Ballet and dance

Anna Karenina

Date: February 23, 2018
Company: Ballett Zürich
Choreography: Christian Spuck
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Anna Karenina: Viktorina Kapitonova
Count Vronsky: William Moore
Alexei Karenin: Filipe Portugal
Princess Betsy: Giulia Tonelli
Betsy’s companion: Wei Chen
Levin: Tars Vandebeek
Kitty: Michelle Willems
Stiva: Daniel Mulligan
Dolly: Galina Mihaylova
Vronsky’s mother: Anna Khamzina
Countess Ivanovna: Mélanie Borel
Seryozha: Isaac Wong Hei

Christophe Barwinek, piano
Lin Shi, mezzo-soprano

Additional music on soundtrack

Modern choreographers, when interpreting Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, often choose to focus on the love triangle between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, because the emotions boiling among the trio overflow with plenty of material for one full evening of entertainment. Rarely would a choreographer venture deep into societal and philosophical aspects of Tolstoy’s work, simply because these concepts cannot easily be interpreted by dance motions. Take, for example, Alexei Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky. Most of the stage actions center around Anna, and her relationships with Vronsky and Karenin. When Ratmansky veers off, he tends to focus on what affects Anna personally. The corps is mostly used as sugary glazing to move the story along or, in the case of the elaborate horse racing scene, as a standalone, show-off-your-corps sort of spectacle. Secondary characters are given very little stage time, and they, when finally onstage, rarely partake in any choreography of significance.

Christian Spuck, in a Ballett Zürich production that opened the 46th Hong Kong Arts Festival, attempts something more ambitious. His production gives greater prominence, as well as more feature choreography, to three other pairs of characters: Stiva and Dolly, Princess Betsy and her consort, and Levin and Kitty. (By contrast, Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky hardly features these characters with much if any intensity.) As the ballet opens, readers of the novel would instantly recognize Stiva the adulterer and Dolly his despondent wife. The two characters would for the rest of the ballet hop on and off stage, with short bursts of intricate choreography to expose their relationships – abrasive enough to be emotional, sometimes even militant, but never enough to cause, unlike Anna’s, irreversible road to infamy. By repeatedly bringing the pair back, even as Anna’s life begins to crumble, Spuck perhaps wants to juxtapose the difference between these two adulterers: society back then would overlook adulterers like Stiva who nevertheless cause no irreparable damage to family and society (through the immense will of Dolly, to be fair), but would come down harshly on people like Anna whose extra-curriculars are certifiably her family’s – and herself’s – wrecking ball. Daniel Mulligan’s deliberately arrogant ballet stances and ignoble steps elaborated the outward and animal instincts of Stiva to great dramatic effect. The gutted facial expressions of Galina Mihaylova’s Dolly, most of which were directed towards the audience as she was left alone re-calibrating what remained of her dignity, made us wonder whether she would be better off choosing a Schopenhauerian escape from society once and for all?

Tolstoy makes Princess Betsy the anti-Orthodox, anti-Buddhist archetype, the sort of socialite with lax morals who would neither admit being nor associate with one: she of course snubs Anna as soon as society starts abandoning the latter. Curiously, she and her consort, aptly danced by Giulia Tonelli and Wei Chen, are given the most classical, conventional steps and sequences; perhaps supported pirouettes and classic arabesque lines cultivate the impression that Spuck is intentionally trying to contrast this pair, or at least deviate artistically, from the rest. Tonelli was a graceful dancer, with all the properly nefarious facial expressions. Chen gave Tonelli rock-solid anchorage as she pirouetted next to him, and elevated his dramatic significance in the act by naturally weaving himself into the action through eye contact and timely gestures.

Some of the most beautiful choreography in the entire production is given to Levin and Kitty, especially when they reconcile in the fields and during their wedding. The stage in these scenes is minimally decorated, with sparsely decorated tree trunks nonetheless brightly lit with optimistic color tones. In perhaps the evening’s coup de théâtre, audience gasped with excitement as the pair, portrayed by Tars Vandebeek and Michelle Willems, rode on stage on a bicycle, oblivious to the world and material life. This is not Lise and Colas riding on a bicycle and happily waving at an audience; this moment belongs to Levin and Kitty, and themselves alone. If Spunk intends on channeling a Schopenhauerian aesthetic ideal, or at least magnifying Tolstoy’s agrarian spirit, this is the moment.

Now we are left with the choreography between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin. Nothing was particularly awe-inspiring, and the only jaw dropping moment came during the love-making scene between Anna and Vronsky, where the undressing of Anna was more vulgar than was sensual, outdone only by the two frolicking and rolling on stage with such brutalist ugliness that, if deliberate, could only be explained as a brilliantly concocted contrast to the aesthetic ideal of Levin and Kitty. Again, Spuck could be forgiven for channeling Tolstoy here. Viktorina Kapitonova, as Anna, was a great dancer with confident steps and beautiful lines. Her arm placements, stunning as they were, felt luxurious yet natural. Her portrayal, save for those forgettable love-making moments, was entirely believable. Her dissolution scene, filled with intense pain, made a lasting impression. William Moore, as Vronsky, and Filipe Portugal, as Karenin, were two dependable lifters and committed stage actors, but Spunk has cast aside the characters by giving them very little bravura moments to shine.

Musically, some of the most poignant moments are handed to Levin – Rachmaninov’s depressing Op. 26-12 Noch’ pechal’na (The Night is Sad) was rendered when he was rejected by Kitty. Vandebeek’s possibly unintended fall to the ground towards the end of Levin’s solo weighed even more somberly on that destitute moment. Levin’s music upon his first return to the farms was the contemplative Rachmaninov’s Ne poy, krasavitsa! (No not sing, my beauty), Op. 4-4. Both songs were beautifully sung by Li Shi, to the fine and dreamy piano accompaniment of Christophe Barwinek. These two watershed musical moments are where the ballet production is also weakest – the drama seems completely driven by music and voice, and not necessarily by Spuck’s choreography or stage direction. By giving more prominence to other characters, the ballet company has more slots to show off its talent, but at the expense of finding time to fully develop each character to its full dramatic capacity. The impossible task of trying to explain Tolsoy’s masterpiece with totality remains unfulfilled, but Spuck can certainly not be faulted for the lack of trying.

Ballett Zürich’s Anna Karenina. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

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