The Mariinsky Ballet
Lincoln Center Festival 2011
The Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
July 11, 2011
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2011 by Michael Popkin
More impressionistic dance drama than pure ballet, Alexei Ratmansky's "Anna Karenina" tells the story of Tolstoy's doomed heroine in a series of swiftly moving dramatic incidents, with video projections behind the action providing scenic changes and minimal but suggestive sets used in the actual performance space. Act One dramatizes Anna and Vronsky's affair from their initial encounter to its physical consummation in about ten brief scenes that flow into each other and last no more than three to five minutes each. Act Two takes the story at the same pace from Vronsky's fall at the racetrack through the couple's elopement to Venice, Anna's return to St. Petersburg and attempt to see her son, and finally her ostracism and suicide.
Ratmansky has been tinkering with his production of the ballet for several years, with a 2004 version for the Royal Danish Ballet followed by productions in Vilnius and Helsinki, and now finally the current Mariinsky edition in 2010. As the ballet actually begins with a brief prologue that shows Vronsky standing before Anna's dead body in a railway station and then immediately segues to their meeting years earlier at the same station at the very moment a peasant is crushed under a train, Fatality with a capital F is the theme. None of the protagonists are free to avoid their fate and the action proceeds with the irresistible force of those locomotives. Railway imagery dominates, a symbol that is also central to Tolstoy's novel, and in that respect the ballet is true to the text. The omission of the novel's other narrative, however, the story of the growth of a redemptive love between Levin and Kitty set in the pastoral Russophile countryside, in contrast to the corrupt salons of Europhile St. Petersburg that Anna and Vronsky inhabit - makes this a much darker work than the novel. This is pure tragedy unadulterated by the slightest sense of hope.
Diana Vishneva danced the title role for the company's opening night in New York, with Yuri Smelakov as Vronsky and Islom Baimuradov as Karenin. Smelakov is a strong partner and an expressive narrative dancer, and managed to be both freely plastic and classical at the same time. A difficulty of this choreography is its uneasy marriage of expressive vernacular movement and purely balletic steps. The expression comes off as more spontaneous and believable than the ballet does but Smelakov blended the two idioms without too much distraction. Baimuradov was a moving Karenin; indeed, the production makes this character (dry and oppressive in the novel) unusually sympathetic: a stiff and tradition-bound man who loves his wife, is wounded by her betrayal, and is nearly as much a victim of the social code and irresistible fatality of events as Anna herself.
Vishneva's portrayal of the heroine was totally engaged and passionate yet somehow not truly convincing. One could never quite forget that she was "Vishneva in love" or "Vishneva in despair." Unlike Smelakov, the two dance idioms remained distinct in her performance and she didn't seem able to un-think the classicism of her technique; but perhaps after his years dancing for Boris Eifman, he just never was that classical in the first place. The inability to be convinced by Vishneva in this role is also perhaps a function of a stardom that it makes it difficult to un-think her as the ballerina that she is. With Ulyana Lopatkina also dancing the role we'll have the chance to compare.
Mikael Melbye designed the sets and costumes; Wendall Harrington the video projections; and Jørn Melin the lighting. The projections wrap around the rear of the stage with their perspective adjusted to create scenes that literally envelope the dancers and décor. Realism is not the goal, but a symbolist representation of the mood and psychology of the protagonists. Karenin's library is a projection of book-lined shelves fading into architectural space, with a single desk and lamp placed downstage to suggest his loneliness. In Act One during Anna and Vronsky's night journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg, swirling snow and the silhouette of platform lights suggest a nameless way station on the steppe and we see their railway carriage open at the back to show them in separate compartments; she does not know he has pursued her. Then, when the train is steaming at the platform, the car is turned and serves as a background for their meeting and duet. The projections enable the nearly continuous changes of scene. The tradeoff for this pace is a lack of time to develop the interactions between the characters more naturally; the flowing, cinematic scenes are often so brief that their dramatic content is rudimentary and rhetorical or emphatic and bombastic. When sufficient time is present, as when Anna is mortally ill, confesses to her husband and attempts to renounce Vronsky, the drama is more engaging and successful.
Rodion Shchedrin's score was composed in 1971 with the ballet originally conceived as a dance vehicle for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya. With its rumbling drums, ominous fanfares of horns, brief melodic snatches in the flutes and woodwinds set off by plucked strings, and even lyrical piano passages in the style of Schumann for the early love duets, it's highly programmatic and has a flow of musical episodes that serve admirably as a base for the ballet's mise-en-scene. Conducted by Valery Gergiev on Monday, the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra (whose presence this week is one of the delight's of the company's visit) gave it a marvelously rich and throaty rendition.
All photographs are by Stephanie Berger courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival 2011: Top, Diana Vishneva as Anna and Yuri Smelakov as Vronsky; middle, Diana Vishneva as Anna and Islom Baimuradov as Karenin; bottom, Diana Vishneva as Anna in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of "Anna Karenina."