Review: Anna Karenina

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This year’s opening performance of the LCSD’s biennial World Cultures Festival was a ballet adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina by the Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg. The premiere performance on October 18 was a triumph, with loud ovations at curtain calls. Two performances had originally been scheduled, but due to popular demand, a Saturday matinee was later added – it also quickly sold out.

Though not as well known as the Mariinsky Ballet of St Petersburg, the Eifman Ballet is a smaller but unique company which exclusively puts on dramatic ballets choreographed by Boris Eifman, the artistic director of the troupe since 1977. (The Mariinsky Ballet also does a version of Anna Karenina, by leading classical choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.) Interestingly, Eifman favours a particular type of dancer; it seems that his male principals have to be a minimum of 1.8 metres in height. In the past decade, the company has toured Hong Kong twice.

Eifman’s two-act 2005 version, lasting for two hours, has pared down Tolstoy’s novel to its core emotional essence – the love triangle between Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky – and has dispensed with all the subplots, including the love story between Kitty and the landowner Konstantin. The ballet, set to a mélange of music by Tchaikovsky, is basically a series of solos, duets and trios to develop the key drama of this love triangle.

The result is an intensely emotional tour de force with plenty of dark and gloomy moments, which tends to be a bit heavy at times. The choreography is, in general, limited in vocabulary and can feel a bit dated. The duets sometimes recall gymnastics and ice skating in their style of choreography, especially in the one-handed overhead lifts. However, there’s no denying the raw emotional power generated by the big arc of the steps. The final bedroom duet for Anna and Vronsky is particularly ecstatic.

The choreography for the corps de ballet has more variety and originality. In an early scene in Act 1, the male corps depicts horses racing, though it isn’t too convincing. The choreography in Act 2, by contrast, is more theatrical – the ensemble dancing during the masked ball scene is full of verve and excitement, and the tragic ending with Anna’s suicide is particularly memorable in that it’s imaginatively staged, with the corps de ballet enacting the train that kills her. Eifman definitely has an unerring eye for theatricality, in the style of European master choreographer Maurice Béjart.

Eifman is fortunate to have such a fine troupe of dancers to illuminate his unique choreographic style. The three leading roles were all excellent: long-limbed Nina Zmievets was intense and nuanced in the title role, while Oleg Markov (as Karenin) was a superb actor as well as a strong partner. Markov captured his character’s coldness and cruelty very well, as well as the sadness caused by his wife’s affair. And Oleg Gabyshev was dashing as Vronsky. It’s a pity that the Eifman Ballet couldn’t have stayed longer to dance a second programme, but hopefully it can return to Hong Kong soon. Kevin Ng

 

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