The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Nov. 23, 2016
by Denise Sum
Copyright © by Denise Sum 2016
This season marks principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu's 20th year in the National Ballet of Canada. A compelling dance actress, Yu was cast as Tatiana opposite Rex Harrington's Onegin early on in her career, when she was just 22 years old, in 2000. She made a powerful impression then, and has continued to grow and mature in the work with each run. How fitting, then, for her to reprise her signature role during this milestone season. Despite the title, John Cranko's "Onegin" is very much centered around the inner world of its heroine, and this performance truly belonged to Yu.
Photo: Xiao Nan Yu in "Onegin". Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
There are recurring movement motifs so perfectly suited to the characters' emotions and Tchaikovsky's music, that once seen together become impossible to unlink. For instance, Tatiana's quivering bourrées in Act 1, conveying unsteadiness as she is swept away by her first experience of romantic love. In their awkward first pas de deux, Onegin lunges forward heavily, dripping with world weariness as Tatiana's feet flutter behind, hopelessly enamored with him. Later, as they part ways, she almost reaches for his hand, but as she hesitates, he walks away. Longingly, she bourrées in the opposite direction, facing his back, her hand still outstretched reaching for his. Other memorable gestures are repeated within the ballet in different contexts to provide both contrast and symmetry, most notably elements of the mirror pas de deux that appear again in the final pas de deux. In her fantasy, Onegin kisses her neck on either side gently, as a teenage girl would imagine. Later, Onegin makes the same move but does so desperately and almost aggressively. They are the same kisses, but completely different. At the end of the Act 1 pas de deux, she falls to his feet in ecstasy, while in the Act 3 pas de deux, it is Onegin that crumbles at her feet after she tears up his letter.
Yu's performance was heartfelt and virtuosic. Her characterization was detailed and carefully thought out, expressive without ever veering into histrionics. She demonstrated the purity of Tatiana's affection and the devastation of her heartbreak. When she is face to face with Onegin again in Act 3, she is frozen. She cannot do anything but look straight at him without registering any reaction on her face, given the circumstances. Yet once alone, reading his letter, her chest heaves and she almost trembles. She hugs her arms to her chest as if she has caught a chill, seeing a ghost from her past. In both pas de deux, she dances without inhibition, her jumps soaring and her back bends deep and pliant.
She was paired with McGee Maddox as Onegin. While a secure partner, Maddox's acting lacked the shading and complexity of Yu's Tatiana. His Onegin was hardly likeable, not just a snob but a jerk. There was no suggestion of how he came to be that way, nor his inner turmoil or existential ennui and disappointment with the world. Rather, he came across as a man who simply did not know himself, whose hot and cold actions understandably confused Tatiana. The impact of the letter tearing scene, such a pivotal moment, was lost as he just ripped it in half in front of Tatiana and walked away. He was more believable in showing Onegin's regret in the final scenes, but by that point the audience is not particularly invested. Unfortunately, this flat characterization slightly took away from the potential impact of Yu's performance. It is notable that in a ballet like "Onegin", if there is a weak link, the melodrama of the whole production begins to show. It can only work with an airtight and convincing ensemble.
As Olga and Lensky, Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James contributed much to the performance. Dronina's dancing had a beautiful lightness and James coupled long, rounded lines with the soulful expression of a poet. They looked absolutely smitten in Act 1 and their lingering, final kiss before the duel was heartbreaking to watch. A young corps de ballet member, Ben Rudisin, made his debut as Prince Gremin. He gave a dignified performance. Although his appearance on stage was brief, his Gremin was a mature and loving foil to Maddox's Onegin.
Following the bows, Yu received flowers and multiple curtain calls, and was met on stage by her husband and two daughters. It was a memorable evening for an artist worth celebrating.
Photo: McGee Maddox and Xiao Nan Yu in "Onegin". Photo by Karolina Kuras.