The female lead in classical ballet is so often a naive waif – Juliet or Giselle or Aurora. She is the young woman whose first girlish crush turns into her first great love. But in Yuri Possokhov’s new Anna Karenina the lead is a grown woman, far from naive. A mother in a loveless marriage when we first meet her, Anna (a sublime Robyn Hendricks) stands at a railway platform and watches as a man falls onto the tracks and dies. She’s hardened against the world but still chooses to face it with vulnerability.
In this co-commission between The Australian Ballet and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, the ingenue is Kitty, charmingly danced on opening night by Benedicte Bemet. Dressed in pink, she is quick and light on her feet with the gaiety of hope. She turns down a proposal from Levin (Brett Chynoweth, making the work seem effortless) and crushes on Vronsky (Callum Linnane, filled with raffish heart) instead.
Possokhov built this ballet on the bodies of Joffrey’s Chicago dancers, where the work premiered in 2019 (the Australian season was originally programmed for 2020), but the role of Anna feels designed specifically for Hendricks. One of The Australian Ballet’s best modern dancers, her muscular body thrums under the power of this role. Tom Pye’s design emphasises her character. Anna walks into rooms as if she owns them, a burst of red against light pastels and moody darks or as a shock of pure black against glimpses of neon.
In a boudoir scene between Anna and Vronsky, Hendricks shows us both uninhibited carnal power and quiet love. Anna’s slip catches on her upper thigh and is left to sit there, signalling both fierce sexuality and the stillness of comfort. In her final solo we see Possokhov’s choreography at its most abstract and modern: high on morphine and moving towards her untimely death, Hendricks is languid and then manic; her limbs seem to move on separate planes and separate time lines. Her hair slowly loosens from its coif to fall around her face, reflecting the increasing dishevelment of her body.
Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina was published as a serial from 1873 before it came out as a book in 1878. The titular character’s illicit affair and death is only one part of the 800-page tome, which explores notions of family, spirituality and nationalism against the backdrop of Imperial Russia. This ballet distils Tolstoy’s story down to just over two hours and two contrasting narrative strands: the doomed love triangle between Anna, her husband Alexei Karenin (a steely Adam Bull), and her lover, Alexei Vronsky; and the hope of youthful love, exemplified by Kitty and Levin, alternating between great hope and great despair.
The night is a very Russian affair. Possokhov, now choreographer-in-residence at the San Francisco Ballet, began his dance career at the Bolshoi. Composer Ilya Demutsky trained in both Russia and the United States and now lives in St Petersburg. Dramaturg Valeriy Pecheykin is a playwright at Moscow’s Gogol Center, one of the country’s most highly regarded avant-garde theatres.
The creative team relishes the space given to the humanity of their characters. In this production, ballet is an integral storytelling device, rather than using the story as an excuse for dance. Vronsky’s first solo is purposely tentative, small jumps expressing his emotional state during a seance as he sees visions of Anna, this stranger he met at a train station and with whom he has fallen in love. In the first pas de deux between Vronsky and Anna, the pair sit on the floor back to back. Hendricks drops her perfect ballet posture, revealing the informalities of their relationship as she curves her spine to lean into Linnane’s back.
The little moments of breath and heart in the characterisation make this work a truly 21st-century ballet. Possokhov’s choreography largely shies away from divertissements, the small sections of a ballet designed to show off technical skills but which advance neither plot nor character. There are sections to highlight the dancers’ technique – in the act one finale at a racecourse, the male company members compete in a one-upmanship of macho athleticism as the horses are replaced with jockeys – but mostly the choreography maintains its connection to the story at hand.
Demutsky’s score echoes the great Russian ballet composers Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but is more reminiscent of cinema. His emotive composition soars as the orchestra and a mezzo-soprano (Juel Riggall, on stage with the dancers in her scenes) fill the cavern of the theatre. He then pulls back to a single piano: a light and soft melody as Vronsky and Anna dance out a relationship they know will not last.
These cinematic resonances are bolstered by Finn Ross’s projections, which evoke classic Hollywood. At times the projection works as an extension of Pye’s set and is largely built on inference and suggestion, as sliding walls of transparent grey form ballrooms and meeting halls. Thick shafts of light (lighting by David Finn) cut through the scrim and play against the projection of a train station, creating dusty, sunlit halls. More often, the projected videos are entwined with the story. Tight prerecorded close-ups of the characters create exposition or an insight into hallucination – the line between real and imagined is often blurry – or expand the metaphors on the stage, as horses paw the ground in anticipation of the race.
In these black-and-white close-ups, Hendricks’ Anna recalls Greta Garbo (1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948), referencing not only Tolstoy’s 19th-century novel but other interpretations since. Occasionally Ross’s images-as-metaphors are pushed too far but mostly they serve as an interesting counterpoint to the dance: larger-than-life cinema against the all-too-human performers.
Counterpoints and dualities occur again and again through Anna Karenina. Different melodies and choreographic lines are followed in different parts of the stage. When Vronsky and Anna fight, Kitty and Levin caper. Vronsky dances in isolation while behind him the party continues. The dark, harsh city of Saint Petersburg is contrasted against the lightness of the country.
Anna takes part in a hallucinatory dream ballet with Vronsky and Karenin, torn between her society life and her son, and the reckless pursuit of love and exile. Anna walks into the path of a train, a blinding light in the darkness, her dress disintegrating through the harsh tunnel of wind. And then in the final scene we are in a different ballet altogether: the wind now a summer’s breeze, Kitty and Levin dance without a care in the world.
Anna Karenina premiered in Adelaide. It opens at Arts Centre Melbourne on October 12 with a livestreamed performance on October 22.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "The pursuit of love".
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