Adelaide Festival Theatre,
Reviewed July 9 & 10
The Australian Ballet’s new production of Anna Karenina is the third dance adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, succeeding Maya Plisetskaya’s 1972 Bolshoi version and André Prokovsky’s realist rendition, choreographed for the Australian Ballet in 1979, and long in its repertoire. This new version is a co-production with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, with choreography by internationally acclaimed Russian Yuri Possokhov, and the score by his frequent collaborator and fellow Russian, Ilya Demutsky, in collaboration with a fabulous design team comprising Tom Pye (set and costume), David Finn (lighting) and Finn Ross (projections).
Possokhov’s version is impressionistic, compressing Tolstoy’s panoramic narrative into a rapid succession of scenes. It is here that the design collaboration really sings: black screens that either fly or slide in and out, plus projections and lighting effects, create cinematic settings for the action. Thus, with the addition of a few props, we are magically transported from a railway station to the exterior—then interior—of a grand house, to a ballroom, a racecourse, a hotel room, a house of parliament and finally a rural setting. This device allows the story to be told in large brushstrokes and at speed, stripped off Tolstoy’s subsidiary plotlines and characters and focusing on the doomed triangle of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky, plus the contrasting love plot of the young Kitty Shcherbatskaya and her suitor, Levin.
The movement palette is classically based with contemporary inflections, deploying free movement through the hips, and incorporating gestural elements and movement in and out of the floor. The company has mastered Possokhov’s idiom beautifully, and both casts that I saw, the first and second of three, danced the work with exceptional precision and verve. Highlights includes the ballroom scene, a wonderful rendition of a horse race in which the male dancers are both horses and jockeys, and the two exquisite pas de deux for Anna and Vronsky. The first of these brims with the erotic passion that characterises their early relationship; the second documents its breakdown, with Anna craving Vronsky’s attentions while he seeks to distance himself from her.
Anna’s tragic trajectory from impassioned lover to estranged wife and mother, and finally to suicide, is powerfully conveyed in a scene of nightmare and drugged delirium, a subsequent desperate attempt to reconnect with her son, and ends in her fateful walk along the railway tracks toward an approaching train. Drawing on plangent woodwind and piano and dramatic percussion, and featuring leitmotifs associated with key characters, Demustky’s score, performed crisply by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, perfectly expresses the emotional turmoil of Tolstoy’s story. This is greatly abetted by mezzo-soprano Juell Riggall, whose renditions of Russian folksongs, and wordless articulation of Anna’s desperation as she walks towards the train, add poignancy to the work. To my mind, the work should end with the suicide scene; although the concluding pastoral is true to Tolstoy’s finale of Levin and Kitty’s domestic bliss, it adds nothing theatrically.
The opening night cast was exceptional. There is a red-hot chemistry between Robyn Hendricks’s Anna and Callum Linnane’s Vronsky; Hendricks is superlative as Anna, her fluid and expressive dancing matched by dramatic intensity, while the Romantic-looking Linnane also performs with great conviction. Adam Bull gives a compelling account of Karenin as a powerful man rent with inner turmoil; Brett Chynoweth dances the part of Levin with great attention to detail and sensitivity, and Benedicte Bemet’s Kitty is innocent and charming. The second cast featured another terrific Anna in Imogen Chapman, but while Jarryd Madden dances Vronsky beautifully, the chemistry between the couple was not quite there yet. Dimity Azouri and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson are outstanding as Kitty and Levin respectively, and Cristiano Martino is another convincing Karenin. However, it seems churlish to single out the principals, when the entire cast danced and acted magnificently: one sensed that they were ecstatic to be finally onstage after the cancellation of the Melbourne season.
Possokhov’s Anna Karenina is a triumph because every aspect of the work—from its superb costumes, terrific score and choreography, to its imaginative design—is perfectly integrated. Let’s hope the success of this production will encourage our flagship company to contribute to the renewal of the artform by commissioning more new works by both international and Australian choreographers.
- MAGGIE TONKIN
'Anna Karenina' continues in Adelaide until July 15, then runs in Melbourne from October 12 to 23, with a live stream on October 22.