Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is filled with beautiful music, replete with complex musical motifs and well-defined character relationships (more on that later this week). But also of importance are the dances that pepper the opera. At first glance, the dances in Eugene Onegin appear deceptively decorative, a way for the composer to paint the backdrop of farming life in the Russian countryside or the lush social lives of the haut monde in St. Petersburg. While the dances do accentuate the locales of Eugene Onegin, they also have a cultural and narrative function.
|Matryoshka dolls, a famous
aspect of Russian culture
Much of the higher culture of Imperial Russia was imported from France and Italy. In the 19th-century, Russia turned its focus to establishing and supporting a strong national identity, and composers like Tchaikovsky incorporated clearly identifiable aspects of Russian culture into their works. These elements helped connect all of Russia’s social spheres to the literary and theatrical arts of Imperial Russia’s cultural Golden Age. Tchaikovsky, who believed that Russian culture and Western culture could meld, employed both Russian and European dance traditions in most of his works.
The dances in Eugene Onegin are particularly important because they mark a historic moment in which dance became a dramatic plot-point rather than a musical interlude. Pushkin’s novel was told entirely through the viewpoint of a narrator, and Tchaikovsky uses music and dance as a substitute for Pushkin’s narrative voice. Let’s take a look at some of the dances from Eugene Onegin and how they relate to the action.
The first dance we see is a traditional Russian folk dance, the khorovod. It is a circle dance performed by the peasants at Madame Larina’s command. Culturally, the khorovod fulfilled the needs of many occasions: weddings, harvests, deaths, complete happiness or utter despair. Tchaikovsky uses it as foreshadowing. The peasants, who have just completed the harvest, are sprightly and joyous with the simple delight of a job well done. As they dance, though, they sing of a young but hopeful maiden about to encounter a stranger carrying a cudgel. The innocence of the dance meeting with the menace of the song parallels sweet Tatiana’s following encounter with the dangerous Onegin.
At Tatiana’s name-day celebration months after her rejection by Onegin, he has the poor taste to not only show up at her party and ask her for a dance, but the gall to abandon her in the middle of the dance floor. The waltz here is a “countrified” version of the ballroom dances performed at the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg and the palaces in France. The waltz is cultured but a little clumsy, reflecting the youthful Tatiana’s adult determination to remain civil to Onegin despite his mistreatment of her and his embarrassing behavior.
As the name-day scene continues and Onegin incites Lenski’s jealousy over Olga, note the presence of lively Russian dance characteristics such as circles, raised arms and quick foot movement, and contrast those with the sedate European influences of lowered arms, straight lines and elongated steps. The music brings both elements together, underscoring Onegin’s “devil may care” attitude and Lenski’s rising anger.
|A version of the polonaise (by Kornelli Szlegel)|
There is some irony in the fact that the polonaise began life as a rustic Polish dance, quickly rising to the heights of popularity in the ritziest circles of European society. Russia once occupied one-third of Poland, and the nation’s composers were entranced with the polonaise. The dance came to signify royalty and uncommon destiny. It became a staple of Russian operas and ballets, and appeared in countless symphonic and chamber pieces. In this way, the polonaise has become connected with Russia.
In Eugene Onegin, the slightly rigid but nonetheless elegant polonaise is reflective of the now married and socially elevated Tatiana. The dance is constrained in its movements, yet each step and sweep hints at a wildness just waiting to break free. Married to a Prince and part of St. Petersburg’s Imperial society, Tatiana is much like the polonaise: she is poised, regal…but the passions of her youth still smolder within her. When the jaded Onegin is inflamed at the mere sight of her, the musical strains of the polonaise seem to underscore the question: Will they, or won’t they?
Our first dance rehearsal
Stage director Candace Evans is also the choreographer for Eugene Onegin. This past Saturday, she brought together the production’s professional dancers, principle singers, and the Madison Opera chorus in their first all-cast dance rehearsal. Take a look at some of the highlights below, and be sure to get your tickets to see it all come together: