3.5 out of 4 stars
The Joffrey Ballet presents the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s historic re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina. This performance marks the Company’s first commissioned full-length score, composed by Russian multi award-winning composer Ilya Demutsky. The Chicago Philharmonic, led by Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck, provides live accompaniment of Demutsky’s score.
Anna Karenina tells the tale of a married aristocrat and her ongoing love triangle in Imperial Russia. A story that explores the complex politics of family, religion, morality and gender. No fear for anyone in the audience in unfamiliar with the tragic tale there is a very helpful synopsis broken down scene by scene (movement by movement) within the program.
Upon hearing the first notes of the orchestra, the piece feels beautifully antique with delicate notes that transport you to Imperial Russia. Additionally, operatic vocals sung in Russian by the incredibly talented Lindsay Metzger were incorporated powerfully elevating the pieces expressionism. I was particularly struck by the swelling cadences, similar to those that you often hear in timeless classical music and moreover in epic film scores. These key moments blend together the artistic worlds of ballet, theater, film and the like, which are further developed through scrim set design and visual projections. This comes to no surprise as Demutsky has composed operas, symphonic poems and film scores, including several collaborations on full-length ballets with Possokhov. His music for their A Hero of Our Time (2015) won him the most coveted Russian theatre award, the Golden Mask, for the Best Composer in Musical Theatre. More recently, his work on the much-anticipated Nureyev (2017) earned a Prix Benois award for Best Composer Work in Ballet.
“There are many interpretations of Anna Karenina in music, theatre, and cinematography, so it's been an honor and a great challenge for me to create another one—a special one,” said Demutsky. “Tolstoy's novel is about a storm of feelings and passions, tragedy and family happiness on the back of a massive canvas of morals and manners of Moscow and Saint Petersburg noble society. I've composed an extremely emotional and, at the same time, very intimate score—with ear-catching leitmotifs, harsh harmonies, and bursts of climaxes. It is my fourth ballet composed for Yuri Possokhov and every time it is a truly astonishing experience to see how my music materializes in Yuri's stunning choreography.”
Part of the creative team includes Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award®-nominated set and costume designer Tom Pye (Gloriana, Fiddler on the Roof) and renowned lighting designer David Finn (Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence). Pye’s set design with use of scrims and projections alongside Finn’s masterful lighting design create a visual tableau immersing you into the space. The first scene, a black and white sketched train station forces the audience’s perspective between the foreground and dancers. The illustrated set at the foreground while the dancers navigate the world behind it, it forces your eye to look past the see through wall placed before you. Your brain and eyes play against each other as you are observing, but also invited slowly to delve within the story.
The color palette for this piece highlights the societal underbelly masked with grandeur. In the ballroom scene, costuming is dark and foreboding with a dark tulle overlay. Subdued colors of joy eluded to something forbidden as Alberto Velazquez as Alexy Vronsky, the solider, and Victoria Jaiani as Anna Karenina share a passionate duet. Velazquez and Jaiani paired together create this emotive need in their characters’ lives. Their bent limbs over each other plays on the tortured love through Possokhov’s choreography upon first meeting then changes over the course of the performance. A stark contrast between tortured lustful guilt and yearning truthful fluidity is how I would describe this piece’s choreography.
A later scene in an artist’s studio wonderfully creates such a different aura from the passion and forbidden love of before. Rather long extensions and arcs are combined as the love stories between two couples are paralleled. Their silhouettes against a clean white light and soft piano shows a romantic desperation different from the reactionary body movements earlier in the work. The lighting sequence in this scene stood out with the oranges and blues blending together against the half staged white light to create morning, alongside the simple flowing costuming.
The dramatic hypocrisy in the aristocracy is further contrasted with the white outward façade of elitism while behind closed doors passions flare romantically, as well as violently. Fabrice Calmels portrays Anna Karenina’s husband Alexey and wonderfully conveys through his performance the power men had in marriages during this time. Demanding presence in the scene with parliament, while conveying the same tall strength within his home over his wife. Additionally, Calmels is able to switch into a dreamt up version of his character being amiable through his performance paired with paired with Jainai and Velazquez. A seamless harmonious delusion in Karenina’s dream between her, her husband and her lover. The requiem complimenting each dancer as they push and pull between each other’s movements. This ability to switch evocation is truly a talent in making the audience believe it as much as the delusional character.
The final sequence returns to the innocents. Each individually scorned by unrequited love, but found happiness. Kitty (Anais Bueno) and Konstantin (Yoshihisa Arai) share a beautiful sequence amid the peasants during harvest time, but slowly shifts to a closing performance by Arai. Against billowing curtains and pastels, Arai powerfully moves with purpose and visually it is almost reminiscent of old musicals. This sequence serving as a juxtaposition against the billowing violent train tunnel winds. The calm after the storm. The luxurious aristocracy hits a dead end while the innocents reign in truth. Visually incorporated are the final glances, a farewell montage and the audience left with reflection and emotion. The world premiere of Anna Karenina will be presented first in Chicago with The Joffrey Ballet, February 13-24, 2019, and then in Melbourne with The Australian Ballet in May 2020.
The Joffrey Ballet performs Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina in ten performances only February 13 -24, 2019. Tickets are available for purchase at The Joffrey Ballet’s official Box Office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street, as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University Box Office, by telephone at 312.386.8905, or online at joffrey.org.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!