Exquisite Dysfunction at the Ballet
As I moved through the protestors to enter the Civic Opera house for the opening night of the Joffrey Ballet’s epic Anna Karenina I was confronted with all kinds of unexpected ideas: Tolstoy was an avowed pacifist who most likely would have been horrified with current events– but should the very fact of his nationality should now cancel out attending a story that in any other time is a searing look at the wrecks we make of our lives through lousy choices? Does witnessing this work not reflect the damage of awful choices? And do we avoid all Russian culture from the entire history?
Is an American dance company doing a ballet by the former artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet by way of the Danish Ballet an appropriation or a permutation of Russian culture?
And choosing Tolstoy as a beacon of protest? Interestingly, recently a Tolstoy novel was brandished to protest the war in Moscow and that got the protester thrown in jail because invoking Tolstoy’s words was “a threat to the Russian state”.
And then, ballet dancers are international creatures: born in one country but nomads pursuing all too short careers, their only true allegiance to their art form. Art should bring us together and world peace remains the only way to make sure beauty survives. Can partaking of this art help us all to stand in solidarity with Ukraine and the value of the culture that the bombs are decimating?
I appreciate all who stood at the entrance in protest and made me think these uncomfortable and inconclusive thoughts.
As I contemplated this culture clash, into the theater I went to witness a sublime and sorrowful ballet rendered by true masters of the form. Victoria Jaiani in the title role is beautiful and tragic. A dancer at the height of her powers, she portrays a hauntingly lovely high society woman in a difficult marriage who is drawn into an affair with a dashing officer, destroying her family and her own life, which she ends. Her tall stern husband, danced by the towering Dylan Gutierrez represents ration and social conformity. In personality and movement he is unbending. Vronsky, danced by Alberto Velazquez is virile and impetuous, a man of passion and risk taking. Despite the obvious chemistry of Anna and Vronsky, the relationship is doomed from the start.
This rendering of the story contrasts the impossible couple with Princess Kitty, danced with vibrant youth by Anais Bueno, and her eventual husband Konstatin Levin, danced by Yoshihisa Arai, who is enamored of the country life. While many adaptations end with Anna’s demise, this libretto concludes with a final scene that is a paean to agrarian life, as an antidote to the dark ways of the city and society.
The ballet vocabulary utilized by choreographer Yuri Possokhov is a kind of post classical– it pushes the technique to the edges of limits with women spun and tossed and carried in impossible angles, and hovered upside down and extended while looking natural. Men jab and leap and fly and stop dead. Possokhov utilizes extension and tension to portray emotion as much as dramatic acting in the dancers. His ensemble sections are devilishly quick. This is athleticism in service to the story, and it is wondrous to behold.
Conductor Scott Speck leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra in Ilya Demutsky’s passionate score. The music is outstanding, deserving a listen on its own. Another remarkable aspect of this production is Tom Pye’s set design which evokes the ornately decorated styles of pre-Revolutionary Russia using projections by Finn Ross, then evolving, where the set hints at the Brutalist architecture to come. Pye also designed the gorgeous and meaningful costumes, including black tulle gowns with flashes of color underneath which intimated secrets and sins.
The Joffrey Ballet’s Anna Karenina is a short run, on view at the Civic Opera House 20 N. Wacker Drive in Chicago until February 26, 2023 so run, don’t walk, to get tickets at www.joffrey.org