1 of 18
Silas Walker, Deseret News
Ballet West performs the dress rehearsal of "Onegin" at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 4, 2019. "Onegin" is based on Alexander Pushkin’s passionate verse novel "Eugene Onegin."

"ONEGIN" through April 13, Eccles Theater, 131 Main St., (801-355-ARTS or www.balletwest.org); running time: two hours (two intermissions).

SALT LAKE CITY — During Ballet West’s Utah premiere of “Onegin” on Friday night at the Eccles Theater, the choice pairing of Rex Tilton and Arolyn Williams in the lead roles of Onegin and Tatiana granted audiences easy passage into Imperial Russia’s simple country folklife as well as its aristocratic intrigue.

Unlike many classical ballets, this captivating production centered not around fairies, evil sorcerers or handsome princes, but on Alexander Pushkin's 19th century romantic-realist novel, "Eugene Onegin."

As an imposing and elegant duo, Tilton and Williams portrayed a beautifully failed romance with panache, exploring the heights of passion, the rules of convention and the danger of ennui.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Ballet West performs the dress rehearsal of "Onegin" at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 4, 2019. "Onegin" is based on Alexander Pushkin’s passionate verse novel "Eugene Onegin."

The ballet centers on Onegin (Tilton), an aristocrat impressed by nothing and seemingly moved by no one, and Tatiana (Williams), a lovestruck teenager spurned by Onegin as a youth and then confronted by his newly found ardor later in life.

There’s also Tatiana’s flighty and flirtatious sister Olga (Jenna Rae Herrera) — whose vanity Onegin preys upon; and Olga’s fiance, Lensky (Joshua Shutkind) — who, in a flight of romantic indignation, challenges Onegin to a duel.

Thus, out of Pushkin’s great literary work unfolds a well-paced, entertaining dance-drama with elegant set designs by Santo Loquasto and a score of cobbled Tchaikovsky remnants well-executed by the Ballet West orchestra.

Always elegant with a gentle likability and a gift for portraying doe-eyed innocence, Williams mastered the vulnerability and naivety of young Tatiana. Her impeccable technique was on full display, even during her moments of reckless abandon in Act III as a mature noblewoman conflicted by restraint and passion.

Tilton, too, mesmerized. His naturally furrowed brow added just the right touch to this brooding figure who saw people as his playthings. He met the role’s challenges both technically and dramatically — no small feat as Onegin is not an evil sorcerer or a charming prince but instead a complex figure of Russian Romanticism.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Ballet West performs the dress rehearsal of "Onegin" at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 4, 2019. "Onegin" is based on Alexander Pushkin’s passionate verse novel "Eugene Onegin."

After rejecting country-bumpkin Tatiana without so much as a backwards glance and then proceeding to kill his dear friend Lensky in a dual, Onegin takes a long sojourn. Many years later, he attends a ball in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, where he realizes his host is the now-married Tatiana. He suddenly finds this mature self-assured noblewoman irresistible and begs Tatiana for a second chance. In a heated, tortured pas de deux, he is nearly given that chance before Tatiana sends him away.

The pas de deux was intricate, acrobatic and appeared incredibly difficult, with jaw-dropping maneuvers that seemed to generate equal parts wonder and white-knuckled anxiety from the audience. Tilton managed to swoop Williams into an array of tricky throws, lifts and extensions despite her heavy-skirted and very slippery-looking dress that seemed at odds with the choreography. The effect, while impressive, looked far from effortless, with some dicey moments.

Contrasting the dark complexities of Onegin and Tatiana was the pairing of Lensky and Olga (at least, until Onegin inserted himself by flirting with Olga), whose romance was all smiles and sunshine, poetry and flowers.

It was no surprise then, that soloist Herrera, known for her expressive, effervescent movements, was singled out for the role of Olga. While her excitement bubbled over into spurtive at times, she remained delightful to watch.

Herrera is one of those dancers whose unrestrained joy — which spreads from her huge smile and glittering eyes to the tips of her fingers — gained notice even on the back row of the corps during her first years with Ballet West a decade ago. It is a distinct pleasure to have witnessed her steady rise and now to see her claim the expansive and prestigious role of Olga.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Ballet West performs the dress rehearsal of "Onegin" at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 4, 2019. "Onegin" is based on Alexander Pushkin’s passionate verse novel "Eugene Onegin."

Shutkind is also on the rise. As an artist with the company for a mere three years, Lensky is certainly a breakout role for him. And while he was sometimes unsteady compared to more seasoned principal dancers who will dance in the succeeding performances, he was a perfect match for Herrera.

Like his partner, he, too, has a star quality — ebullient and expressive with an abandon difficult to unearth for many classically trained ballet dancers. When the lightheartedness of Act I took a dark and dramatic turn in Act II, Lensky’s movements became weighted with torment. Shutkind switched gears with ease, executing a soul-wrenching devastation and despair with honesty and depth in his pre-dual solo. Let’s hope we see much more of Shutkind in the future.

Comment on this story

The ensemble work by the company was tidy with some modern touches to the polonaises, mazurkas and folk dances. Also interesting was the production's use of a scrim or theater drop to provide narrative, illustrating things difficult to dance such as inner dialogue, flashbacks and foreshadowing.

It it always difficult to transpose a literary work into a wordless art form, and some readers familiar with Pushkin may feel that "Eugene Onegin" gets lost in translation. But those who resist comparisons with the verse novel — or, more likely, the vast majority of attendees who have never read it — will likely enjoy this entertainingly tragic love story as a more meaty, interesting and true-to-life production.