Dancing the agony of Anna Karenina

Any North American today attempting to read Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina, published in 1878, would need help understanding the class distinctions, the political milieu and most of all the family relations among Anna and her brother, her in-laws and her husband Alexei Karenin, in thrall to his political career.

No surprise then, that John Neumeier’s reimagining of the book as a contemporary ballet, set in the present day, is fraught with difficulties for the audience.

The choreography and the cast who performed Anna Karenina on opening night in Toronto can’t be faulted. Neumeier, long-time artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, has created a dramatic spectacle with very emotive dancing, beautifully executed by the National Ballet of Canada.

Svetlana Lunkina takes on the challenge of the title role with style and precision. (For other performances Heather Ogden and Sonia Rodriguez will perform Anna Arkadyevna Karenina.) Her situation as the unhappy, neglected wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is clear from the opening scene in which Piotr Stanczyk is seen as Karenin at a political rally in St. Petersburg. In navy suit before waving signs and supporters, Alexei is oblivious of Anna while at the podium and remains so in the spacious living-room of their home.

Stanczyk masters the choreography, set to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, but this angular, violent, contemporary movement sits at odds with the 19th-century music and the dance steps are arresting or jarring, depending on how you read them. When Stanczyk’s pas de deux with Lunkina involves a lift that has her upside down, head to the floor, the idea of a marriage in trouble is pretty clear. Tanya Howard has an ambiguous role as Karenin’s assistant Countess Lidia Ivanovna. Howard’s erect stature makes her a steady beacon in a storm of events.

Anna’s sole consolation in the marriage is her son Seryozha, performed by Spencer Hack in a role that has him in short pants carrying a teddy bear or playing with toy trains, looking like an adolescent case of arrested development.

The Karenins are not the only couple in a failing marriage. Anna gets summoned to Moscow by her brother Stiva (Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky), performed with aplomb by Naoya Ebe. Stiva wants Anna to help him recover his wife Dolly (the incomparable Xiao Nan Yu), who has caught Stiva cheating on her with the governess Miss Hull (Kathryn Hosier).

This is where things get tricky for an audience, because the dance is occurring in real time while depicting events that may be in the past, in the imagination or in the telling. So we see Anna on stage while in a chamber created by one of scenic designer Heinrich Tröger’s shifting rectangular boxes with doors in them, Dolly catches Stiva in bed with Miss Hull.

Neuemeier’s interpretation of Levin, the aristocratic landowner in pursuit of Dolly’s sister Kitty (a spritely, charming Antonella Martinelli) is puzzling. Félix Paquet dominates the stage as Levin, a strong-like-bull farmer in a red plaid flannel shirt and shiny vinyl skin-tight pants. If the idea is to show how off-the-mark lunky Levin is in imagining Kitty as his bride, then we can understand.

For Kitty, back in Moscow now–the trips are signalled with a toy train chugging across the front of the stage–is betrothed to Count Vronsky. And it’s at their engagement party that Anna and Vronsky discover their mutual, fatal attraction. It must be noted that a series of flowing, boldly coloured dresses created by AKRIS designer Albert Kriemler have a lot to do with Anna’s characterization.

Harrison James, always dressed in white or ivory, makes a distinguished Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a colonel in the Russian army. His and Anna’s passion, in secret and in exile, is played out in some pas de deux of an extravagant nature. Anna’s passion always seems more intense, which is as it should be for her demise to make sense. Anna throws herself under a train, a scene depicted quite abstractly before Lunkina disappears through a trap door in the stage that becomes the grave where Vronksy mourns her.

Along the way some briefer scenes, such as Kitty enjoying a day in the country with Levin, are set to the music of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, catchy tunes such as “Morning Has Broken”. Elsewhere, when inner lives are in turmoil or a lacrosse game is underway, the choreography is accompanied by the 20th-century, often dissonant, compositions of Alfred Schnittke.

It would take repeat viewings to get a grasp of Neumeier’s three-hour-long Anna Karenina, which premiered in Hamburg, Germany in 2017, and is a cooperative production with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi Ballet. And if that means more tickets sold, then the show has to be counted a success.

Anna Karenina

Choreography, sets, costumes and lighting concept by John Neumeier

Inspired by the Leo Tolstoy novel

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto until November 18

Photo of Piotr Stanczyk and Svetlana Lunkina in Anna Karenina by Kiran West