National Ballet of Canada, Hamburg Ballet & Bolshoi Ballet/ Anna Karenina choreographed by John Neumeier, Four Seasons Centre, Nov. 10 to Nov. 18. Tickets available at 416- 345-9595 or national.ballet.ca.
The National Ballet has a lot at stake in its new full-length production of Anna Karenina. This ballet is not a pick-up. The National is a co-producer along with Bolshoi Ballet, and choreographer John Neumeier’s own Hamburg Ballet. In other words, Anna Karenina belongs to the home team. In the main, the news is good, and the ballet’s strengths certainly outweigh its weaknesses.
Flawed, yes. Ambitious, absolutely. A keeper, definitely.
Most people, familiar with film and television versions of Tolstoy’s 1878 novel that concentrate on Anna’s adulterous affair with Count Vronsky, will be surprised by the large cast Neumeier has put on the stage. In fact, the original novel is vast in scope and epic in themes, and Anna’s extended family plays a large part in the machinations of Tolstoy’s plot. Clearly, choreographer Neumeier, who always wants to challenge himself as much as he wants to challenge the audience, has gone back to the original novel for his inspiration. Like Tolstoy, he contrasts Anna’s shifting fortunes against those of her friends and relations.
The choreographer also functioned as set, costume (except for Anna) and lighting designer, so every nub and kernel of this production has his stamp. Neumeier represents his characters through their personalities — what he is trying to say about them — rather than in realistic terms. Through what they wear, how they move, and the music they move to, speaks volumes about who they are. The approach is risky, because each character is in his or her own bubble, concerning looks and choreographic signature. Neumeier, always perfect in his choice of music, has opted for various Tchaikovsky works to underpin the ballet. When he wants dissonant, fingernails-grating-on-chalkboard music, he reverts to Alfred Schnittke (who else?)
Neumeier has placed his Anna Karenina in modern times. There are four distinct pockets of characters — the Karenin household, the Oblonsky household, Levin and Kitty, and Vronsky. There are also a couple of other key characters thrown in for good measure.
Anna (Svetlana Lunkina) is the wife of politician Alexei Karenin (Piotr Stanczyk). She wears to-die-for haute couture by famous Swiss fashion designer Albert Kriemler, so right from the start, she is the fashion plate wife-of, and publically correct in every detail. Poised, yet delicate, she begins as a superficial image, but Lunkina masterfully plays out her unravelling like a ball of wool run wild. The supple Lunkina transforms before our eyes as consummate grace is replaced by awkward limb thrusts and body distortions. We absolutely believe her desperation at the end. Karenin, surrounded by his entourage, wears various suits, all immaculately tailored. Neumeier has given him sharp, angulated, staccato movement, which Stanczyk, always the crispest of dancers, performs to perfection. Their nine-year-old son Seryozha (Spencer Hack), in childish shorts and top, is a wonderful ball of energy as he negotiates through Neumeier’s non-stop, jumping jack, cannonade of movement. Karenin’s assistant Countess Lidia Ivanovna (Tanya Howard), garbed in black from head to toe, is the perfect éminence grise, with her ramrod back, slow, deliberate pace, and mysterious air.
Prince Oblonsky, Anna’s brother Stiva (Naoya Ebe) is a womanizer and a reprobate. His casual look (jeans and T-shirt) is mirrored by his toss away, devil may care choreography, as if the world is a joke. Ebe’s lightness as a dancer is perfect for the role. Stiva’s put-upon wife Dolly (Xiao Nan Yu) is burdened by six children (a talented group from the National Ballet School who really hold their own on stage). Her sad life is reflected in plain frocks and choreography that folds in on itself. Yu is a brilliant dancer, and when she does break out, her rage is palpable. She captures Dolly’s bitterness by a broken, bent body, interpolated by abject stillness.
In Tolstoy’s novel, Konstantin Levin (Félix Paquet) is a troubled aristocrat who has opted to live on his estate in the country, eschewing the bright lights of the city. You’d never know that from this portrayal, because Levin is clothed and choreographed like a love-torn country bumpkin, perhaps Neumeier’s riskiest decision. Levin, sporting a plaid shirt, leather pants and cowboy hat, also has his own music track – the mellow, melodious songs of Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens). He is in love with Kitty (Antonella Martinelli), a young girl of 18 who is Dolly’s sister. Kitty, however, loves Vronsky. The choreography for Levin is singular indeed. For example, a stiff leg lands on its heel, and locks in place, and so the movement becomes robotic as the other leg is brought into play against the fixed position. This represents Levin’s movement in social situations. When alone, he is fluid and quicksilver, always in motion, pouring out his love and his grief together. Awkward and slow in public, a mass of nervous energy in private, Paquet’s touching performance is emotional and heartfelt. He practically steals the show. Martinelli’s Kitty is luminous, a young girl at her most fragile, and her most beautiful. What a lovely dancer she is, making Martinelli certainly one to watch. At this point, dare we mention the real-size farm tractor that actually appears on stage?
There are also several important cameo roles. Kota Sato is the Mushik, or peasant, a railway worker whose death Anna witnesses. Neumeier has him weave in an out of the ballet, performing slow, twisted movement as an ever-present symbol of death, and Sato is impressive in the role. The statuesque Princess Sorokina (Hannah Fischer), who captures Vronsky’s attention when he is becoming bored with Anna, is a siren and a lady all wrapped up in one. She has to cut a swath upon stage, and she does. In fact, the Princess is the only one who seems to be dressed back in the nineteenth century, parasol and all. Calley Skalnik is the character Tatyana from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, whose own angst interweaves with Anna’s during the latter’s ill-fated public outing to the opera, given her disgrace. It is a very clever juxtaposition on Neumeier’s part, and we do hear a distorted version of Tatyana’s letter-writing aria.
I’ve left Vronsky (Harrison James) for the last, and for a good reason. If you want a handsome, youthful hero, James is your man. As the dashing army colonel who sweeps Anna Karenina, a dutiful wife and loving mother, off her feet and into a position of social pariah, James is miscast. He just doesn’t have the sexual sizzle. For some reason, I was also drawn to James’ positioning of his hands during the pas de deux. He is an accomplished dancer and excellent partner, but seemed almost tentative in this ballet. The fault, however, is not entirely his. Neumeier falls short in his duets for Anna and Vronsky which are lacking in snap, crackle and pop.
The choreographer is bang on everywhere else — the playful romps between Anna and her son, the formal, stately coming together of Karenin and Countess Lidia, the awkward youthfulness of Levin and Kitty, the tortured relationship of Stiva and Dolly, even Anna and Karenin, with her being needy and he being indifferent shows well — but Anna and Vronsky together seem lacking in passion. That Lunkina’s incandescent performance rises above this shortcoming is a testament to her skill as a dancing actress.
Interestingly, the male corps de ballet has a lot more to do in Anna Karenina than the female one, which is an unusual feature of the work, and makes for some interesting visual choices — gym workouts, a lacrosse game, farmers hoeing. The women are usually part of the crowd. Set-wise, Neumeier’s concept is movable boxes with many doors, which convey the shifting tides influencing the characters and their constant entrances and exits. The ballet certainly rambles with its many scenes, but there is an excellent synopsis, and the characters are so well-defined that the action is easily followed. The hour and a half first act is too long. My internal too-long metre kicked in about 15 minutes before the end, but the second act, at just about an hour, seems to hold together. Needless to say, conductor David Briskin and the National’s orchestra dived into the Tchaikovsky score with gusto (and even Schnittke got his fair due).
That Neumeier took on one of the greatest novels in literature is a massive achievement in and of itself. That he holds all the threads of the story together, as his set boxes swirl and turn around the stage, leading the characters on their separate journeys, is also a marvellous accomplishment. And that all this is done to movement is, in its own way, miraculous. The breadth and depth of Neumeier’s imagination is staggering, given the various scenes he creates on stage, from a political rally to an opera house, from a rustic farm scene to a railway station. Somewhere along the line, however, the choreographer became too married to his material, and a judicious editing was needed. Nonetheless, John Neumeier is one of the most brilliant ballet storytellers in the world, and flawed Neumeier is still greatness in motion.