Bird Droppings from Estonia: Onegin in Tartu (1)
Archived Articles 18 Jan 2008 Hilary BirdEWR
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It gives me great pleasure to report a fine co-operation between Russia and Estonia after a year when neighbourly relations took a decided turn for the worst after the metal man was rehomed in Tallinn.

In November the Vanemuine premiered the gorgeous ballet, Onegin. The choreography, libretto, musical direction and stage design are Russian. The costumes are from the Czech Republic, the conductor our own Vanemuine regular, Lauri Sirp and the exciting Vanemuine ballet troupe is now newly globalised (seven out of forty are from the UK, with assorted Spaniards, Argentineans, Koreans and Japanese).

The choreographer of Onegin is Vassili Medvedev who trained in the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet and Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, St Petersburg. He’s an old Tartu hand, having been a leading dancer and producer here at the beginning of the 1980s. As an appreciation for his services to ballet, Medvedev holds the title of ‘Honoured Artist of Estonia’ and a Ministry of Culture Award. There is even a main entry for him in the Estonian Encyclopaedia.

After the USSR crumbled Medvedev returned to Russia and established a successful international career as a dancer and choreographer. He has worked in St. Petersburg, Moscow, the Czech republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Moravia, Western Europe, the USA, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Latin America and South Africa. Since 2003 he has been the artistic director of the international dance festival ‘Dance Open’, held in St. Petersburg every year, and is a member of UNESCO International Dance Council.

Onegin was first staged in 1999 for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) at the Prague National Theatre. The choreography won the Pushkin Legacy Ballet Award (USA) in 2000. The main soloists Tereza Poda?ilová (Tatiana) and Stanislav Feco (Onegin, and who produced our new Vanemuine version of ‘Giselle’ last year), both from the Czech National Ballet, won the same prize for their performances. Scenes from ‘Onegin’ were subsequently performed in important international galas. Onegin was also staged in 2004 as part of Santa Fe’s major ‘Russian Summer’ event with prestigious Mariinski (Kirov as was) trained principals Viacheslav Samodurov and Igor Kolb from the Brit Royal Ballet, Maria Eichwald, of the Stuttgart Ballet and the corps de ballet of the Brno National Theatre (Czech Republic).

Now Medvedev has brought his lovely Onegin to Tartu. ‘After 20 years I am again standing on the stage of my home theatre – the Vanemuine,’ says the choreographer. This is where I produced my first ballets and received a very warm welcome from audiences and critics. This is where I became a real choreographer. I will never forget it and I am very grateful.’ ‘As opposed to many of my predecessors I tried to tell a story about the destiny of Eugene Onegin … and not about the destiny of Tatiana as in Tchaikovsky’s opera or in the John Cranko ballet,’ he explains. ‘This is why I did not include a single note from the composer’s opera, but turned to his other symphonic pieces.’ Actually I think this is difficult to achieve. Onegin is such an elusive character. Pushkin (in Charles Johnston’s translation at ) writes

Eugene was free, and as a dresser
made London's dandy his professor.
His hair was fashionably curled,
and now at last he saw the World.
In French Onegin had perfected
proficiency to speak and write,
in the mazurka he was light,
his bow was wholly unaffected.
The World found this enough to treat
Eugene as clever, and quite sweet.

But, he’s not such a featherweight by the end of this great narrative poem, by which time he has killed his best friend in a foolish duel, spent time in exile and fallen, on his return, for Tatiana, now an important St Petersburg grande dame, but whom he had spurned as a plain country bumpkin.

Tatiana, on the other hand is one of the most clear-cut, sonorous and gorgeous characters ever created in any literature anywhere. All the best speeches are hers, while Pushkin speaks of Eugene in the same affectionate but slightly deprecating tone he also generally uses as narrator. When rejecting Onegin, as a successful St Petersburg woman of the world, Tatiana (recalling their meeting in the country years before) tells him
Bliss was so near, so altogether
attainable!... But now my lot
is firmly cast. I don't know whether
I acted thoughtlessly or not:
you see, with tears and incantation
mother implored me; my sad station
made all fates look the same... and so
I married. I beseech you, go;
I know your heart: it has a feeling
for honour, a straightforward pride.
I love you (what's the use to hide
behind deceit or double-dealing?)
but I've become another's wife --
and I'll be true to him, for life.

The poem ends with one of the most tantalising ‘what ifs?’ in literary history … Has Onegin really changed or is he just attracted by Tatiana’s new celebrity? Will Tatiana eventually give in to Eugene? We will never know as Pushkin never wrote ‘The Return of Onegin’, thank god.

The role of Medvedev’s Tatiana has been danced by celebs such as Yulia Makhalina (Mariinski/Kirov), Daria Klimentova, Elena Glurdzhidze (both English National), Elvira Khabibulina (Mussorgsky Theatre, St Petersburg). Royal Ballet school trained Hayley Blackburn from the UK and Antonio Ayesta (Argentina) danced on the first night here, and a fine night it was! Hayley was perfect as Tatiana, able to portray (as she is in ‘Giselle’) with skill and subtly both the simple country girl and the sophisticated society hostess. Antonio was the perfect scornful city boy and the anguished contrite lover. The settings and stagecraft are lovely. Technical standards are high and I look forward to more great ballet at the Vanemuine in 2008!
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