Contemporary dance queen Deborah Colker has taken Puskin’s classic tale of unrequited love, homed in on the girl Tatyana and given her the title role. Words Kelly Apter
As anyone who knows Deborah Colker will tell you, she’s not a woman who does things by halves. As a child growing up in Brazil, she didn’t just learn the piano, she was playing with an orchestra by the age of 14. Needing a sporting outlet, she took up volleyball, and was soon representing her country. But a desire to combine both the physical with the cultural led Colker to the world of contemporary dance, where she has flourished ever since.
Forming her own company, Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker, in Rio de Janeiro in 1994, Colker soon built up a strong reputation for creating large-scale works, with impressive sets and passionate movement. The latest of which is Tatyana, the company’s debut performance at the Edinburgh International Festival.
Originally inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s classic novel Eugene Onegin, Colker has made the story her own – not least by giving it a different title, named after another character in the book. Like everything she does, Colker has immersed herself in this production body and soul.
“Pushkin’s book was so important to me, it was like my bible, I had it with me all the time,” says Colker. “It wasn’t just my inspiration for the piece, it was the dramaturgy. But this is my version, it’s not Pushkin’s. He put the name Eugene Onegin on his book, but Tatyana is my ballet. Ralph Fiennes did the film, Tchaikovsky did the opera, I have created my own version and made my own choices.”
Set in 19th-century Russia, Pushkin’s novel tells the tragic tale of young unrequited love, which later turns into a mature love that can never be. One of Colker’s most important decisions was to dispense with any secondary characters in the novel, leaving only the bored aristocratic Onegin, his poet friend Lensky, and the two women they meet in the country, Olga and her elder sister, Tatyana.
For Colker, it is Tatyana and not the eponymous Onegin who plays the central role in the story. “I think that Pushkin made a mistake,” she says. “Because the real name of this book should be Tatyana. If I could, I’d phone Pushkin and tell him that. The most important maturation happens to Tatyana. Her character changes completely, from a quiet, naive country girl to a mature married woman, living in a huge house. Her transformation is amazing.”
During those naive country days, Tatyana declares her love for Onegin, in the form of a poetic letter which he coldly rebuffs. Years later, when Tatyana has blossomed into a woman, Onegin sees the error of his ways, but by then, she is already married to another. It’s a powerful ending, filled with heartbreak, which Pushkin conveys beautifully with words – is that what Colker hoped to achieve through dance?
“Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted,” she says. “It’s a tragedy full of emotion. He says to her, do you still love me? Because now I want you. And she has to explain to him that it’s no longer possible, the time for that has passed, it’s too late. But we know that she still loves Onegin, so it’s very sad.”
Colker has taken an unusual, and fascinating approach to staging the work. In the first half, instead of just one dancer playing the roles of Onegin, Lensky, Olga and Tatyana, each character is represented by four dancers. While Colker herself takes on the role of Pushkin.
Then, in act two, when the two almost lovers play out their tragic parting, four dancers play Onegin and four play Tatyana. Although now, the costumes and dancing take on a very different look, with all the men dressed the same, and all the women wearing the same costumes, hairstyle, make-up and, crucially, dance shoes.
“I wanted to bring that sense of change to the stage,” says Colker. “So all the Tatyanas dance in pointe shoes in the second half. It’s something I use to really show her transformation. But it’s not just the shoes, it’s the posture and the way the four female dancers move their bodies.”
As with all Colker productions, Tatyana’s set design has an enormous impact – not just on the audience, but on the dancers. A vast tree with seven branches dominates the stage in the first half, representing the country location, nature and the delicate relationships at play in the story.
“The set is always very important for me,” says Colker. “And in this set, the branches are very thin, just 30cm wide. So they’re very difficult to dance, turn, jump and move on. But it’s important for them to be like this, because it’s not only a tree, it symbolises the fragility of the relationship between Tatyana and Onegin.”
Tatyana, Edinburgh Playhouse, 11-14 August, 7.30pm, From £10, Tel: 0131 473 2000