Photo: Monika Rittershaus
The 46th Hong Kong Arts Festival opened with Ballett Zürich’s production of Anna Karenina. It is interesting to have two different ballet adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel introduced on Hong Kong stages within only five years. Boris Eifman’s ‘psychological ballet’, shown in Hong Kong in 2013, deconstructs the novel to explore the characters’ psychological states. While Christian Spuck’s production for Ballett Zürich returns to a narrative format, attempting to show the three relationships in the novel: Anna Karenina, Alexei Karenin, and Alexei Vronsky, the infamous love triangle; Stiva Oblonskys, the brother of Anna, and his wife Dolly; and, Konstanitin Levin and Kitty, sister of Dolly.
Spuck makes a respectable attempt to use contemporary language to retell this classic that has generated numerous adaptations in different performing arts forms, but even though his Anna Karenina has really spectacular set pieces, it suffers from a libretto with an imbalanced structure.
Personally, I think Spuck’s endeavor to retell Anna Karenina by showing the bigger picture of the world that the novel reveals, is the right and best direction to make such a ‘clichéd’ story retain it cultural relevance. Tolstoy’s condemnation of classism and capitalism is vividly shown through these three relationships, as is the inference that Levin and Kitty’s relationship is the best among all: going back to where you belong, working the ground, farming wholeheartedly, and by embracing its serenity, love will endure.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus
To really show the three relationships and talk about society, however, the opening of the ballet needs to clearly establish the main characters as well as the obstacles that lead these characters to act as they do. But Spuck introduces most of the main characters with half-baked scenes that don’t give the audience enough information to really understand much about them or their situations. The scene at the train station, when Anna first catches Vronsky’s eye is too brief for the characters to establish, or the audience to recognize this as a ‘love at first sight’ moment.
I keep asking myself, ‘why should the audience root for Anna to rebel?’ It’s a no brainer that the answer lies in her relationship with her husband Karenin. One could emphasize Karenin’s overbearing male dominance of Anna to get the audience to feel what it’s like to be in her shoes, so that they will want Anna to leave Karenin for Vronsky, for example. Or, highlight Anna’s lonely life with Karenin so that when she finds true love with someone young and fresh is will be something the audience will empathize with.
Either of these, however, needs to be established before Anna sees Vronsky at the station, or before their first dance at the ball so that the piece can entice the audience to identify with the couple. Karenin, the perfect villain, is really a very good device to help establish this, as is his use of Anna’s son as collateral against her ideal future with Vronsky. These characters should be introduced at the beginning in order to lead the audience into appreciating Anna’s predicament.
Unfortunately, this production has a weak beginning, so that what comes after is a weak story: Stiva and Anna’s relationship is never introduced clearly, Stiva and Dolly’s relationship isn’t highlighted at all, Karenin is not introduced until the ball, which is too late in the ballet to show his characterization as in the novel, and Levin and Kitty’s fall out at the ball is also too brief for the audience to establish an understanding of their later relationship.
Anna Karenina can be considered as the origin of melodrama and soap opera, and if characters are not fleshed out and shown strengthened through their encounter with obstacles and deep emotions, it becomes just another story of a love affair.
With such a thin structure to the libretto, it is a disappointment that the choreography for Anna’s storyline has been reduced to stereotypes, even the music suggests clichéd romantic tropes. A lot of the group dances for the corps de ballet really act only as background dances. Even though there are some really good solos for Anna to dance in the second half of the piece, they don’t have the gravitas for the audience to feel much or linger over.
Because of this, Levin’s storyline actually becomes the highlight of the night. I can really see Levin’s emotional journal translated into ballet form through his scenes, which I would call ‘landscapes’, akin to those in Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. Levin’s scenes break from Anna’s main narrative, to open up the stage through a soprano’s operatic singing. The stage becomes a straightforward dialogue between the piece and the audience.
It is a delight to see innovative choreography that really channels ritual rather than narrative, ballet movements that are influenced by Jerome Robbins yet that add a layer of contemporary relevance. It is the lucid but profound synergies in these ‘landscapes’ that create an honest image of Levin’s rural farm, as well as the pleasantry of Levin’s heart.
It is even strengthened by Spuck and Jörg Zielinski’s design of the stage, suggesting an open space, a space that screams for Brechtian treatment, a potential direction for making this version of Anna Karenina as a post-dramatic ballet.
What is done for Levin’s scenes is exactly a good marriage of the novel and the stage, translating Tolstoy’s words through movements and design, for the audience to go deeply into the characters.
Nevertheless, the whole company should be congratulated. Even though the production has its own problems with character building, the dancers for the main characters show not just professional skills in their ballet technique but also in their acting.
As I mentioned before, since the strongest pieces are Levin’s scenes, Tars Vandebeek and Michelle Willems as Levin and Kitty shine with their honest embodiment of the innocent farmer and wife.
Although their characters are sidelined, Daniel Mulligan and Galina Mihaylova as Stiva and Dolly still catch the audience’s attention with the smooth delivery of their characters.
As for Viktorina Kapitonova and William Moore who play Anna and Vronsky, I can see that they try hard to be convincing, and from my front row seat, they catch my heart at the end.
Choreographer: Christian Spuck
Performance: 23 February 2018 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with an MA Theatre (Applied Theatre) and earned his BA English at University of Central Oklahoma. Lee is a playwright, screenwriter, theatre director, acting workshop convener, and performer in Hong Kong as well as a researcher in heritage and immersive theater.