On Saturday, April 18, I was fortunate enough to witness the Eifman St. Petersburg Ballet present Leon Tolstoy’s legendary Anna Karenina at Place des Arts. Although I have yet to read Tolstoy’s psychological masterpiece, I am vaguely familiar with its premise: Anna Karenina, by now the world’s most legendary and tragic adulteress, ends up torn between her duties as a mother and as wife to Karenin and her wild infatuation with Vronsky. Finally opting for passion, Anna’s life ends in one of literature’s most harrowing suicides, after she falls victim to social demonization and realizes that living for Vronsky’s love alone makes for an incredibly auto destructive reality.
This illustrious piece of Russian literature is commendable for its psychological realism, as Tolstoy creates substantial and humane characters out of an outrageously descriptive capacity. Thence, a massive novel such as Anna Karenina is terribly difficult to accurately depict through an art form deprived of words and in the short spam of a couple of hours. However, through a drastic simplification of the original plotline and vividly emotional choreographies, the ballet captured the essence of Tolstoy’s work sensationally.
Personally, as much as I respect ballet as a major art form, I have never been an aficionado of classical dance. I was thus thrillingly awed that the Eifman St. Petersburg dancers managed to keep me not only awake, but on the edge of my seat, for a full two hours.
For starters, two quite notable components of this adaptation of Anna Karenina would be the costume and set designs. It is often a source of deception to see modern dance productions devoid of the classically intricate dancer attire and background scenery; sticking to bare minimalism theoretically helps viewers focus on the quality of the dancing and creates less of a budget strain. Nonetheless, the Eifman St. Peterburg Ballet Company elaborates beautifully on every single detail necessary to a good quality dance production.
The skeletally limbed female dancers each achieve the climax of grace through rigorously lithe movements enhanced by aerial dresses. Conjointly, incredibly tight leotards voluptuously highlight the muscular complexes of the male dancers. The color symbolism of the apparel is particularly stunning: dancers dressed in black tend to meticulously follow societal conventions, while the whitely garbed characters adhere to freedom and passion. Anna’s gowns therefore evolve from black to white as she gradually falls under the whitely clad Vronsky’s charm. Details such as wardrobe color may seem insignificant, but are sometimes crucial for audience members to fully grasp a message conveyed without words.
Some of the fashion ensembles are just there to successfully visually stun the audience – the glittery Venetian masks worn during a ball Vronsky and Anna go to during their adulterous sojourn in Italy are mesmerizing. Masks, with their overall mysterious glamour and abysmally black eye sockets, symbolize festivity, hypocrisy and finally, decadence. They are also simply stunning when included in a ballet.
The setting itself really helps situate the spectators within Anna Karenina’s aristocratic reality – a panel convincingly depicting a dazzling ballroom slides down during the scenes depicting refined parties, and back up to expose a long balcony situated toward the back of the stage. It must have taken a lot of creativity to use but these two very richly decorated sets to recreate a multitude of locations, but this recreation is accomplished flawlessly. The ballroom background comprises a dusty mirror that multiplies the dancers, causing quite the dramatic effect. The balcony is cleverly used to create depth, giving the illusion that the stage is a lot bigger than in reality. It is also used as the haven of voyeurism, since the people on the balcony often clandestinely observe the characters below them. The background, skillfully completed with dramatic lighting, contributes to the overall mood and understanding of the ballet.
The deftly executed choreography, smoothly mixing classical dancing with contemporary motions, creates an unusually entrancing effect. The dancers are all naturally incredibly talented, but the whole artistry of a ballet often relies upon the choreographer. Boris Eifman brilliantly fulfills his role, making the ballet worthy of Tolstoy’s novel. In one scene, male dancers gallop symmetrically around the stage portraying horses whilst in the final scene, imposing men dressed in black fiercely represent the train under which Anna Karenina is about to throw herself. It feels incredibly modern to see humans depict animals and machinery. Also, as “society” harshly closes in on a dishonored Anna, it is interesting to notice that the dancers corner her by arranging themselves into a cross shape.
However, the most astonishing element of the whole ballet is its sudden transition into extreme surrealism toward the end of the production. The shocking contrast is initiated when Anna, out of sheer desperation, consumes opiates and begins hallucinating (which leads to her suicide at the bitter end of the ballet). The heated Tchaikovsky soundtrack suddenly morphs into psychedelic sounds as the lighting goes completely experimental, the dancers contortion themselves into crazy positions and Anna is driven to a distressing madness. The visual and auditory effects, recreating Anna’s inner mind, are hypnotizing to the point of making the observers feel as high and distant from sanity as the anguished main protagonist…
Essentially, the Eifman St. Petersburg Ballet’s adaptation of Anna Karenina leaves the viewer amazed, disturbed and moved – the type of feelings that only pure art can trigger. Although Eifman does not fully convey Tolstoy’s original message, he marvelously expresses the intrinsic majesty of Art.
According to Les Grands Ballets, a new production necessitates 240 hours of rehearsal time per dancer. Each dancer needs a 90-minute warm-up a day to keep in shape, and the female dancers of a troupe go on average through 600 pairs of pointe shoes a year. These numbers demonstrate that ballet is an incredibly serious and demanding mode of expression that requires not only artists, but also true athletes and incredibly dedicated workers. It is almost tragic to see that all the labor put into a ballet production strikes audience members for a mere few hours. However, it is beautiful to witness several talented individuals striving to keep such a difficult art form alive.