Roaring back to the stage, The Australian Ballet triumphs with the twice-delayed Anna Karenina, a major new work that is steeped in tradition and yet boldly staged at the vanguard of contemporary dance theatre.
There is not so much as a single wasted step in Yuri Possokhov’s ingenious and painstakingly conceived choreography, the divertissement-free full length work unfolding in fascinating style. The closest comparison would be the work of John Neumeier, with both choreographers enriching the depth of their work with a psychological focus on the emotional heart of their characters and stories.
A co-production with Joffrey Ballet, Anna Karenina features an evocative score by Ilya Demutsky. In a decidedly cinematic beginning, atmospheric clouds plumes of grey smoke billow ominously, as Orchestra Victoria gently begins the soundtrack-likes strains of Demutsky’s plaintive score.
The smoke billows, of course, from steam trains, one of which shortly takes the life of an elderly man, planting a tragic kernel of an idea in the mind of our tortured Tolstoy heroine, Anna Karenina.
Contributing both sets and costumes, designer Tom Pye deftly balances striking spectacle with elegant understatement. A hallmark of the new work is the clear collaboration of creative artists. The visual splendour of Pye’s work is inseparable from David Finn’s lighting design and Finn Ross’ projection design, with each of these artists sympathetically and elegantly complementing Demutsky’s music and Possokhov’s compelling storytelling. Best of all, the resulting design is on a grand scale, filling the mighty State Theatre stage with impactful flair.
Far removed from a fairytale Russian ballet, the initial cinematic style dissolves to more closely resemble an opera. One could almost imagine the same sets and costumes used for an opera season of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.
Pye’s elegant costumes are a picture of understated elegance, with a clear highlight being the striking black ball wear, under which the women had vivid jewel-toned skirts seen in tantalising glimpses of colour as part of the choreography.
Adding an additional form of artistry beyond dancers and musicians, Demutsky and librettist Valerly Pecheykin give voice to Anna’s inner longings with the presence of a mezzo-soprano singer, a device all the more effective for its sparing use. On opening night, Jacqueline Dark (who alternates with Dimity Shepherd) maintains a subtle side-stage presence, delivering finely detailed vocals that are sumptuous yet never distracting. In act two, Dark ventures onto the stage, her atmospheric vocals intensifying in deftly calibrated gradations.
Maestro Nicolette Fraillon brings out abundant colour in the unfamiliar score, leading Orchestra Victoria in a performance that would, in its own right, not be out of place on the concert hall stage.
Much as Leo Tolstoy’s story is widely known, and much as Possokhov’s narrative is crisply delineated, a close read of the synopsis before viewing Anna Karenina enhances enjoyment of the ballet. Appreciating the key relationships of the characters leaves one free to marvel at Possokhov’s physicalisation of emotions and emotional connections, such as the impassioned competition of Anna’s husband, Karenin, and lover, Vronsky, as seen in Anna’s morphine-clouded sickbed.
As well as crafting any number of distinctive pas de deux, pas de trois and solos, Possokhov shows unique creativity with the corps, going beyond their actual dance steps to create wondrous visual compositions based upon the positioning of each dancer in relation to the others. In lesser hands, scenes in salons and ballrooms, or parliaments and racecourses, might have been quite standard, but are visually stunning thanks to Possokhov’s sharp eye for the big picture.
Possokhov’s vision for the corps comes to vibrant life with the excellent work of the large ensemble of dancers, More than being well drilled, the dancers appear to be at one with the setting and story, enriching the immersive nature of the ballet. The corps even have two all-too-rare opportunities to use their voices, which they confidently do to great effect.
The opening night cast featured four established Principal Artists, as well as another dancer who was about to join their ranks.
As Anna, Robyn Hendricks brings a mature, soulful presence to the ill-fated young woman who is drawn inexorably by longings. A highlight is Anna’s drug-addled solo, in which Hendricks projects heartbreaking vulnerability at Anna’s futile desperation.
Benedicte Bemet provides an ideal counterpoint, portraying Kitty’s fresh, optimistic outlook with characteristic flair. Bemet is perfectly partnered by Brett Chynoweth, each of the pair reliably giving characterful performances that are technically brilliant and a joy to watch. Kitty and Konstantin provide some necessarily joyful hope at the ballet’s end, although the featherlight pastoral ending seems to somewhat dilute the drama’s tragic climax.
Playing against his Prince Charming type, Adam Bull embraces the dark intensity of Alexei Karenin, seizing the opportunity to play a serious dramatic role. A dancer of significant emotional intelligence, Bull brings out the full facets of Karenin, from jealous lover to bitter husband to loving father to embattled politician.
The arrival of Vronsky turns both Anna and Kitty’s heads, a plot point that is easily realised by the hulking presence of Callum Linnane. Linnane exudes sexuality and passion, sharing abundant chemistry with each of his partners. Linnane and Hendricks create sparks when Anna and Vronsky eventually make love, and Linnane has a dynamite pas de deux as Vronsky wrestles Karenin in Anna’s fevered dream.
Neatly contrasting the heavier characters, Nicola Curry revels in portraying popular society maven, Betsy Tverskay.
A production to be cherished, Anna Karenina may not be the best choice for younger audience members but adult lovers of dance will thrill to the sheer quality and creativity on show.
Anna Karenina plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 9 March 2022. For tickets, click here.
In the absence of paper cast sheets, read the Melbourne cast sheets and Sydney cast sheets for Anna Karenina online.
The Australian Ballet souvenir program has had a very stylish makeover, now seen in a more compact booklet with over 100 pages of lovingly curated content.
Cast your vote in the 2022 Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards.
As a curtain warmer, artistic director David Hallberg greeted the opening night audience on stage, declaring the company “third time lucky” in presenting the long-awaited Anna Karenina. Hallberg’s introduction of himself and of the work drew hearty applause, and it is pleasing to note, as with his introduction at last December’s Celebration Gala, that he acknowledged the musicians as warmly and sincerely as the dancers.
Following the curtain calls, Hallberg returned to the stage, this time to perform the very happy duty of announcing the promotion to Principal Artist of Linnane, a move greeted by rousing cheers of approval and a full standing ovation.
Man in Chair’s many reviews of Linnane stretch back to his 2014 performance in The Australian Ballet School’s 50th Anniversary Gala.
Photos: #1 – #7 Jeff Busby; #8,9 Lucas Dawson
As an opening night attendee of AB for many years, I was not enthralled with Anna Karenina as I had hoped. No beautiful wattle curtain, strident unfamiliar music including the mezzo? We all know full well it is third time lucky. A bit odd! The dancing steam through the long overture was beautiful but not ballet. So many set changes, so many film projections, so many non ballet steps: I decided that Mr Karenin worked for “the Dept Of Silly Walks. With such choreography I could not take his parliament scene seriously. This story put me in mind of Manon going from the finery and brilliance of society life to tragic despair. However: congratulations to Calum Linnane: we so much enjoyed his complete surprise! I concur fully with the writer’s assessment of Nicolette Fraillon: she is such a tiny powerhouse: the music is always so wonderful. And I must comment on Benedicte Bemet: she is a breath of fresh air, mesmerizing: since she burst onto our stage as Clara I have not been able to take my eyes away from her! Stunningly beautiful! More classical ballet and music please!
Thanks for sharing these comments. Margot.
The style was notably different to the majority of past works. It will be interesting to see if the new work is embraced by audiences and enters the ongoing repertory of the company.
We are blessed to have the company back on stage, especially with such fine artists as Bemet and Linnane, as you mention, as well as Bull, Hendricks, Chynoweth and many more. I look forward to seeing what the upcoming year of new works will bring.