THE snow-filled squares of St Petersburg and the sun-soaked streets of Rio de Janeiro may seem worlds apart, but in Deborah Colker’s mind, the two have been sitting side by side for some time now.
When I last met Colker, in May 2010 at her Rio headquarters, she was working on her show, Cruel. But even then, in the midst of rehearsals and tour schedules, she had to tell me about a certain Russian novel that was occupying her thoughts.
Back then, the story had yet to make its journey from page to stage; its potential as a large-scale dance work lived only in Colker’s imagination. Now, her adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin has become a reality, as audiences at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival will soon discover.
Serialised between 1825 and 1832, Pushkin’s “novel in verse” is set in the lavish world of St Petersburg high society, where a bored young aristocrat fills his time with shallow friendships and meaningless sex. The death of his rich uncle prompts a move to the country, where Onegin discovers the beautiful and innocent Tatyana – and so the tragic love story unfolds.
Pushkin chose to name his work after the male protagonist, but for Colker, there was never any doubt who the real star is. “If you look at how Tatyana is at the beginning,” says Colker, “she’s a naive country girl, very quiet. But during the book, her transformation is amazing. She is the one who makes the epic decisions, and her character changes completely. Pushkin put the name Eugene Onegin on his book, but this is my version, it’s his book through my eyes, so I called it Tatyana.”
The “epic decisions” Colker speaks of involve a move from the countryside to Moscow, where the once shy young girl marries a wealthy older man. Having spurned Tatyana’s proclamation of love years earlier, Onegin now realises his mistake and tries to win her back, to no avail.
“Inside the story I found so many things that interested me,” says Colker. “It’s not only a love story, it’s about transformation and maturation. Tatyana falls in love with Onegin, and the whole book deals with that love story. But in reality, it’s a love story that never happens.” All this and more is depicted in the dance, but in an abstract style. Colker’s tenth full-length work, Tatyana was part of a deliberate attempt to change the way she choreographs, and comes in the wake of two previous shows that scratched at the surface of storytelling.
“It began with Knot in 2005,” explains Colker, “where I went deep inside the human soul. Then Cruel spoke about life and love and had some small stories inside it. But I really wanted to tell a complete story, so I read many books. When I found Eugene Onegin, I thought wow, I want to work with this story, to build it and spend time with these characters, they inspired me.”
Colker claims the book was her “bible”, reading it over and over while she fleshed out the best way to present the story through dance. Other people had adapted the novel in the past – Tchaikovsky wrote an opera in 1879, Ralph Fiennes starred in his sister Martha’s 1999 film version – but Colker wanted to make it her own.
This she has achieved through an interesting approach to casting. All the peripheral characters in the book have been dispensed with, leaving just Onegin, his poet friend, Lensky, Tatyana and her younger sister, Olga.
In the first half, each of these characters is played by four dancers (16 in total), with Colker herself taking on the role of Pushkin, who acts as a kind of narrator figure in the novel. Then, in the second half, all the women play Tatyana and all the men play Onegin.
“It’s not a narrative show, but I love it when I can see that the audience follows the story,” says Colker. “In the first act, I present each character, their relationships, their stories, and each one of them has their own costume. In the second act, all the Onegins have the same costume, and all the Tatyanas are dressed the same, with the same make-up and hair. And the women all wear pointe shoes, because Tatyana is no longer a naive country girl, she is a mature woman living in the town.”
One of the key elements in the book that Colker was keen to bring out is the strength of emotion felt by the characters, from passionate love to deep sadness. Even in the Fiennes’ film, there is no Hollywood ending to be found in Eugene Onegin – just the sad realisation that the love affair we all want to happen, never will.
Although Tatyana is Colker’s main focus, she doesn’t ignore the emotional journey undertaken by Onegin himself. “At the beginning of the book, Eugene doesn’t have any moral values, he doesn’t take care of his friends, of money, anything,” says Colker. “He is bored all of the time. But after Tatyana says “no” to him, for the first time in his life he feels a real feeling – and I wanted to show that. At the end, we all know that Tatyana still loves Onegin, but it’s not possible for them to be together – it’s a tragedy.”
As with all of Colker’s previous works, the set design for Tatyana is of huge importance. In the past, she has asked her dancers to climb on a giant wheel (Rota), weave through dozens of china vases (4x4) and hang from a mass of ropes (Knot). This time, she has challenged them to balance on the foot-long branches that adorn the vast tree that dominates the first half.
Colker concedes that they are “very difficult to dance on”, but felt that the tree was integral to her overall vision.
“It’s a symbol both of nature and Tatyana’s home in the country,” she explains. “There are seven branches at different levels, because I wanted to create secret places where I could share different senses. It’s the room where Tatyana writes her love letter to Eugene, and the place where she sits waiting for him to reply.”
By act two, the tree has gone, replaced by a series of screens and projections. “It’s a more expensive set, but there’s less of it,” says Colker. “Everything is black, and it’s like the dancers are floating, suspended in the air. It’s very beautiful for the viewer, but very complicated and technical for us.”
When Colker first came up with the idea for staging the second half, she was in Montreal creating a show for Cirque du Soleil. Surrounded by snow, in minus 25 degrees, she describes the landscape as “empty and full at the same time” – a feeling she wanted to bring to Tatyana.
Ultimately, however, Colker went for a sense of place, rather than any specific location, and a timelessness, rather than setting it during a particular era.
“When Pushkin was writing Eugene Onegin in Russia, everything was happening – music, visual arts, poetry, literature, ballet, it was a very rich time in history,” says Colker. “And that was something that inspired me a lot, to be in touch with all of that. I related to 19th century Russia and the Pushkin way.
“But I didn’t set Tatyana anywhere precise. It’s not Russia, it’s not Brazil, it could be anywhere and everywhere – any city in the world at any time. For me it was more about sensation and atmosphere.”
Tatyana by Deborah Colker Dance Company, Edinburgh Playhouse, Saturday until 14 August. www.eif.co.uk
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