State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Reviewed February 25
After several Covid-enforced interruptions, and a short season in Adelaide in July 2021, Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina finally opened in Melbourne to a packed house. The dancers rose magnificently to the occasion and delivered a performance of the highest quality, thoroughly earning the ecstatic cheers and bravos of the Covid-masked opening night audience.
Possokhov’s insightful concept, vision and choreography establish an avant-garde 21st century sensibility while retaining the heart and soul of Tolstoy’s epic 1878 novel. In a structured, concise, re-telling with a timeless contemporary relevance, Anna Karenina is a jointly commissioned production by the Joffrey Ballet and the Australian Ballet and premièred in Chicago in 2019.
Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted for ballet several times. Maya Plisetskaya, a celebrated Anna, created a production for the Bolshoi Ballet, which was performed in Australia in 1976. And The Australian Ballet’s acclaimed original production of Anna Karenina, choreographed by Andre Prokovsky, opened in 1979 at The Palais Theatre in Melbourne, with Marilyn Rowe in the title role and Gary Norman as her lover Vronsky.
In two 50-minute acts, Possokhov manages to condense Tolstoy’s almost a thousand pages and numerous characters into ten compelling scenes, two prologues and an epilogue, which power the narrative and deliver clear story-telling. And he effectively draws on a wide-ranging choreographic language to reveal the inner emotions of the principal characters.
Possokhov’s choreography reflects the multi-disciplinary ethos of the work. He borrows from classical, contemporary, folk and formal dance styles to best serve the story, and set dance sequences seem to flow organically from the narrative with no stops and starts. The pace is relentless, gruelling and action-packed. Classically-based pas de deux reveal Anna and Vronsky’s passionate and ultimately unhappy affair, and also Kitty and Levi’s developing love story. Anna’s delirious imaginings become a poignant trio with Vronsky and Karenin, which ebbs and flows and is heart-breaking.
Inspired minimalist sets by British designer Tom Pye include versatile, translucent panels that glide on overhead tracks, open out for free standing sets and also create intimate interior rooms. His lavish costume designs reflect historical accuracy in details and hues, and immediately evoke the late 19th century setting.
The production utilizes state-of-the-art technology to spectacular effect, and between them, lighting designer David Finn and projection designer Finn Ross – through myriad projections and lighting states – create smoke, steam, snow, scudding clouds, and a railway station, Kitty’s family home, a ballroom, a racecourse and horses, the Karenin house, a parliament and an oncoming train.
The Australian Ballet’s Music Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon led Orchestra Victoria (in magnificent form) through composer Ilya Demutsky’s commissioned score, which incorporates leitmotifs “associated with characters or ideas to convey complex information to an audience". Songs based on texts from Russian folk songs were wonderfully performed on stage by mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark.
Stunning the audience during the Prologue, Marcus Morelli (Station guard) delivered an electrifying solo through wind and snow before falling into the path of an oncoming train, an event witnessed by both Anna and Vronsky who meet for the first time and are mutually attracted.
Robyn Hendricks (Anna Karenina) showed strength and despair with supple, controlled pliancy in an affecting performance, as Anna’s hopes and life disintegrate.
Adam Bull (Karenin) a consummate artist, gave an imposing performance of a cold-hearted, proud man who loves his child but prevents Anna from visiting him. Callum Linnane (Vronsky) excelled in a stellar performance, dancing with lyricism and control, ably revealing Vronsky’s thoughtless arrogance and genuine remorse.Benedicte Bemet (Kitty) danced exquisitely throughout in a layered interpretation, showing Kitty’s pain at Vronsky’s rejection and gratitude for Levin’s love. Brett Chynoweth (Levin) was technically outstanding, and gave a fine portrayal of a sensitive young man. Nicola Curry’s (Countess Nordston/Betsy Tverskay) entertaining characterisations caught the eye. And ensemble dances with intricate patterns and ever changing formations were slickly performed and blended seamlessly into the narrative.
The ballet ends, as Tolstoy’s novel ends, not after the dramatic, striking images of Anna’s tragic death, but on a lighter note at harvest time under a blue sky, as a contemplative Levin finds contentment.
And in an unexpected moment during the final curtain calls, Artistic Director David Hallberg stepped forward on the stage and announced Callum Linnane’s promotion to Principal Artist, as the audience rewarded him with a standing ovation.
– MARGARET MERCER
All photos by Jeff Busby.
'Anna Karenina' continues at the State Theatre until March 9, then moves to the Sydney Opera House from April 5 to 23.