Hong Kong Culture Centre
February 25, 2018
It is a feast for the eyes. The dancers, many at this performance drawn from soloist ranks, were a delight, the set simple but hugely effective, the costumes gorgeous. Spuck can usually certainly tell a story too, but while it occasionally simmers, this Anna Karenina never boils over emotionally in the way it should.
In his programme notes, Spuck acknowledges that attempting to tell the whole of Tolstoy’s novel in two hours of dance would be doomed to failure. That’s precisely why most choreographers pare the story right down to the love triangle between Anna, her husband Karenin and her lover Vronsky. Spuck tries to flesh the other characters out, however, contrasting their different relationships. He highlights Anna’s brother Stiva and his wife Dolly, whose marriage is threatened by Stiva’s infidelity; and the innocent and youthful Kitty and her suitor and eventual husband, Levin, whose loving innocence is starkly different to the guilt and passion of Anna and Vronsky, and the problems of Stiva and Dolly.
In doing so, he finishes up in the very trap he outlined. There is so much story that Act I especially rattles along at express pace. To stand any chance of keeping up, brushing up on the story or reading the synopsis in the programme beforehand is strongly recommended. The characters and their emotions are seen but not felt. Nothing is given time to develop.
Even some of the pas de deux don’t really get there. In the one that marks Anna’s first physical encounter with Vronsky, he rips off her red bodice, the colour a signal if ever there was one. But there was little sense of passion before or after. And it’s over in a flash as, almost immediately, she decides it’s time to leave, clutching her gown to her chest with remarkable decorum.
There are moments, though. Best of the pas de deux is that for Levin and Kitty. Light and playful, it feels natural and shows perfectly their sweet and innocent relationship. Among the more powerful moments is Dolly catching Stiva with two housemaids. She quite literally hauls them off him before letting rip at him with her rage and anger, as he fires back with all guns blazing at her for daring to stop him, a man, having his way. Most gripping dramatically is a pas de trois between Anna, Vronsky and her husband in which she is almost literally torn between the two men, dragged with her legs spread.
Act II is a huge improvement all round, not least because the story is better edited and its telling slows down a bit, giving situations and people time to develop. The opening pas de deux between Anna and Vronsky is a delight and at last really shows their feelings for one another.
Where Spuck really succeeds is in portraying the social climes of the times, done as much through clever use of the corps as through the principals. He shows the elegance of the upper classes in the opening ball and at the racecourse, the latter a particularly well-done scene, and the hard graft of the workers in the fields. It’s a society where men rule. It’s very notable that, after returning to Russia from Italy, Vronksy can carry on socializing openly and still commands the respect of his peers, whereas Anna is seen as an adulteress, ostracized by society, her husband even shielding her beloved son from her.
Anna’s descent into despair and eventual suicide is well-done, although Spuck makes it clear from her dalliance with drugs that he sees her downfall as much of her own making as her being a victim of society, much being made of her use of opium. Her final moments as she dances alone are powerful. Her actual falling under the train is less so. She collapses to the ground, and there are projections of railway tracks, but off to the right. For real impact, surely she should be right in front of them.
Nothing seemed forced from Anna Khamzina as Anna. Technically excellent, her acting was also impressive, especially in the more despairing moments. Manuel Renard was an aptly cold and reserved Karenin. Is it any wonder she fell for the dashing Alexander Jones as Vronsky? Jesse Fraser and Elizabeth Wisenberg were a delight as Levin and Kitty, their Act II wedding scene especially showing the tenderness of their love.
Spuck’s musical choices largely work well. The symphonic and chamber music of Rachmaninov (large chunks of Symphonic Dances, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his Piano Concerto No.2) that are used for the more lyrical, loving sections contrast well with the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s more strident scores that reflect jealousy and tension. Although the live piano to which they were performed was welcome, I found the three Russian songs sung live by mezzo-soprano Lin Shi (石琳) strangely jarring, as beautifully as she performed them.
Jörg Zielinski’s décor is modest but perfect. Three bare silver birch tree trunks in the left back corner plus a couple right front indicate the Russian countryside. A couple of chandeliers and a few chairs are all that’s needed for the indoor scenes. Half a dozen moveable platforms do business as station platforms, racecourse bleachers and so on.
Tieni Burkhalter’s Black and white video projections are superb. Shown on a simple white curtain drawn across the back as needed, they have a sort of home video sense about them. They show rattling steam locomotives and Vronsky’s fall at the horse race, while landscape stills serve as scenery for the workers in the fields and the stay in Italy.