By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK -- There was a surprise star of the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Anna Karenina,” which had its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House July 11-14, and she wasn’t a member of the famed company from St. Petersburg. Based on a novel by the great Russian realist writer Leo Tolstoy, choreographed by the Russian-born wunderkind Alexei Ratmansky, composed by the Soviet-sanctioned composer Rodion Shchedrin and danced by Russia’s oldest ballet company, this “Anna” starred mesmerizing video-projections by one Wendall Harrington of Washingtonville, New York. Harrington’s credits range from Broadway to opera to Chris Rock’s comedy tour; she herself heads up the Yale School of Drama’s inaugural MFA program.
What would Tolstoy think about an American female techie interpreting his classic Russian melodrama? Perhaps once he saw the results, he would be intrigued. For Harrington’s contribution to Ratmansky’s “Anna K” (2010), based on a 2004 version for the Royal Danish Ballet and part of the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival, saves the ballet (seen July 13) from being a hackneyed mess.
While the ballet’s plot drills down the novel to a simplistic story about Anna (Ulyana Lopatkina) who abandons her cold aristocratic husband Karenin (Islom Baimuradov), and their urbane world based on social standing, for an uncertain future with the dashing, impulsive Count Vronsky (Yuri Smekalov), the projected set design gives the reductive story mood and depth. Anna travels through gigantic French Rococo salons, palatial Renaissance-style ballrooms and Baroque opera houses, projected on the curved backdrop and wings of the stage, and creating a spectacular birdcage effect around the cast. In Harrington’s vision, Anna’s world is as oppressive as it is luxurious. The dizzying number of technically seamless scene changes drives home her predicament. She is trapped in an aristocratic beau monde, a whirling carousel of spiritually anemic pleasures. This was exactly Tolstoy’s point.
As to Ratmansky’s choreography, it is a dim specter in comparison to his past enlightened creations. Very little of his kinesthetic power, inventive use of ballet’s codified vocabulary and incorporation of mime is in evidence; the ballet actually resembles job work. So did some of Lopatikina’s dancing; she appeared to work with the music’s pulse, but not its emotional stridency, despite Gergiev’s idiomatic conducting of Shchedrin’s romantic pastiches of sound. This Anna was imperious, riding above the chaos of the sound and the demands of her men. Only in brief moments did her gestures and her eyes reveal Tolstoy’s Anna, who is not just elegant and queenly, but impetuous and tortured.
Perhaps the Bolshoi dancers would have done a better job with Ratmansky’s “Anna K.” They are known for turning on the bombast and the drama. Only in the final moments did Lopatkina achieve depth, dramatically projecting Anna’s deadly thoughts. As the jaws of the train’s face flooded the backdrop, she dropped her fluid, ethereal movement style. She became a dead man walking, her gait as solid and inevitable as the train’s glaring headlight and churning steel wheels that snuff out her life.
The July 13 performance of “Anna K” held particular promise because of the casting of Yuri Smekalov as Vronsky. The second soloist spent several years performing with Eifman Ballet, the dance company equivalent of rock and roll’s Queen. Eifman dancers seem to come equipped with a stadium size amplifier to project their awesome size emotions. But Smekalov’s portrayal of Vronsky was rather understated. He danced eloquently with this whole body, but never seemed to grasp the arrogance of his egotistical character. He came across more like a young soldier than a count who takes what he wants with both hands. So it was hard to believe that his effect on Lopatkina’s indomitable Anna could be soul crushing.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of “Anna Karenina” is its ensemble choreography. This is Ratmansky’s strength and it surfaced briefly, in Act II, when the action moved to the Krasnoe Selo racetrack. The cast is richly arrayed (costumes by Mikael Melbye), posing as the crème de la crème of St. Petersburg’s society. The jockeys burst through the air, jumping over invisible steeplechases. By sending the dancers into vertical space through the swirling force of aerial jumps, Ratmansky’s momentary, illusionary movement idea matches the brilliance of Harrington’s projections. It shows how dance’s three-dimensional velocity can still match cutting-edge technological innovation. It’s just a lot harder to do well, and to do consistently.
Copyright © 2011, Musical America