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Eifman Ballet: 'Anna Karenina'

by David Mead

April 3, 2012-- London Coliseum, London, UK

Although I have a good idea of the story, having seen films and remember well Galina Samsova’s production of Andre Prokovsky’s ballet, I’ve never actually read Tolstoy’s novel. When it comes to watching Boris Eifman’s take on the story, perhaps that’s no bad thing. I don’t, for example, get too hung up on the missing characters and counterplots; of which there are quite a few.

Eifman chooses to focus exclusively on the love triangle between Anna; her husband, Karenin; and her lover Vronsky; so much so, that they are the only three dancers identified on the cast list. There is no sign, for example, of Levin, co-protagonist of the novel and who marries Kitty, Vronsky’s girlfriend who is jilted for Anna; or Dolly, Kitty’s older sister and one of the few people who act kindly towards her. Kitty herself makes just a brief appearance, lasting only until Anna and Vronsky lock eyes for the first time.

All choreographers pare down narrative. You simply can’t squeeze 800-plus pages into two and a bit hours of dance without leaving things out. But narrative is important for character development and understanding, and Eifman has gone so far that he leaves us only occasional glimpses into each individual’s inner psyche. The ballet is rather patchy on an emotional level too. As Karenin, Oleg Markov was perfectly detached and lacking in sentiment. We learned little about Vronsky, though, Oleg Gabyshev all too often being equally strangely cool. Nina Zmievets as Anna is beautiful and always elegant, but when their eyes meet, especially early in the ballet, there was almost no sense of falling in love, let alone passion for each other. In among the distorted and distended limbs their pas de deux have plenty of sweeping dance and wonderful acrobatic lifts, but with the couple oddly remote in just about every other way. And while we see Anna’s indecision about leaving her husband and son, we feel little.

Part of the problem is Eifman’s penchant to always move things on apace. Relationships and characterisations take time, and that is something there is little of. Not only does he move swiftly from scene to scene, the movement itself is non-stop with a step for every note; and usually a big step too. He makes great use of his dancers’ pliant bodies. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen so many extravagant extensions in a ballet. There’s plenty of strength on show too in the usually acrobatic partnering, but it all gets a little too gymnastic. Each lift is held for a second as if to make sure you have registered it. As impressive as it all was, it cried out for moments of stillness or at least of slowing down. When Eifman starts to do that in Act II, it is noticeable how much matters improve.

Despite all the reservations, there is plenty to admire. Some moments are theatrically outstanding. One of the best is when Anna and Vronsky are alone in their beds. The light shifts between them as they reach out to each other, echoing each other’s movements, before she grabs her shawl and rushes off to see him (à la Juliet) and dance a pas de deux that at last shows some passion for one another. The only shame was that it was all rather rushed and more was not made of the scene. Elsewhere, Act I closes with a particularly chilling moment when Anna stands in the centre of her son’s toy train set; a portent of where things are headed.

It’s in Act II that we really get to see inside Anna. Her baring of the torment in her mind in her mad scene, in which she is metaphorically naked in a unitard, is impressive indeed. There is a particularly moving moment when Vronsky carries her offstage as if she has been crucified, her head lifeless, her arms extended, her legs bent in parallel.

The corps was full of energy, and needed to be. Invariably used en masse to emphasise mood or effect, they ebb and flow from the shadowy wings, again, almost always at speed. Some of their work felt like padding or was simply there to give the principals a breather, but when used to amplify the main characters feelings, or to represent society at large, all whispers and sideways glances at this woman who has broken polite society’s rules, they were most effective. Their impressive evocation of the fatal train also works far better than one could ever imagine. Driven on by music that gets louder and louder, they imitate a train getting ever closer before Anna throws herself from the bridge into their arms.

The ballet is adorned with beautiful sets. Zinovy Margolin’s impressive, if rather Roman looking, balconies and columns morph effortlessly into homes, ballrooms and eventually a railway bridge from which Anna throws herself. On the costume front, Vyacheslav Okunev’s high cut gowns for Anna are sumptuous indeed, and do a great job of showing her long legs to best advantage.

Eifman’s choice of music, largely a casserole of segments from Tchaikovsky, works much better than expected. There is the occasional untidy join but on the whole the gluing together is pretty well done. There is an issue with using music from iconic ballets, though. It did take a few moments to get my brain around the fact that this didn’t have to be Balanchine’s “Serenade” at the beginning, and I remain unconvinced about the use of Suite No. 3 (“Theme and Variations”), or Eifman’s rather jarring choreography to it.

It’s easy to criticise Eifman’s approach. It is modern, sleek and glamorous. It is popularist, and is certainly well and truly aimed at today’s Joe Public. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. I just wish it wasn’t quite so insistent.

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