Thursday, November 15, 2018

Runaway Train: John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina

Svetlana Lunkina as Anna Karenina in John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina. (Photo: Kiran West)

John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina, at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until Sunday, is a classic novel turned into a train wreck of a ballet. Running over three hours in length and said to have cost $1.9 million to produce, this meandering two-act narrative dance – the first co-production of the National Ballet of Canada, the Bolshoi and the Hamburg Ballet – is not just overlong but overdone. Superfluous scenes, anachronistic details, misplaced humour, histrionics and a surfeit of clichés not only try the patience; they threaten to kill empathy for one of the greatest female characters created in the whole of art.

Saving this Anna Karenina from being something of its own tragedy are brilliant moments of soul-searching choreography brimming with psychological insight and visual drama. The first-night performance suggested depths that the ballet’s general fussiness tended to obscure. Truly incandescent in the title role, principal dancer Svetlana Lunkina gives a tour-de-force performance that is emotionally affecting and intelligent. She is blessed with a hyper-flexible body and an exquisite technique but she does not grandstand. Her portrayal of Anna is subtle, sensitive, and deeply sorrowful. Aided by the dramatically expressive Piotr Stanczyk as her husband Karenin and Harrison James, who brings a jolt of sexual power to the role of her lover, Vronsky, Lunkina commands Anna with an air of supreme assurance, even as she plumbs her vulnerability.

Other standouts include Kota Sato as the Mushik, a fatally wounded railway worker whose weird presence in the ballet foretells Anna’s doom; Tanya Howard as Countess Lidia Ivanova, Karenin’s elegant assistant; and Spencer Hack as Seryozha, Anna’s young son. Also noteworthy are the richly evocative Félix Paquet as Levin and the shimmering Antonella Martinelli as Kitty. Overall, the company dances Anna Karenina with a high degree of commitment. They are enthralling to watch even as the ballet drags on.

Neumeier, an American who has been artistic director of Germany’s Hamburg Ballet since 1973, is himself a great talent, a choreographer known for creating compelling stories from the stuff of classical ballet. His tried-and-true track record includes dance versions of The Seagull (based on Anton Chekov), A Streetcar Named Desire (based on Tennessee Williams) and his own superb Nijinsky (based loosely on the mad dancer’s own writings), all of which have entered the National Ballet’s repertoire since Karen Kain, an unabashed Neumeier fan, took over the reins in 2005.

Great things were similarly expected of this new work, whose world premiere took place last year in Hamburg in July and whose Moscow debut was earlier this year, in March. But something went wrong on the way to scaling an epic piece of literature for the stage. Neumeier needed an outside eye on this one. He needed editing. Because while he has chopped away at his Tolstoy, using only material he deemed necessary in creating an Anna for our times, he did not cut enough to give his ballet a strong central focus.

Harrison James and Svetlana Lunkina in Anna Karenina. (Photo: Kiran West)

His insistence on creating a three-way dance consisting not only of the main Anna-Karenin-Vronsky love-triangle story, but also two separate but interconnected subplots involving Levin and Kitty on one hand, Dolly and Stiva on the other, overcomplicates the narrative in ways that are confusing at best, tedious at worst. While often criticized for a lack of subtlety, Neumeier’s contemporary, the St. Petersburg choreographer Boris Eifman, fared better when, in 2005, he mounted a ballet version of Anna Karenina that did away with everything but the main plot. This you could easily follow and understand. Having just one entry point into the narrative also allowed the Eifman ballet to produce a genuine emotional impact. Neumeier, by contrast, is intellectual to a fault. He adds scenes upon scenes to “explain” what is going on instead of allowing some of his masterpiece strokes of choreography, incisively revealing a character’s mental state, to speak for themselves.

Billing his latest work as “inspired by” Leo Tolstoy’s original 1878 novel, Neuimeier has granted himself quite a bit of artistic freedom in translating the book to the stage. Instead of 19th-century Russia, the setting is ostensibly the present day, with cellphones, costumes by contemporary fashion brand AKRIS and a mash-up soundtrack combining lush Tchaikovsky, atonal Schnittke and Cat Stevens in the hippie years before he found Allah and became known as Yusuf Islam. And there are other inconsistencies. Anna uses a roller suitcase on the train platform while other characters carry old-fashioned cases that look like they travelled in from the 1930s. In some scenes, farmers drive a modern tractor but notably in another they carry curved blade scythes that seem to belong to the pre-industrial era. Anna smokes and she also gobbles pills, making her look not unlike Susan Anspach in Dušan Makavejev’s 1981 film, Montenegro, another work about a suppressed woman who finds herself through sex and defiance of her middle-class society.

Angular and sleek, fluid and frenetic, expressionistic and extravagantly theatrical, the dance language is similarly post-modern in look and feeling. Neumeier uses it to update the characters in his ballet narrative. Karenin is no longer an elderly statesman as Tolstoy conceived him but a slick politician with a 24/7 security detail and paparazzi tracking his every highly stylized move. Vronsky, Anna’s lover, is not a count but a sports team captain, an ace at lacrosse who is also something of a ladies' man. Levin, a philosophical landowner whom Tolstoy is said to have modelled on himself, is here a back-to-the-earth bumpkin in rubber boots played for laughs. Kitty, whom he loves, is a spoiled debutante who suffers a mental breakdown and then is miraculously cured. Dolly, who in the novel is kindness incarnate and the only character who truly shows Anna any sympathy, is here portrayed as a one-note victim of her husband’s infidelity. She’s more or less a screamer, weighed down by a brood of children. First soloist Chelsy Meiss, dancing second cast, tones down Dolly’s anger, making her sympathetic especially in the scene where her offspring convince her not to run away from home. This is a genuinely absorbing scene, and Meiss navigates it skillfully, allowing her character to skirt the edge of heartbreak without succumbing to melodrama. Dolly is a foil to Anna. Her decision to stay with her family in spite of all the difficulties contrasts sharply with Anna’s choice to abandon convention and follow her bliss.

Like the novel inspiring its creation, Neumeier’s ambitious but flawed ballet is a chiaroscuro study of the contemporary female condition, torn between familial duty and respectability on one hand and erotic desire of the sort kindled by an adulterous affair that yields an illegitimate birth on the other. Spoiler alert: all does not end well. The moral of the story? Women cannot have it all. Anna is the feminist dilemma writ large, which makes the role intriguing despite Neumeier’s failure to resolve one of the big ethical questions of our time. A great deal of the ballet is steeped in machismo, and just as in the 19th century Anna blames herself for not being able to simultaneously satisfy the demands of marriage, children, extramarital sex and her husband’s (!) career. In this ballet named for a woman and exploring a woman’s conflicted state of being, the patriarchy still rules. An opportunity lost.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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