Ballet, which communicates visually and eschews words, is perhaps the antithesis of literature which does entirely the opposite. So how does one transform an eight-hundred page novel with a dozen important characters and several major plot lines into a two-hour staging using only movement and music? You might well ask.
Compared with Leo Tolstoy’s other masterwork War and Peace, Anna Karenina has a relatively compact narrative, which has allowed several acclaimed and reasonably faithful films. A ballet, however, is a rather more daunting task.
This relatively new production from Ballet Zürich—it debuted in 2014—features choreography from Christian Spuck to music from, primarily, Sergei Rachmaninoff, with more modern additions from Polish composer Witold Lutosławski and bits and pieces from other composers. This combination of differing works from different composers in quite different styles, is considerably more seamless that one might at first expect.
Lovers of classical ballet will undoubtedly warm to this production which opened the 46th Hong Kong Arts Festival: sumptuous costumes, a stage-filling corps de ballet and a large number of set pieces. In keeping with the text, perhaps, the dancing tends to the expressive rather than the athletic. Indeed, all spectacle aside—and there was a lot of spectacle—the ballet stands out for its ability to express the various psychological states of the protagonists.
Also a stand out was Russian ballerina Viktorina Kapitonova, who created the role and has returned to dance it in Hong Kong. Kapitonova danced with the same combination of elegance, restraint and abandon that must have captivated Vronsky (danced by William Moore) in the first place. Kapitonova was entirely believable. Expressions would flit across her face as clouds in front of the summer sun. Also believable was French ballerina Michelle Willems as the younger, naive Kitty, who pouted through a ball after losing Vronsky to Anna only to warm slowly and affectionately to Levin in his self-exile in the countryside.
The countryside scene is which Levin finds himself reincarnated as a farmer was particularly striking, beginning with farm workers freezing in a series of tableaux-vivants which seemed to reflect period artwork following by Levin (Tars Vendebeek) being taught to scythe in energetic passages which evoked, symbolically yet entirely realistically, the cutting of the grain.
The staging was stark and effective, making effective use of simple props and occasional video, all of which acted to focus attention on the dance. This was marred by a few anachronisms, such as a phonograph, Levin and Kitty on a bicycle, and a wedding photographer, which would have set the piece around 1930 when, ironically, a very different sort of society prevailed in Russia.
The music was largely recorded except for some passages played live on the piano; the effect of having two different sources for the accompaniment could sometimes jar. A few passages were sung by mezzo-soprano Lin Shi; while these did not seem to mesh entirely with the overall sense of the music, it did allow a haunting reprise of Rachminoff’s Ne poy, krasavitsa! to accompany Anna’s death.
Dramatically, Spuck’s decision to include the various secondary characters resulted in a great many scenes, some of them quite short and little more that vignettes. Without knowing the novel, the story would have been hard to follow. Further, the ballet leaves out several key scenes, such as the death of the railway worker at the beginning of the story which prefigures Anna’s own suicide. Unlike, say, Tchaikovksy’s opera Eugène Onegin, which functions as an entirely stand-alone work of drama, this Anna Karenina acts more as a commentary on, or perhaps window into, the novel.
Anna Karenina runs 23-25 February 2018. This review is a version of one run in HKELD.