Photo: Cheryl Mann.

Anna Karenina

Joffrey Ballet

Written by:
David e. Moreno
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A dark scrim with the words Anna Karenina projected on it disappears into projected vapors that threaten to obscure the ageless name before it reappears. Much in the way Leo Tolstoy’s overly dramatic novel of the same name has faded but always reappeared as one of the great pieces of literature, the title image commands its due as real smoke wafts from behind the scrim through the projected vapor over the orchestra pit and onto the heads of the audience.

This gloomy foreshadowing of barriers being broken will show itself throughout choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s masterful work, which at times feels less like ballet and more like epic theater and film, cinematic in fluid density and visual sensation. Thanks also to the impeccable talents of Finn Ross’ projection design and David Finn’s lighting, an immersive sense of environment is created that is quite minimalistic yet voluptuous in emotional punch. Tom Pye’s exquisitely sparse sets and muted costumes give this production its impeccable aesthetic. One memorable touch of Pye’s multifaceted talent was his use of neon-colored petticoats. At first, only an eye for detail might have noticed them peeking out beneath the corps de ballet’s jewel-toned skirts, but when they lay down, flashing them to the audience, they become an element of the set.

Before the title image is transformed into the train station at St. Petersburg and the ballet begins, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger sings a haunting melody from the orchestra. The Berkeley Symphony, conducted by Scott Speck, is playing an original score by award-winning Russian composer Ilya Demutsky. The score is instantly dramatic in Tchaikovsky fashion with an underlying military cadence, snare drums and crashing cymbals that at times veers movie soundtrack (something Demutsky has also scored) and even turns a bit Copelandesque by its finale. Both score and choreography are dynamically feverish throughout the production’s two acts.
And then there is Anna Karenina, danced by the spectacular Victoria Jaini, who defeats gravity and time as she dances through despair, the verge of dying, a lusty romp with a count, a tentative romp with her husband, fever, delirium, a couple of grand balls, morphine injections and hallucinations before throwing herself in front of a train in scene six… What’s not to like?
Between these ordinary Tolstoy occurrences, Jaini is tossed, dragged, and thrown through the air between her trophy lover, Count Vronsky (Alberto Velazquez) and her distraught but impressive husband (Dylan Gutierrez.) Jaini’s fluent arms and graceful hands are dances in themselves, while many of her ballet moves are variations on développe.
Jaini is stunning, dancing this physically demanding, hours-long choreography effortlessly, often with the stunned look of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Even during her solos, she isn’t given a break from the onslaught of Possokhov’s composition. Only when her affair with the count is new does she get to sensually slither around the virile Velazquez at a less tortured pace. Jaini and Velazquez have chemistry, a genuine passion that makes their love scene on a settee tantalizing, even in its stylization. Possokhov breaks Jaini’s classical ballet positions and lines with jazz and modern fusion, yet interestingly, when Jaini has the chance to dance while under the thumb of morphine, it is less dramatic than what has preceded the hallucination.

As Count Vronsky, Alberto Velazquez also has an enormous task which he handsomely executes, often enduring volumes of Jaini’s skirts covering his head during lifts and spins. Being a count isn’t always as glamorous as it seems; he has his own torments. Besides falling head over heels for Karenina, only later to have second thoughts, he takes a fall at the racetrack and shoots his horse. But first, six male dancers join Velazquez, dancing as jockeys for this eventful race, which is delightful as they stride like horses, bouncing high from their imaginary saddles.

Unexpected is the count’s reluctant pas de deux with Karenina’s husband, Dylan Gutierrez, at the beginning of Act Two, as Karenina suffers from pregnancy, bedbound. Their grudging and complicated dance, as the count’s interest in Anna fades now that she is pregnant and the husband refuses to divorce her, offers respite from their constant dance coupling and tug of war with Anna.
Central to the relationships between Karenina and Vronsky—weaving in and around their social lives is that of the ingenue, Kitty Shcherbatsaya (Yumi Kanazawa) and her quest to be married. Kitty’s choreography differs from Karenina’s in that it appears, rightfully, more predictable, if not fanciful, like her character. Kanazawa pursues her role joyously, moving between happy and sad with juvenile ease. At first, she rejects her pursuer, Konstantin Levin (Hyuma Kiyosawa) inevitably marrying him in what appears to be happily ever after.
One would think that this poetic distilled version of Anna Karenina might end with Anna’s dramatic demise, especially with its powerful staging as singer Lindsay Metzger joins Anna on stage for her final moments. Metzger’s aria grows as brightly and loudly as the train’s light, as the train thunderously screeches towards Anna, adding additional tension with this operatic pairing. In this moment, the fantasy of Anna Karenina, the historical and literary, Anna, now the dancer Anna, intimately shares the stage with another woman, a woman in real time, who sings Anna’s madness but is not swept under the tracks by it.

Instead of ending here, the performance abruptly forages ahead to an epilogue, with a radical change of scenery and lighting, and a completely new corps de ballet as peasants working sun-drenched fields. Not only is this abrasive shift visually jarring, but it is also incongruous with the storyline as danced. Nowhere is Konstantin Levin’s life as a farmer in the countryside previously established. We had only seen him dance in the bleak industrialized settings of Moscow or St Petersburg that colored everything until now.

The score also changes here, and one suddenly feels like they are watching Aaron Copeland/Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” It takes an adjustment. The lights have been turned up bright. Now the story continues into happier pastures with Hyuma Kiyosawa breezily dancing a happy-go-lucky solo through billowing scrims and golden bales of wheat. After previously being rejected by Kitty, he is now king of his kingdom.
Anna Karenina is the Joffrey’s first-ever narrative ballet, something the entire company tackles with exuberant precession. It is tour de force dance theater that won Yuri Possokhov the prestigious Benois de la Danse international ballet prize. The ballet feels like you’re watching a dark dream unfold, rather than a storyline, where ultimately sequences don’t matter as much as its enduring imprint.

David e. Moreno

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