Anna Karenina

Date: October 18, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Boris Eifman

Eifman Ballet

No one who knows anything about storytelling could seriously believe that choreographer Boris Eifman, in a two-hour ballet production, could manage to retell Tolstoy’s magnum opus about post-Crimean War Russian aristocracy in its full-fledged entirety. In this production, Eifman could not, but that was not his agenda. In his production notes, Eifman explains that he has cut out the various counterplot lines in the novel, and has made the Anna-Karenin-Vronsky love triangle the central focus of his ballet. By not directly commenting on hypocrisy, class struggle and social progress – all of which are among Tolstoy’s many central themes in Karenina – Eifman is set free to expound upon the inner desires and turbulences of the three characters.

The effect was mixed. Nina Zmievets, Oleg Markov and Oleg Gabyshev, the incredibly talented trio of dancers forming that love triangle, navigated Eifman’s hauntingly difficult steps with fluidic precision and boundless stamina. Absorbed in their own world, one could sense immediately that their energy was indeed feeding off each other. Zmievets particularly stood out with her carefully placed, fluidic lines, as well as her voracious athleticism. Markov’s despair in solitude, just as Zmievets’ Anna was about to leave his Karenin, was grievously captivating. But where Eifman offered very little in terms of dramaturgy, these characters did not have a substantial plot line to move along – the characters were left without real development other than fleeting displays of sensations. These characters might as well have been Juliet-Tybalt-Romeo. In passages where Anna and her lover expressed their love for each other, Zmievets and Gabyshev would often spin and gyrate in acrobatically challenging movements, as if their love was merely physical and delusional rather than lyrical and cerebral. In properly bloated passages, such as the masked ball scene or Anna’s death scene where the corps de ballet mimicked the incoming train, the dancers’ movements were even more clamorous, if not outright violent. Just when one thought Anna’s husband was about to confront his wife regarding her presumed infidelity, he feigned justice by plowing deep into Anna’s body, raping her. As the choreographic texture tilted towards the viscose, the dramatic balance moved towards, if unwittingly, towards bombastic physicality and little else. Were their desires and internal torments merely physical? Did Tolstoy have something else in mind?

Fast spins, high jumps, and long lifts are, when perfectly executed, all hallmarks of a gifted company, but they say very little about artistry and interpretation of an original work. Interpretative ballet is something more akin to enjoying a warm pot of tea in small, savory sips over a long afternoon than, as this Karenina turns out to be, downing successive shots of whole cream. The buffet of Tchaikovsky’s music was glorious, but they failed to link up to a coherent whole. For those who look for more than a perfect display of Russian acrobatics, the deficiencies here inevitably leave them yearning for more.

Eifman Ballet in Hong Kong.

Eifman Ballet in Hong Kong.

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