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Anna Karenina

  • Dance, Ballet
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. A dancer leaps at Anna Karenina
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  2. Dancers at Anna Karenina
    Jeff Busby
  3. Anna Karenina dancers at the Australian Ballet
    Photograph: Jeff Busby

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The Australian Ballet brings Tolstoy's tragic novel to life on stage

Tolstoy published his masterpiece Anna Karenina in 1878 and since that time, it has been adapted for the ballet twice – and it isn’t hard to see why. It's intensely psychological, inherently dramatic but also simple to understand, Anna’s doomed love affair with Count Vronsky has the kind of seething high romanticism perfectly attuned to the dancer’s body. Choreographer Yuri Possokhov luxuriates in the lyricism that is only suggested in Tolstoy’s hyper-realist style, but he also connects directly with the work’s savage inevitability.

Possokhov opens, like Tolstoy, at a train station where Anna (Robyn Hendricks) and eventual lover Vronsky (danced memorably by Callum Linnane on the night he was elevated to principal artist) witness the death of a railway worker, crushed in an act of foreshadowing by an oncoming train. Already, with David Finn’s saturnine lighting and Finn Ross’s persuasive projections, despondency mingles with the expectation of high drama to create a palpable mood of tragedy in motion. 

In the initial ball scene, it is Anna who seems most in control, seductive and authoritative. Hendricks is positively regal here, dominating the mise-en-scène with grace, poise and an impenetrable aloofness. Linnane seems almost boyish in comparison, eager and guileless. Their pas de deux crackles with sexual potential, the almost unbearable desire sitting under the surface. It is also here that we meet the secondary pair of lovers, Levin (Brett Chenowyth, totally assured) and Kitty (Benedicte Bemet, exquisite). He is clearly besotted with her, but she loves Vronsky. The bitter daisy chain of unrequited love ensnares the four of them, setting up the basic narrative dynamic with clarity and emotional weight.

It is only after this scene that we see Anna’s husband Karenin (Adam Bull) and Anna in the domestic sphere. Possokhov does a brilliant job sketching this buttoned-up marriage and the coldness at its heart; Karenin’s stiff torso and rigid movements contrast tellingly with Vronsky’s more supple and sensuous ones, like leitmotifs. Bull is very fine here, able to convey an immovability of character without appearing merely awkward, and his pas de trois later with Anna and Vronsky illuminates his own torment in intriguing ways.

Some set pieces stretch the choreography, most notably the scene at the races when Vronsky shoots his own horse, foreshadowing his eventual cruelty towards Anna. And of course this is the case with the ending, with Anna throwing herself in front of an oncoming train. Possokhov uses suggestion more than spectacle here, and if it isn’t as visually arresting as past iterations of the story, it is clever and emotionally satisfying.

Best of all, and the dark heart of this production, is the tortured pas de deux in the second act between the central lovers. Linnane has by this point developed into a volatile presence, that vein of viciousness mingling dangerously with his sense of entitlement, and Hendricks beautifully conveys the poignancy and pain of a mind going under. Pulsing with sensuality and loathing, the push and pull of sexual desire and disgust, it is heartbreakingly true choreography, danced with commitment and passion, and threatens to stop the show.

The only curious decision by Possokhov is the ending, not as one might expect at the train station but in the country with Kitty and Levin. It’s true Tolstoy also concludes his story here, but the effect in an 800-odd page novel and a two-hour ballet are markedly different. That intensely romanticised vision of country life that haunted Tolstoy veers into kitsch on stage, all those lovely golden sheets and haymaking undercutting the tragic register. There is perhaps a note of caution in the final moments, as Levin dances alone while a giant projection of Anna’s doomed face fills the space, but overall the ending feels off, as if we’d strayed from the point.

It is, however, a minor miscalculation in what is otherwise a sublime night in the theatre. Tom Pye’s glorious set and costume design – some of the most elegant and sumptuous dresses I’ve ever seen on the stage – combines with Finn’s masterful lighting to create a visually wondrous, flowing series of tableaux, magnificently evocative of late 19th-century Russian life. Ilya Demutsky’s score, deeply informed by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and inflected with Slavic folk traditions, is a thing of beauty, played expansively by Orchestra Victoria. Jacqueline Dark’s burnished mezzo-soprano is an enormously effective addition.

Anna Karenina is a co-production with the Joffrey Ballet, and a stunning example of global artistic collaboration. While it was in development long before David Hallberg took over the reins at Australian Ballet, his influence is all over it; you see it not only in the precision of the corps, but in their sensuality, lyricism and attention to detail. But primarily it is a Russian triumph, choreographed and scored by Russians, from one of Russia’s undisputed masterpieces of literature. It might not be enough to drown out the clamour of war, but it is a reminder of what we have to lose.

Written by
Tim Byrne


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