Thirtieth Anniversary Season
St. Petersburg, Russia
29 June 2007
By Catherine Pawlick
In a fourth program by the Eifman Ballet during this celebration of their thirtieth season, the company presented one of its newer works, “Anna Karenina”, which was created just two years ago, prior to their 2005 US tour. It seemed fitting to view this piece in the Alexandrinsky Theatre, where the breathtakingly restored ornate red, gold and white baroque interior offers luxurious surroundings in the manner in which Anna herself would have attended the theatre.
The score for “Anna” begins with the haunting chords of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, made more famous by Balanchine’s “Serenade”, which is then interspersed with pieces from the composer’s symphonic poem, Opus 32, Francesca de Rimini, and finally some electronic music at certain intervals. That Eifman chose a musical selection depicting the adulterous affair that led to de Rimini’s death and ultimate condemnation is, one presumes, not coincidental.
It is to those sounds of Serenade that the first scene is set. Anna sees her son dressed in a sailor suit playing with a miniature train set and embraces him before being cloaked and carried off to a party by her stern husband. In the ballroom we instantly spot Vronsky for his light clothing and attractive dance partner as they whirl with the rest of the dancers to an allegro interval. Here Anna dances with her husband, played by Oleg Markov, a dancer who seems to have mastered the empty stare that reflects a dutiful but perhaps, at first, unemotional heart. During the interplay of expected steps in this high society setting, Anna and Vronsky of course meet, but the moment is fleeting, the dance at the ball pulls them again in opposite directions. Back at home, Anna slides out from under Karenin on their bed in an openly sexual interlude. That she feels nothing for her husband is clear, and that she dreams of the man at the ball even clearer.
It isn’t until the second scene, opened by men in black vests and black pants, where the couple truly dances together. Here Anna shivers at Vronsky’s touch, her leg fluttering symbolically like Odette’s – we know her heart has been set on fire – and a smile of joy spreads across her face. She is filled with love and passion, as attested to by the lovers’ movements – expansive and large – in contrast to the smaller, more constricted interplay between Anna and Karenin. Anna repeatedly evades her husband, crumbling to the floor at his every touch, but races towards Vronsky to embrace him. This contrasting reaction tells us all we need to know about the heroine’s feelings.
Moments later the stage is black save for two lone spotlights, one illuminating Anna in her bed, and the other on Vronsky in his. They echo each others’ movements, informing us that their connection exists independent of space and time. That space/time continuum is broken as the lights are raised and the lovers’ first passionate pas de deux occurs while Karenin paces at home, wondering where his wife is as the clock strikes two. The scene is set for our heroine’s demise.
That heroine was depicted effortlessly from the start by the impossibly beautiful Maria Abashova, whose face and body seem preordained for this role. With her dark hair smoothed back into a bun, Abashova’s exquisite lines were never marred by the long dresses favored by Eifman’s costumers. Abashova is blessed with highly arched feet, a plasticity that knows know bounds and, above all, a deep acting instinct. Her sweeping pas de deux with Vronsky displayed all the abandon of a woman awakened by passion. Her repeated dismissal of Karenin’s advances however, were not performed without guilt. She portrayed Anna’s conscience, the burden of her dilemma, its ramifications, and her doubt through calculated pauses, a head turned away, a shudder, or a careful glance.
In the second act, a duet of anguish between Anna and Vronsky, danced by the talented Yuri Smelakov, was punctuated by moments of dejected reflection. Smelakov danced an ideal Vronsky: from his first appearance in the ballroom to a scene with fellow soldiers in a beer-hall, we understand immediately that he is an attractive gentleman, but one with a conscience. Smelakov danced several solos with nothing less than full energy, high leaps shifting to contracted positions and back again to expansive movements. The demands of this choreography are not for the lighthearted and Smelakov makes them look like a walk in the park. In a scene where Vronsky is finally alone with Anna, painting her portrait, Smelakov suddenly becomes dissatisfied with his work, covers the canvas, and curls into a fetal position. As the pair alternate between moments of reflection and expressions of joy, the weight of their predicament is clear.
The multi-layered relationship between Karenin and his wife was depicted well by Oleg Markov, whose Karenin was clearly in love with his wife but lacked understanding as to her betrayal of him. While initially he appeared cold, in later scenes he approached Anna, palms up, as if asking “why?” but was quickly pushed away. His subsequent efforts to retain her in body do nothing to bring her soul closer to his. Abashova’s Anna shriveled from any touch of Markov’s, becoming instant jello on the floor. And just after pushing him away she too would beg for forgiveness. The twain of this husband and wife pair seemed to never quite meet, for neither could see the other’s point of view.
The ballet itself has many small moments that carry along the libretto. At the close of the first act, Anna spots her son’s toy train running slowly on a circular track, bathed in a spotlight with snow softly falling. She steps into the ring, the train continuing in circles around her feet, and she slowly undulates under the falling snow. This one image encapsulates the entire ballet: her love for her son, her own demise and the endless torment inside her.
In another scene, soldiers dressed in khaki uniforms have become drunk. Each collapses on his own chair from the alcohol as a servant rushes to collect all of their champagne glasses. Moments later the soldiers are jumping with, on, and off of the chairs in a central formation that cleverly recreates a cavalry. Vronsky dances an angst-ridden solo among the soldiers, with split-jumps stretched out in second that are interspersed with sharp tour-jetes. These corps de ballet interludes are interspersed with solo variations and pas de deux from the main characters, offering a balanced presentation of the company’s talents.
A singular religious allusion stands out in this ballet. Vronsky carries Anna offstage in the second act as if she is Jesus on the cross, her arms extended, her legs bent in parallel, her head dropped lifeless to her chest. The moment is moving, and one of many that provides further commentary on Anna’s moral and psychological quandary throughout the performance.
Adding another dimension to the story, Eifman’s sumptuous costumes relay the lush riches of the aristocracy centuries ago without restraining the dancers’ ability to move. While arms are bare, we nonetheless understand the setting for the corset-like tops and floor length gowns on the women, the boots and riding pants, or epaulettes and trousers on the men.
While each character had effectively mastered Eifman’s abstract, signature style of movement, the heroine’s dependency on her passion, or addiction if you will, is hard to differentiate from simple torment. We do however receive a recreation of the main dilemma set forth by Tolstoy: do we have the right to destroy a family for the sake of passionate love, or does duty take precedence. As Eifman himself notes in the program, these questions have no answers.
While Eifman has been criticized for his reductionist approach to great literature, what he has done is to bring classical Russian fiction to the arguably ignorant masses. While every Russian knows this famous story, elsewhere in the world it is not as well known – certainly American high schools do not assign this in their curriculum. It would be amiss then to assume that everyone knows the story of Anna Karenina, but for those who are familiar, have they considered the psychological impact of such a story, the morals it entails? Placed in the position of our heroine, how would readers worldwide react? Watching a performance such as Eifman’s “Karenina” is, if nothing else, cause for reflection.