Why Steven Heathcote loves Onegin

22 June 2012 | By Behind Ballet

Steven Heathcote as Onegin and Fiona Tonkin as Tatiana, 1989
Steven Heathcote as Onegin and Fiona Tonkin as Tatiana, 1989
Steven Heathcote coaching Onegin, 2012
Steven Heathcote coaching Onegin, 2012

When the curtain goes up on Onegin tomorrow night, you’ll be seeing dancers coached by Steven Heathcote, a legend of The Australian Ballet and one of the great Eugenes. We sat down with Steven to ask him what he loves about the ballet.

What was your introduction to the ballet?
My first experience with Onegin was in 1984. It was my second year in the company, and Anne Woolliams [who worked with Cranko] came and reproduced the ballet. Lucky me, she cast me in the role of Lensky, and I got to do that season opposite Gary Norman. My Olga was Kathy Reid, who is now Kathy Heathcote! I think that had something to do with us getting together, playing the young lovers.

What was Anne Woolliams like as a coach?
Anne was a real stickler for theatrical authenticity. She demanded that everyone on stage, regardless of the size of the role they were playing, find a solid, three-dimensional character. It was a very actorly approach, which I love; to me, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing if we’re presenting a narrative ballet. She injected a real life into the work. It’s there anyway, in the choreography – that was Cranko’s forte, melding dance and drama – but she really brought it to life for us.

What was your Onegin like – was he a cad?
I never really thought of him as a cad. I think he was someone that had a deep sadness and emptiness at the core of him. There’s a void in him somewhere that’s almost unfillable. He’s very introspective, caught up in his own issues; so much so that he’s completely unaware in the first act that Tatiana is besotted with him. He thinks she’s a charming young girl, but he has no idea that there’s anything there. And then of course there’s his reaction to her letter – he doesn’t handle that very well at all! She’s trustingly and innocently written him this love letter – and the way he pours cold water on it is just terrible. I never felt that he did that intentionally, to hurt her – but it doesn’t take away from the cruelty of the act, that he shatters her dreams, tears the letter up right in front of her eyes!

Tell us about coaching the ballet.
The dancers had pretty much learnt the choreography, so I was concentrating on characterisation, and mainly with the Onegins and Tatianas, although I did also talk to the Lenskys and Olgas. One of the things I talked to the dancers about was losing that fear of “going there” – because it’s hard for some people, it’s confronting, you have to lay yourself bare. But that’s our job! As actors and dancers, we have to open our souls to show what’s going on in a character’s journey.

What’s your favourite part of the ballet?
I think it’s most people’s favourite part – it’s at the very end, when Tatiana takes the letter that Onegin has now written her, and asks him to take it back. And when he refuses, she tears it up. There’s not an ounce of vindictiveness there, it’s not a tit-for-tat; it’s just a woman standing tall, on principle. And it’s like – go girl! It’s a testament to the emotional strength of Tatiana as a woman. And by the end of the ballet she’s a woman – she’s not a girl any more. In one sense it’s absolutely crushing – everyone wants the lovers to end up together, to ride off into the sunset. But I believe the reason this ballet is so successful is because it doesn’t have a storybook ending, it’s more human than that, it’s more real. As tempted as Tatiana is, because she does still have feelings for Onegin, even after so many years, she doesn’t buckle. So we see the true spirit and resolve of this woman, and I think it’s fantastic.

As Steven says, “It’s one of those epic, Byronic ballets that you gotta do before you die!” Get your tickets today.