Dance Review: ANNA KARENINA (World Premiere by Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 14, 2019

in Dance,Theater-Chicago


So many superlatives to savor.

Newly created by 35-year-old wunderkind composer Ilya Demutsky, who replenishes the rhapsodic romanticism of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and genius choreographer Yuri Possokhov, who finds new depths in dance, Anna Karenina, Joffrey Ballet’s first commissioned score, redeemed its promissory notes perfectly last night. While the great Boris Eifman’s ballet of the same name — which used a compilation of pieces by Tchaikovsky — is a worthy precursor, Demutsky and Possokhov’s two-hour collaborative triumph honors and even increases the Slavic intensity and emotional range of Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 masterwork.

It’s a ballet milestone and another artistic achievement to take place at the historic Auditorium Theatre: This world premiere, which the Australian Ballet reprises next year, is a cinematic spectacle rich with wonders to witness and music to hold its own in any company’s classical repertory.

What most impresses throughout this passion ballet is how much storytelling can soar from sheer movement. Possokhov exploits and expands the vocabulary of dance to combine swift, Cossack-like spins, leaps of lust, and twirls conveying delirium and desire.

It’s all in the service of a multi-layered novel whose doomed title character is by the end utterly abandoned (double-meaning intended). A modest-minded St. Petersburg aristocrat, Anna seems happily yoked to Alexey Karenin (Fabrice Calmels, ramrod righteous), a proper and progressive politician. But, after she sees a fatal (and presaging) train accident, Anna (Victoria Jaiani, lovely, lyrical and lost) also fatefully encounters a handsome young soldier named Alexey Vronsky (Alberto Velazquez, ardent and athletic).

The rest is irresistible, if not inevitable, passion: Anna falls under the spell of this feckless careerist who rides horses to death much as he treats women. Jainai’s tortured twists and turns perfectly convey the ever-escalating plight of an unhappy wife torn between the prospect of unconditional devotion, her duty to an honorable mate, and her non-negotiable love for her son Seyozha (Oliver Reeve Libke).

In a contrast that’s both moral and artistic, Tolstoy presents a very different couple. Their bonds are built on more than impulse and infatuation, and that lets them escape the uncompromising extremes that destroy Anna and Alexey. Briefly enamored with, then coldly rejected by Vronsky, Princess Kitty Shcherbatskaya (radiant Anais Bueno) settles for bedrock happiness with Konstantin Levin (Yoshihisa Arai). An agrarian reformer — like Tolstoy — and a devotee of gospel-like simplicity, this sweet soul can only offer a simple heart for a long life.

As relentlessly as Possokhov prosecutes the self-fulfilling crackup of the adulterous duo, he chooses, rightly or not, to end the ballet very differently from the novel. The last impression is not Anna’s infamous demise: It’s a pastoral fantasy, complete with horse carts and hay-making, that gives to Kitty and Konstantin a final benediction for their safely-tempered marriage.

Whether pulsatingly harsh or liltingly melodious, Demutsky’s supple and unashamedly old-school score is beautifully presented by Joffrey music director Scott Speck and the Chicago Philharmonic. At its best it literally mirrors every turn in Tolstoy’s tale. The balletic poles range from stridently social scenes set at engagement balls and the racecourse (with the ensemble terrifically in tandem in their communal celebrations) to agonizingly intimate duets that deliver every detail of whatever liaison takes center stage.

It’s all perfectly pictured by set and costume designer Tom Pye and lighting designer David Finn. Their flying sets and evocative projections and video all but dance in their own right. Here potent close-ups can reach even the upper balcony.

Of course, at the core of this magnificent endeavor are the principal dancers, so much Joffrey gold dug from an inexhaustible vein. Their every step seems as right as the next one and as natural as the snow that falls during the intermission.

And at the heart of this core are Jaiani and Velazquez, mating in movements as indelibly beautiful as Demutsky’s musical inspiration.

photos by Cheryl Mann

Anna Karenina
The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway
ends on February 24, 2019
for tickets, call 312.386.8905 or visit Joffrey

plays Melbourne in May 2020
for dates and tickets, visit The Australian Ballet

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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