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Royal Danish Ballet - 'Anna Karenina'

Rushing Tolstoy

by Kate Snedeker

September 23 and 25, 2004 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

The first month of the Royal Danish Ballet’s 2004-05 season concluded with the final two performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Anna Karenina”.  Leo Tolstoy’s novel about love and politics in Tsarist Russia on which the ballet is based is quite lengthy and Ratmansky wisely chose to focus solely on the love story between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky.  His production combines Wendall Harrington’s massive projections and Rodion Shchedrin’s dramatic, throbbing music with powerful choreography.  It’s an approach that is captivating but not always successful, and the performances on Thursday and Saturday evenings highlighted the production's strengths and weaknesses.

Eschewing the elaborate sets that are so often the mainstay of story ballets, Ratmansky brings the lavish upper-class society of Tsarist Russia to life in a series of massive images projected onto a cyclorama-like backdrop.  These projections are complemented by sparse but elegant sets.  The piece de resistance is a full-sized train car, which spins around – courtesy of two golf cart engines and the deft manipulations of two offstage “pilots” on remote controls -- to reveal a fully decorated interior, and which slides off in clouds of stage smoke. 

All of these dramatic effects come together in a faced-paced production that races from scene to scene.  Unfortunately on Thursday night, the set and speed conspired against each other when the train station set got momentarily stuck, disrupting the flow of the ballet.  The evening never really recovered from this early misstep despite fine dancing and dramatic performances by Marie-Pierre Greve (Anna), Mads Blangstrup (Vronsky) and Peter Bo Bendixen (Karenin).

This technical glitch hinted at one of the main weakness of the production - its length.  At less than two hours in length, including a 25-minute intermission, the ballet feels very rushed. We are swept from one scene to another, sometimes too quickly to fully absorb the emotion and keep track of the storyline.  Adding another 15-30 minutes to the production would not have been too much for the audience, and would have allowed some parts of the story to be clearer.

However, Saturday night's performance was free from technical problems and served as an elegant season farewell to the ballet.  Of particular note were high quality performances by the dancers in the central roles.  Bringing the character of Anna Karenina to the stage is a challenging task, for she is both incredibly strong and painfully weak at the same time.  This duality shone through in Marie-Pierre Greve’s fine interpretation and Greve was most moving as the fragile, brittle Anna who seems to be literally breaking apart as she pushes Vronsky away for the final time. 

Blangstrup’s Vronsky was more introspective, his true emotions only breaking through in a dramatic solo that highlighted Blangstrup’s impressive, but controlled multiple pirouettes and sinuous body.  The choreography for Karenin is less intriguing, but Peter Bo Bendixen succeeded in bringing humanity to a character, who in the Tolstoy’s novel has much less to recommend him as a person.  Bendixen’s performance highlighted the conflicting forces in Karenin’s life – love, business and the accepted morals of the society in which he lived.  At one point Ratmansky’s choreography has Karenin moving from simple pacing to a frenzied near-run around the stage, and there is the slightest inkling that the man is torn not just by how he thinks society will view him, but by a thread of love for his wife.

Konstantin Liovin, the man whose proposal of marriage is rebuffed by Anna’s sister, is a major character in the book, but barely acknowledged in the ballet.  However, Cédric Lambrette, who stepped into the role for the final performance, made the brief rejection scene crispy poignant, setting the mood for the events that would follow.

Ratmansky’s ballet is a more than respectable attempt to bring a long, complicated story to the ballet stage, and demonstrates his ability to transfer emotion and context into ballet.  With this success in hand, one hopes that "Anna Karenina” will not be Ratmansky's last collaboration with the Royal Danish Ballet.  Martin Åkerwall conducted the Royal Danish Orchestra, with Mikael Melbye the designer of the sets and costumes.


Edited by Jeff.

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