By Irineu Perpetuo
Deborah Colker’s latest work seeks inspiration from a literary classic: “Tatyana” brings to the stage the characters of Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin.
If modern Russian literature has a “founding father”, his name is Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
(1799-1837). As described by the translator Boris Schnaiderman, Pushkin “was like a whirlwind that passed through Russian literary life, with the clarity and the splendor of his work, his wars and duels;
a whirlwind who lived so little, yet who left his mark on everything that would be done later in Russian poetry and literature”.
A “mulatto” (his maternal great-great-grandfather was son of an African prince), Pushkin has, for Russian literature, the importance of Goethe for Germans, Shakespeare for the English, or Camões for the Portuguese. He was above all a poet, but devoted himself also to theatre (Boris Godunov) and to prose
(The Queen of Spades, The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, The Squire’s Daughter).
Written in seven years, four months and seventeen days of intermittent working (from May 9th, 1823
to September 25th, 1830), Eugene Onegin is Pushkin’s most original and important piece of work, having inspired several creations in other areas, from Tchaikovsky’s famous opera (1879) to the film of Ralph Fiennes (1999), not forgetting John Cranko’s ballet Onegin.
Bielinski, the main critic of the time, commented: “to appreciate a work such as this is to appreciate the poet in every range of his creative activity”. A contemporary of Pushkin even said that “whether a lover
of delirium, of reality or of poetry, everyone is fascinated by Tatyana’s dream”.
The scenario is deceptively simple: Onegin is a wealthy, cosmopolitan and bored young man, enduring
the khandra, the Russian word that defines what in English was called spleen, and was the profound melancholy that constituted the “malaise of the century” at the beginning of the 1800’s.
Having witnessed, in cosmopolitan St Petersburg, all the distractions of the big city, yet failed to pull himself out of his lethargy, Onegin journeys to the countryside, where an uncle has left him a rural property.
There he meets the young poet Lensky, intellectually linked to Germany and, therefore, of romantic and enchanted nature. Lensky is engaged to a slight and carefree girl of the neighborhood, Olga Larina, whose older sister, the contemplative Tatyana, is introduced to Onegin.
Elle était fille; elle était amoureuse (She was young; she was in love), writes Pushkin, quoting a poem
of Malfilâtre. With an imagination nurtured by French novels, Tatyana is enraptured by the cosmopolitan newcomer, and declares her feelings to Onegin in a letter. Onegin, however, is not interested in commitments, and rejects her coldly. Sometime later, he is persuaded by Lensky to attend to Tatyana’s birthday party. Bored by the shallow country social atmosphere, he decides to take revenge on his friend who made him go to the party by flirting with Olga. Lensky is perplexed: he challenges Onegin to a duel,
in which Lensky dies (to some people, a premonition of Pushkin’s own fate, since he was also a poet who perished in a duel).
Sometime later Olga marries another man, while Onegin begins a three-year journey across Russia. Back in St Petersburg, Onegin finds himself fascinated by the high society lady he sees at a party: It is Tatyana, now the wife of a general, and so different that he fails to recognize her.
Onegin immediately falls in love with her. He writes her letters, harasses her, stalks her. It seems he has finally found the meaning for his existence, which he has been searching for. After much insistence, he manages to see her. Tatyana still loves him. “Happiness was so possible/So close”, she says. It was, but not anymore. Tatyana is married. And she asks Onegin to leave.
What happens to Onegin after Tatyana’s rejection? No one knows. Pushkin ends his novel there.
To express the poetic force and the magic of the novel, Deborah Colker and her dancers bring Pushkin himself to the stage, interacting with the actions, wishes, thoughts and changes of the four main
characters of his masterpiece. It is after all a work of contemporary dance, interested more in feelings
than in story-telling.
Although the book was written and set in the Russia of the beginning of the 19th century, one of the reasons for its lasting power is its ability to transcend the barriers of time and space – a virtue that is reinforced in this show. Therefore we do not see on stage the Russian stereotypes of balalaikas and matriochkas: instead the scenery is formed by a large metallic tree, around which and in whose branches Pushkin and his characters develop their dreams and suffer their distresses.
Nor do the costumes belong to any specific place or time, being used instead to characterize clearly each character with a mix of “modern” and “old” elements. And similarly the soundtrack, though it is marked by the prevalence of Russian composers, gathers composers from various periods, from Tchaikovsky’s Romanticism to Stravinsky’s Modernism – and the scores of these great masters of the past, at their turn, pass by the contemporary filter of the collages and remixes of Berna Ceppas.
This crossing of languages, aesthetics and references was the way found to face the daunting challenge:
to express, without words, the marvels contained in the verses of a literary classic.