A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Dancing to Opera


I’ve seen two operas in the last week: Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Richard Strauss’s Elektra, in semi-staged concert, while Opera Australia gave us Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, fully-staged. There was some glorious music-making in both, but what got me thinking was the use of dance in both pieces.

Courtesy Opera Australia

Courtesy Opera Australia

Eugene Onegin is never far from a dance: the grand polonaise, the cotillion, a peasant’s folk dance. This is what people do when they’re not harvesting wheat or running a household. It’s rhythmic, it’s colourful, and it follows a predictable, socially acceptable pattern, unlike those unruly emotions which get in the way of life.

Tatiana is not much of a dancer – funny that – and Onegin uses the dancing at her name-day as an offensive weapon, trampling his best friend in a fatal fit of irritation. By the third act,  the jaunty cotillion which interrupts Onegin’s troubled thoughts is a moment of supreme irony.

Elektra, on the other hand, is short on quicksteps, but David Robertson and his colleague, SSO artistic planner Peter Czornyj, were on to something when they fixed on the theme of dance running through the work. Their inspiration was Elektra’s final words:

Be silent, and dance
Come here to me, all of you!
Close your ranks!
I bear the burden of joy and I lead you in the dance.
There is only one thing fitting for those happy as we:
to be silent and dance!

It’s not the first time she invokes the power of the dance: it comes earlier, when she’s talking to Chrysothemis. But she’s not thinking of Tchaikovsky’s courtly dances, which offer a mindless escape from worldly troubles. This is a visceral, Dionysian stomp, an unleashing of physicality rather than a controlled, social patterning.

So plenty of suggestion in the music and the words for both works. But how did the two shows integrate dance, and was it successful?

Strauss first. The choreographer here was Stephanie Lake, working with eight dancers from the Sydney Dance Company. (And a note – I’m no expert on dance, so I’m simply going on the layman’s impression here). The duets, trios and ensemble episodes came across as powerful abstract expressions of anguish, not trying to tell the story so much as amplify the music. But with the massive orchestra sprawled out across the Concert Hall stalls, Strauss’s music barely needed this kind of intensification. The orchestral musicians and singers generated an explosive level of intensity without further visual stimulation. Indeed, knowing where to look was a real challenge. Orchestra, singers, dancers or the surtitles, which were strung high above the stage?

The choreography came into its own towards the end of the work, not least when the evil waltz struck up for the entrance of Aegisthus. Suddenly, the dancing and the words and the music felt like they were actually integrated, rather than merely layered. And when Elektra (the magnificent Christine Goerke) climbed onto the dancing stage for her final dance of triumph all the art forms combined for a thrilling end.

Director Kasper Holten, who created this production of Eugene Onegin for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has used dance in two distinct ways. It is, as discussed before, a colourful and sometimes sardonic backdrop depicting Tatiana and Onegin’s social milieu. It is also a narrative device, but telling a story beyond the actual words with two solo dancers who double the singing Tatiana and Onegin. The doubles are useful in several ways – not least that they can be more touchingly youthful, more physical than their operatic counterparts (although soprano Nicole Car looks positively radiant throughout and has no need of a body double).

The main use is metaphoric: to act out some of the could haves, the would haves, the what ifs which haunt Pushkin’s story of doubly unrequited love. It’s quite powerful at times. Not in the letter scene where, for me, (singing) Tatiana felt distanced from rawness of (dancing) Tatiana’s emotions. But for Onegin, a character who only drops his mask of worldly ennui in the final scene, seeing a dancing double react to Lensky’s death alongside the cold, anaesthetised shock of singing Onegin is incredibly moving. Furthermore, the recounting in dance of Onegin’s idyll through the pleasures of Europe, danced to the Polonaise, is a stroke of genius, and the choreography, by Signe Fabricius, is at all times fluid, surprising, beautiful.

So, two experiments, each pushing the boundaries of opera with different degrees of success, in dramatic terms, but both also retaining the key elements of this art form: magnificent performances, close reading of the original, and music powering the emotions. New ways to do opera? I’m all for it.


  1. On Twitter, in reply to my comment that I found the dancers in Elektra superfluous, Opera Australia suggested I perhaps needed to see the performance twice. Perhaps indeed. But if Strauss is a composer who can express words and images through music, and von Hofmannstahl a lyric poet who became a master librettist expressing music and emotion through words, then surely the overlay of an additional impressionistic art form is overkill.
    Dance can have its place, of course, as you point out with Onegin (which I have not yet seen). The most recent example for me was a tiny cameo performed late in the first act of A Turk in Italy, where a gypsy hoop dancer performed a beautiful slow dance in a backdrop to the scene. It was so subtle it could easily have been missed. I was sorry the hoop dancer was not listed in the credits. She deserved to be.

  2. Yep, I totally agree. There was more than enough going on, especially with the orchestra on display. I didn’t know where to look or listen. I did like the end bit, though, where she dances to death.

    I’ll be really interested to know how you find Onegin. I was primed to feel the same about it as I did Elektra i.e. ranging from nice but unnecessary to downright distracting. But it was used in a quite different way. I hated the letter scene but loved the Act III intro.

  3. John Garran – Did you mean Opera Australia or the SSO wrt that comment on seeing it more than once? Whoever it was, I reckon it is the reverse.

    I saw it three times (rehearsal plus two) and for skeptical-at-the-outset me, the dancing went from ‘it could have been worse’ the first time (midstalls), to ‘this really isn’t necessary’ the second time (rear stalls), to ‘this is bloody irritating especially the last bit where they don’t stay dead’ the last time (front circle).

  4. Is it too late to resurrect a conversation? If it is, I will have the last word. Last night we saw the last night of Opera Australia’s Onegin. It was, personally, a special occasion, but that is irrelevant, other than to say the production matched the occasion. But there was something else alongside the operatic and that was dance. It may be telling that mental anguish, dopamine, seratonins, 5-HT, left brain and right brain have been high in our minds recently, along with the recognition that we are all, nearly always, of two minds. Mostly in benign debate, but sometimes in a fight for supremacy. Two individuals in one, wrestling with issues and demons, illusions and reality, love and life. So it was, after dozing throughout the first scene, an electric impulse hit me in the letter scene: the presence, the actions of the dancer were no simple ‘could haves” or “would haves”. Raw metaphor indeed, but the reflection was that of the mind in turmoil. The rational, calm, singing Tatyana battling with an unruly id that demanded she express her deepest feelings, irrespective of the outcomes a clear head, even a young woman’s clear head, knew would result. The dancer was in control. She who wrote the words. The Tatyana in control while the “other” Tatyana succumbed, without fight. So for me it was a fine exposition of what was, in fact, going on in a scene of little apparent action: a mental battle. How better to represent it than with two representations of the one personality. If we have not, ourselves, known the battle, or have not seen it in someone close, the reality may pass over us. For me it was conceptually brilliant.
    Onegin’s alter ego was, for me, less intense but nonetheless real. He was one who had succumbed in the battle in his mind. Truly a lost soul. Indeed his weary reaction to the dancers in the Polonaise reflected his inner state. The narcissist at the end of the road.

  5. I wish I’d thought of that when I was watching the letter scene, JofO.

  6. I was also there on Friday (the last night of the run), thanks to harryfiddler’s original post/prompt, so how lovely to see johnofoz thinking out loud here. In the letter scene, without even delving too much into the psychology of the conceit, I thought the dancing Tatyana one of he most beautiful creatures imaginable and deserved more, much more, acclaim.

    For me the production (through my thought prism) was a reinforcement of my belief that time is a construct and all our thoughts, desires and actions are not actually sequential (only perceived by us as such) and our external reality is that accessed from a infinite number of variables each dependent on the last, such that we are effectively a layered onion-like collection of our decisions. I strongly resonated with the leaving of everything that happened on stage, from the first crumpled piece of paper, the sheath of wheat, the scattered books, the broken cupboard, the drift of snow and wood, the dead body – nothing removed – every life an accretion of not only chosen but possible experience known not only at the end but also the beginning.

    I don’t expect anyone to make much sense of that but anyway, just sayin’.

    Thanks to johnofoz for the stimulus.

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