This is a review of the Melbourne season of Anna Karenina.
Tolstoy published his greatest work Anna Karenina in 1878 and since then it was adapted for the second ballet – and it’s not hard to see why. Thoughtful, realistic but also easy to understand, Anna’s betrothal to Count Vronsky is the epitome of high romance that fits the dancer’s body. Choreographer Yuri Possokhov honors the lyricism suggested in Tolstoy’s hyper-realist style, but also deals with the impossibility of the performance.
Possokhov, like Tolstoy, opens at a train station where Anna (Robyn Hendricks) and Vronsky (memorably played by Callum Linnane on the night he was promoted to head painter) discover that the train is coming. Now, with David Finn’s saturnine lighting and Finn Ross’s persuasive emotions, a sense of sadness combines with the hope of high drama to create a palpable sense of danger in the movement.
In the first ball scene, Anna is very powerful, seductive and powerful. Hendricks is a perfect king here, controlling the mise-en-scène with grace, poise and an impossible aloofness. Linnane is childish in comparison, ambitious and reckless. Their pas de deux hits with the potential for sexuality, the inevitable desire to live just under the surface. It is also here that we meet the second pair of lovers, Levin (Brett Chenowyth, very real) and Kitty (Benedicte Bemet, beautiful). She loves him, but she loves Vronsky. A bitter daisy chain of unrequited love ensnares the four of them, setting up the original story with clarity and heartbreak.
It is only after this scene that we see Anna’s husband Karenin (Adam Bull) and Anna at home. Possokhov does a good job of portraying this curmudgeon and the coldness of his heart; Karenin’s rhythmic and dramatic movements contrast with Vronsky’s more subtle and sensitive nature, as do the leitmotifs. Bull is excellent here, able to convey an almost invisible character, and his subsequent pas de trois with Anna and Vronsky illuminates his own pain in interesting ways.
Some parts expand on the choreography, especially the scene at the races when Vronsky shoots his own horse, showing his cruelty to Anna. And that’s the case with the ending, with Anna throwing herself in front of an oncoming train. Possokhov uses emotion rather than observation here, and if it doesn’t feel like a recapture of past history, it’s clever and educational.
The best part, and the dark heart of this work, is the tortured pas de deux in the second act between the central lovers. Linnane has grown up in this place in a difficult way, that kind of badness is combined with his sense of responsibility, and Hendricks has shown well the poignancy and pain of the mind going to down. Pulsing with sensuality and hatred, the push and pull of sexuality and disgust, a heartbreakingly true choreography, dancing with emotion and desire, and threatens to stop the presentation.
Possokhov’s only decision is the result, not as expected at the train station but in the country with Kitty and Levin. It is true that Tolstoy ended his story here, but the ending is different in an 800-page novel and a two-hour ballet. That very romantic scene of country life that Tolstoy accused of kitsch on the stage, those beautiful gold pieces and haymaking cutting off the tragic list. There may be a hint of caution in the final moments, as Levin dances alone and a large image of Anna’s disfigured face fills the air, but on the whole the effect is, as it were, we have gone astray from the source.
It was, however, a minor misstep in what was otherwise a glorious night at the theater. Tom Pye’s beautiful set and costume design – some of the most beautiful and beautiful costumes I’ve seen on stage – combine with Finn’s masterful lighting to create a stunning tableaux and flowing, beautiful evocative of the end of Russian life of the 19th century. Ilya Demutsky’s score, well-known by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and influenced by Slavic traditions, is a beautiful piece, played extensively by Orchestra Victoria. Jacqueline Dark’s fiery mezzo-soprano is a wonderful addition.
Anna Karenina a collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet, and a wonderful example of international collaboration. Although it was developed before David Hallberg took the reins of the Australian Ballet, his influence was upon him; you see not only the physical precision, but also their sensuality, lyricism and attention to detail. But the main thing is a Russia won, choreographed and shot by Russians, from one of Russia’s most undisputed. It may not be enough to stop the noise of war, but it is a reminder of what is lost.
The Australian Ballet performs Anna Karenina at the Sydney Opera House from April 5-23, 2022. Get your tickets here.