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Mariinsky Ballet

Anna Karenina

by Jerry Hochman

July 11, 2011 -- Lincoln Center Festival, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

Following the first act of Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of “Anna Karenina,” I was tempted to begin writing this review a bit early, and, in view of the prominence of a railroad train in the production, to describe Mr. Ratmansky’s piece as a train wreck of a ballet. But the piece seemed to come together a bit more in Act II (or at least I grew to overlook its flaws), so perhaps depicting it as a ‘train wreck’ was a bit premature. But it is a puzzling work at best, and despite the heroic efforts of Diana Vishneva and Yuri Smekalov, it is one of Mr. Ratmansky’s pieces that, to this viewer, is less than the sum of its parts.

“Anna Karenina” is the first production in the Mariinsky’s week-long residence at the Met, under the auspices of the Lincoln Center Festival. It was an understandable choice to have inaugurated the Mariinsky’s return to New York because, in addition to its outrageously high ticket prices, the Festival is notable for sponsoring purportedly cutting-edge productions, and perhaps it was thought that Mr. Ratmansky’s new interpretation (it had it's Mariinsky premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on April 15, 2010, but was originally choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2004) was avant-garde. It isn’t. Although it is not a classical ballet in the sense that “Swan Lake” or “The Sleeping Beauty” is, it is hardly innovative. Indeed, Mr. Ratmansky’s “Anna Karenina” bears a striking resemblance in form and structure and feel (though not in choreographic style) to John Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias,” which American Ballet Theatre has performed at the Met for the past two seasons.

The production also is not true to the Tolstoy novel from which it is derived. I confess to not having read “Anna Karenina,” but from plot summaries the novel is, not surprisingly, much more complex a work than the ballet makes it appear to be, and the story itself is on a larger scale and with additional significant characters whose roles have been diminished or eliminated in Mr. Ratmansky’s production. But this is not unusual, and Mr. Ratmansky’s piece deserves to be considered on its own merits rather than just as a condensation or theatrical modification of the original.

Like many romantic ballets created from other sources (“Manon,” “Onegin,” “Mayerling,” as well as “Lady of the Camellias,” for example), Mr. Ratmansky’s “Anna Karenina” is a collection of scenes used to exemplify stages in the progression of the story. But in “Anna Karenina,” the scenes (with some exceptions) seem to be just scenes with no connection to what came before or what is to come after – there is little of the narrative cohesiveness that I see in these other ballets – just repeated variations on the theme of Anna’s conflicted emotions, told both through Ms. Vishneva’s formidable acting ability, and also clearly, and repeatedly, through choreography designed to illustrate Anna’s conflicted emotions – repeated side-to-side movements, as if Anna is being emotionally heaved first one way, then another, back and forth and back and forth in slightly different form in each dance with her lover, Count Vronsky, but always essentially the same emotional message. There is no growth or evolution or climax (except for Anna’s abrupt suicide that ends the piece) – on the contrary, this condensation of the story into repetitive demonstrations of emotional conflict is the intended concept behind Mr. Ratmansky’s ballet. Consequently, and with the exception of one brief non-conflicted dance mid-way through Act II (which, curiously, is less passionate than the conflicted dances that permeate the rest of the piece), it’s all angst all the time.

One of Mr. Ratmasky’s choreographic hallmarks is that his pieces are not constricted or controlled by the music upon which they are created; rather, Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography in other works of his that I’ve seen has consistently and appropriately used the music as a framework, and his choreography enhances this musical structure. In “Anna Karenina,” however, Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography is slavishly limited by the music. Where there’s an emphasis in the music, there’s an equivalent and predictable choreographic punctuation. And in this case, the music upon which Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography is dependent, composed by Rodion Shchedrin (who is Maya Plisetskaya’s husband) is consistently literal to the inevitable tragic progression of the story, and accordingly is consistently shrill. Since Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography is circumscribed by the score, it too has a consistently shrill feel to it.

“Anna Karenina” tells the story of a love affair between the married Anna and a younger man, Count Vronsky, and the consequences of Anna’s inability or unwillingness to avoid what Vronsky, and her heart, compel her to do. The piece begins with a relatively bare, white stage at a railroad station, with Vronsky mourning Anna, who has been crushed by a train, as passengers and other persons gradually appear. This prologue then morphs into Anna arriving in Moscow from St. Petersburg to visit her brother, where she first meets Vronsky, and where she witnesses an accident that becomes a premonition – a man being crushed by a train.

Suddenly, Anna and Vronsky are dancing together at a ball. If there was some build-up to this, some description of the relationship of Anna and Vronsky going from point A to point B, I missed it. With almost equal suddenness, Anna tries to run from Vronsky (and from the consequences that she knows will ensue from yielding to his advances and her desires) and return by train to St. Petersburg, but Vronsky follows her onto the train. Several conflicted dances later, Anna leaves her husband and son to join Vronsky.

For this viewer, the beginning of Act II was the low-point of the piece. Anna has inexplicably returned to her husband, they go to a racetrack, where Vronsky is one of the riders (How did she…?...Where did he…?). Vronsky has a riding accident (off stage), which Anna reacts to with apparent inappropriate concern. As a result her perception that she overreacted, Anna feels compelled to tell her husband (Karenin) about her affair with Vronsky. Karenin castigates her, and he and Anna then abruptly leave the racetrack. [During the scene young ‘cadets’ pretend to be racehorses. Not equus-like characterizations of horses, but dancing cadets that the audience is supposed to believe are the embodiment of racehorses. At this point I was begging for mercy.] Then Anna suddenly becomes deathly ill, then just as suddenly recovers and begs forgiveness from Karenin. And then, just as suddenly, she leaves him again.

But as Act II progressed, the choreography appeared to grow stronger and more complex, and I found myself focusing on the movement quality rather than the narrative quality. And I began to respect the piece on that level. Although still consisting of a repetitive series of dances of continuing emotional conflict, Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography appeared every bit as intricate and nuanced as any work of his that I’ve seen. There was lyricism, exquisite craftsmanship (as well as execution), and Mr. Ratmansky’s characteristic choreographic ‘echoes’ – unusual movement stated once, and then repeated later for reemphasis. For example, one of his inventive movements that is stated once and then repeated later has Anna using her arms as a frame around her head, moving this ‘frame’ as if to demonstrate the conflicting forces that compel her to act as she does. And Ratmansky has created a moving pas de trois for Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin that is exquisitely done, and a remarkable scene depicting high society’s scorn of Anna at a theatrical performance that she attends.

Although I did not care for the piece (at least on first view), nothing about the performance diminished my opinion that Ms. Vishneva is among the greatest of dancer-actors. She has long ago demonstrated her extraordinary ability to be any character that a role demands her to be – just because she’s performed essentially the same character as Anna in other ballets (“Manon,” “Lady of the Camellias” for example) doesn’t make her a one-note ballerina. Watching her dance is a privilege even when the ballet in which she is dancing is less than it should be. Yuri Smekalov’s Vronsky was a pleasant surprise. Mr. Smekalov, who replaced the previously announced Konstantin Zverev (no reason given), is a tall, dashing dancer who exhibited a level of confidence and maturity, in addition to his obvious technical capability, that one would not expect of a second soloist (one rank above the corps). Except for the roles of Karenin and Kitty (Anna’s brother’s wife’s sister) (saying 'sister-in-law' doesn’t provide sufficient information), danced capably by Islom Baimuradov and Yevgenia Obraztsova respectively, the piece provided insufficient opportunity for me to evaluate any of the other dancers in the piece. Hopefully I’ll be able to obtain a sense of the other Mariinsky dancers as the week-long season progresses.

Finally, the ballet’s stunning visual quality must be acknowledged. Though starkly simple, Mikael Melbye’s set and costume design, Jern Melin’s lighting, and the video projection design of Wendall Harrington create a memorable dramatic landscape, including a larger-than-life railroad car that moves upstage to downstage and back and turns 360 degrees to suggest the movement of the train, and in the process reveals a cutaway view of the inside of the coach. The set and costumes also provide a color palate that presents the story in the simplest of terms (white, black and red), which serves to add emphasis to the emotional colors presented by the dancers (although changing Anna’s costume to scarlet after her affair became generally known and she became an object of societal scorn was a little too obvious).

I have come to respect Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography, and I have previously acknowledged that certain of his other pieces (“The Nutcracker,” “The Bright Stream”) grow on you with repeated viewing. This may prove to be the case with “Anna Karenina” as well – the production does have a distinctive style that requires a period of adjustment, and perhaps over time I will ignore its perceived flaws and focus instead on the positives. But I will not have the opportunity again this season. Based on this one performance, and while it may not necessarily be a train wreck, “Anna Karenina” is a production derailed by its concept.

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