Hope Muir Reflects on Onegin
By Caroline Dickie
October 27, 2023
Koto Ishihara and Naoye Ebe in rehearsal for Onegin. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
John Cranko was a leading dance dramatist of the 20th century and Onegin, his 1965 adaptation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, holds a special place in the classical canon. Dancers are particularly enamoured of this work, citing the unique opportunities for drama and storytelling it affords. We are fortunate at The National Ballet of Canada to have a special connection to Onegin that originates with former Artistic Director Reid Anderson and continues today, with Artistic Director Hope Muir. Anderson was the first to stage Onegin here in 1984, having danced under Cranko’s leadership at Stuttgart Ballet. Anderson is now a world expert in Cranko’s work and has continued to advise on Onegin at the National Ballet. This season, he collaborated on the staging with Muir, who brings her own rich history with Onegin.
“I was in my first season with London Festival Ballet when Lynn Seymour came out of retirement to dance Tatiana,” she says. “That made such an impression on me. She was both fearless and naturalistic in her approach to the characterization, in a way going against the classic mode of storytelling that was very British at that time. The experience of watching her prepare and perform the ballet was formative for me as a young dancer at the start of my career. It was electric to be onstage with such an artist.”
Lynn Seymour. Photo by Round Roy.
Canadian-born Lynn Seymour was a celebrated dancer who returned to the stage in her late 40s to perform the lead role of Tatiana opposite Alexander Sombart in 1988. Muir’s firsthand experience of that return, along with Seymour’s generosity as a teacher and fellow artist, shaped Muir’s perception of Onegin and creates a wonderful throughline to the National Ballet, where Seymour worked periodically as a guest artist. The ballet world mourned Seymour’s passing last March, at the age of 83.
Tatiana is a coveted role that is typically reserved for more experienced artists who have developed the skills to communicate her arc from an infatuated young girl to a married woman with the conviction to reject Onegin, despite her feelings. Onegin is also an artistic challenge, as he moves from cavalier youth to deep remorse and passion.
Karen Kain and Reid Anderson in Onegin. Photo by Andrew Oxenham.
“The opportunity for mature dancers is so exceptional,” says Muir. “They can bring all of their knowledge and passion and deep understanding of stagecraft to these roles in a way that might not be possible in other ballets.”
Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, Onegin focuses on five protagonists, as opposed to the one or two in many story ballets: Tatiana, Onegin, Olga, Lensky and Prince Gremin. All are nuanced, flawed and therefore open to interpretation. “The chemistry between all five major characters is so unique and individual to every cast that does it,” says Muir. “I think that’s one of the reasons Onegin has held its appeal for so long. It’s been able to grow with each person’s involvement and interpretation.”
Muir notes that our upcoming performances of Onegin will feature seasoned artists revisiting well-known roles and others who are making debuts. “There are opportunities for the entire roster, from the Corps de Ballet to the most senior artists. One of the really interesting things is watching dancers go from one role to another. For example, Jurgita Dronina is transitioning from Olga to Tatiana, Naoya Ebe from Lensky to Onegin and Donald Thom from Lensky to Prince Gremin. You don’t necessarily stop in one role. How a dancer moves through Onegin is unique to them. That’s one of the things that was so amazing to see when I was dancing, the different access points at every stage of the company.”
Christopher Gerty and Heather Ogden in rehearsal for Onegin. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
Cranko’s achievement with Onegin in terms of the clarity and richness of his storytelling is such that audiences do not need any prior knowledge to get the most from this ballet. “I think you can walk in not knowing anything about Pushkin and connect to multiple themes in Onegin,” Muir says. “You don’t even need to have experienced unrequited love – the ballet also gives you an example of playful, obsessive love in Olga and Lensky. It’s really about the chemistry between people. It’s a very human story.”
Ultimately, Muir says, “Onegin is an example of when all the stars align – music, design, choreography all stitched together by this incredible story. You just never get tired of it.”
Onegin is onstage November 22 – 26, 2023.