame it on the surfeit of birch trees that designer Santo Loquasto chose to give the ballet some of its added naturalistic Slavic colour. But last year’s presentation was wooden.

The dancing looked stitled and the drab colours did nothing to enhance the drama.

The birches, in fact, often seemed to get in the way of the on-stage action. Parts of Lensky’s elegiac Second Act solo, for instance, seemed to take place in the shadows: A case of not being able to see the thicket of emotion the dancer was endeavouring to express for the trees.

This year, while the branches still lay thickly over the on-stage action, the production appeared to have blossomed over the intervening months.

This time around, there was no distracting from the skills of the respective dancers.

The Sunday matinee performance as performed by Hodgkinson and Cote — she playing Tatiana, the young bookish woman in the throes of first love, he the Byronic stranger who breaks her heart — was superbly acted and danced.

 Their final pas de deux in the Third Act bedroom scene was especially scintillating; each danced with abandon, making the lifts and twirls and impassioned feints to the floor extremely exciting to watch.

It was their ability to fully occupy their roles that set the performance apart.

Onegin is ballet as character study. It is best danced by seasoned performers, dancers confident enough with their dancing technique that they can allow themselves to revel fully in the moment.

Hodgkinson and Cote were those dancers — demonstrating a maturity that belied their thirtysomething years.

Each in turn used the ballet to journey into the soul of their respective characters, subtly adjusting the way they used their  hands, their eyes, the start-and-stop of their steps to convey a varied landscape of human feeling. In dancing the details they made the work breath as a living work of art. The standing ovation both received at the finish was well-deserved. Bravi.

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