Recorded before a live audience at the Vakhtangov Theatre, Moscow
Presented by Stage Russia and Pushkin House
To be streamed online, January 22-24, 2021
From the moment that the Vakhtangov Theatre adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with a musical scream, the light rising to reveal the ensemble, stamping their feet in the rhythm of a moving train as they wave to a departing passenger, director-choreographer Anželika Cholina does us proud.
It is the epitome of ensemble theatre and Stanislavsky that influenced Brecht, the flame of which is kept alight by Olga Lerman as Anna, the marvellous Evgeny Knyazev as Karenin and Dmitry Solomykin as a perfect Vronsky. It’s deeply theatrical, elegant and emotionally compelling.
Cholina is a prominent Lithuanian choreographer and graduate of the Vilnius Ballet School, noted for weaving elements of classical ballet, contemporary dance and drama into a narrative thread.
One of the most prominent Lithuanian choreographers, Cholina is noted for the way she weaves together elements of classical ballet (she is a graduate of the Vilnius Ballet School), contemporary dance and drama into a narrative thread. The movement in Anna Karenina is spare, with every gesture conveying meaning and textual detail. Every scene, every dance moves the story on or reveals a little more about the characters, whose depth of feeling and inner turmoil is emphasised by Schnittke’s oh-so-Russian music, with a little help from Tchaikovsky, including a brief reference to Swan Lake’s cygnets.
Marius Jacovskis’ spare set and Tadas Valeyka’s lighting are also hugely effective. Strategically placed pillars, wooden chairs and small chandeliers double convincingly as ballroom, home, railway station and train, with the broken roof hinting at the broken and dysfunctional relationships of the characters.
Yuozas Statkevichus’ suggestive costumes use clinging fabric to evoke the revealing dress of the 1870s whilst giving the performers freedom to move.
The official trailer for Vakhtangov Theatre’s Anna Karenina
Lerman is striking as the beautiful Anna and dances with intensity and great emotional honesty; a woman cultivated yet who easily succumbs to her emotions and weaknesses. She is completely believable as she dances with intensity and great emotional honesty; a woman cultivated yet who easily succumbs to her emotions and weaknesses.
Early on and in control, consoles sister-in-law Dolly (Maria Volkova) and tries to persuade her that her vain husband Stiva (Valery Ushakov) has waved farewell to the governess with whom he had an affair. As a discordant violin scrapes and plucks an accompaniment, Anna, at one end of a line, flips her hand sending a wave of energy down the line to lift Dolly at the other.
Feelings never stay hidden. When Kitty (Ekaterina Kramzina) rejects Levin (Fedor Vorontsov) in a dysfunctional waltz, she literally writhes with delight as she dances with an indifferent Vronsky. Anna’s entry to the ballroom recall’s Odile’s. Time almost stands still. All eyes are on her, especially those of Vronsky.
At the railway station, Kitty is aghast as her former friend entrances the company. In two dramatic duets, and after Anna and Vronsky have parted, we see him return to Kitty, who swoons into his outstretched arms before dropping to his feet to try and trap his legs like chains. She throws herself repeatedly at his back but he leaves her, almost catatonic, as she dances distractedly with Levin. When Anna and Vronsky part, he returns to Kitty. Suddenly, the rôles seem reversed. Now he holds her while she seems trapped, reaching out, wanting out.
At the salon run by the outré Princess Betsy Tverskaya, a seductive tango enables Levin to flail at Kitty’s feet while an impassive Vronsky and company stare on. When Anna and Vronsky dance, her hand tremblingly betrays her passion like a fluttering fan.
Anna’s infatuation becomes most public at the races, revealing a stricken Karenin. The whole scene, from the delightful dance that has the ladies strut and promenade their fashions, to the athletic and vividly portrayed race itself is brilliantly conceived around a moving rail on which the women perch as jockeys fly past.
Amidst all of this is the bemused Karenin, Anna’s husband. Knyazev portrays his just right: a hewn rock of a man, totally devoid of passion. He realises the truth at last as Anna fails to conceal her concern for Vronsky when he falls from his horse.
In a positively Prokofian waltz, Karenin cannons into Anna, knocking her off her feet, as they and Vronsky dance a furious trio. Vronsky eventually claims her and then Levin claims Kitty. We know that neither pair will come out of it well for the Russian bells tell us. As the ensemble dance a cleverly choreographed and frantic chair-bound drunken wedding dance, Kitty and Levin appear in frozen-faced horror in the centre of the melée.
While Karenin remains a pillar of society and is decorated, Anna and Vronsky are shunned. As she descends into despair that will lead to suicide, she begins to bicker with Vronsky. There’s a half-hearted attempt from him to make amends for everything but she’s a lost cause. In a powerful final duet, she is flung back and forth like a rag doll he wants rid of. She reaches out but is pushed away. She trips over his body; he steps over hers. As she dances in the shadows, her fate is sealed.
The end, to the strains of a Pie Jesu, sears itself into the memory; remarkable as much for what it doesn’t show as for what it does. Just an incident under a passing train which, incidentally comes closest to Tolstoy’s interpretation of events, writing as he does for another three chapters about Levin and agrarian reform after Anna dies.
Angelica Cholina’s Anna Karenina for Vakhtangov Theatre is a completely engrossing two hours of dance theatre out of the top drawer. Stage Russia enables some of the greatest Russian culture to be seen across the world. This is one of the gems even in that august collection.
Vakhtangov Theatre’s production of Anna Karenina can be watched at home from 2pm on Friday January 22, to 4pm, Sunday January 24, 2021. Visit www.pushkinhouse.org for more details and tickets.
Running time: 2 hours
At 2pm on the Sunday afternoon there is also a conversation between director Anželika Cholina and Olga Lerman, who plays Anna, with Professor Michael Earley, dean of performing arts at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.