Opulent lifestyles, unbridled passion, and endless joy…all the while a thread of darkness and deceit lurks underneath. Such is the tale of Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 novel masterpiece, Anna Karenina, adapted into a ballet, which opened in a world premiere by Chicago’s own Joffrey Ballet this past Wednesday evening. The production is a collaboration between the Joffrey Ballet and the Australian Ballet
Having never seen Anna Karenina before and thus unfamiliar with the plotline, I went into the evening with an open mind. What awaited me was a thoughtfully curated performance that felt deliberate, mastered, and breathtaking on the very first night of its run.
The show opens with a man on train tracks. It’s 1863, yet the classic converges with the modern from the very first plié. Throughout the ballet, geometric screens move across the stage, creating cutouts and backdrops for us to find dancers in focal points throughout the show. We are seeing them in their world, but also in ours.
Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, the movements. especially those by lead dancers Victoria Jaiani (Anna) and Fabrice Calmels (Alexey Karenin), are both expert and imaginative. As when Anna first falls in love with her husband, or when she falls out of love.
Movements are complemented beautifully by an original score for the work, composed by Ilya Demutsky. Throughout the performance, the ballet plays a delicate dance between modernism and classicism, love and loss, minimalism and opulence, the abstract and the familiar. It was mesmerizing, so much so that time moved quickly for a story that is more emotional than focused on a fast-paced plot.
Throughout the work, we find that emotions are heightened by both subtle and not-so-subtle effects; the geometric slides physically separating Anna and Alexey, showing the push and pull of their relationship as it meets its most contentious point, fighting over their son, Seyozha. Lights dim and spotlight Anna, hair and dress blowing in the wind as a train speeds toward her; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger stands at the side of the stage, voice booming, music swelling as Anna meets her fate. Billowing curtains sway as Kitty and Constantine revel in a picture-perfect landscape; music that tilts slightly off-key, lending a jarring, eerie effect to Anna’s infidelity and the uncertainty of what’s to come.
The most technically stunning and likely equally exhausting dance sequence occurred in Act 3, when Anna and her lover express feelings far beyond lust. The orchestration created a tender backdrop for the spotlight to shine upon them, and at the end of their dance, Alexey Vronsky, played by Alberto Velazquez, crumples to the ground.
The performance had an avant-garde quality, with a thriller-esque pull that kept my attention throughout. If you’re looking for a ballet that’s sunshine, rainbows, pure ecstasy, this isn’t it. This is grit, pain, love found and lost and found again. An anthology in print form, Anna Karenina dazzles in its on-stage debut, with an homage to both the past and the present that asks of us—how are we affected by the choices we make?
Costumes and scenic design are by Emmy Award-winning designer Tom Pye and lighting design by David Finn.
The Joffrey Ballet’s Anna Karenina continues through February 24 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. Running time is two hours plus a 20-minute intermission. Tickets are $35-179; buy them by phone (312-386-8905) or online. Pro tip: If you haven’t read Tolstoy’s iconic 800-page novel, get an overview of the plot line on its Wikipedia page to help you follow the ballet.
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