Anna Karenina presented by the National Ballet of Canada

The National Ballet of Canada (Karen Kain, Artistic Director) presents the North American premiere of:

Anna Karenina

A Ballet by John Neumeier

Inspired by Leo Tolstoy

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

John Neumeier is the American born dancer and choreographer who has been based in Hamburg, Germany, since 1973, where he is currently Director and Chief Choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet. Given his position and longevity in producing original ballets both in Europe as well as North America (his association with the National Ballet of Canada goes back to 1972), it is worthwhile noting that his body of work is substantial and impressive. And as one might expect for having been around so long and produced so much – he has his ardent admirers as well as principled detractors.

In Anna Karenina, a co-production with the Hamburg Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, Neumeier is credited with choreographing as well as providing conceptual designs for sets, costumes and lighting. And although it is not listed in the program notes, I would suggest that the selection of the musical score pastiche – based on excerpts from Tchaikovsky, Schnittke and Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam – is also of Neumeier’s making. One can be pretty sure that every beat and measure that appears in the musical score was approved by the ballet master.

The only role that Neumeier did not take on seems to be orchestra conductor. That task was handled with verve by David Briskin.

In other words, this production of Anna Karenina is definitively Neumeier’s own in every stylistic detail. This can be good and bad and there are bits of both throughout. The good news is the live interaction between audience, orchestra and dancers, has been restored. This is a great improvement over the canned music that accompanied his re-mount of A Street Car Named Desire last season.

At three hours, Anna Karenina is too long by about 20–30 minutes give or take. But the story line definition, pacing and skill of the dancers is compelling. Their stamina and our interest never waivers throughout. The passion of the performers and the commitment of the dancers to this modern dress version of Tolstoy’s story about Anna’s tragic love triangle is what carries the day here.

Although the opening night reviews all raved about Svetlana Lunkina in the lead role of Anna, I saw Sonia Rodriquez dance the part and thought that she was superb. Brendan Saye as Karenin, here played as a modern day, stiff backed politician (a political marionette who can also pirouette) and Nagoya Ebe as Anna’s lover, Vronsky, danced with an energy and expression that held nothing back. The same can be said for the rest of the cast including a particularly feisty Dolly (Jenna Savella).

In the second act Neumeier underuses the women in the corps. While the men get to dance a vigorous lacrosse game in the first act that substitutes for the steeple chase (in the novel) where Vronsky is injured, he again uses the men alone in an agrarian harvest scene (with scythes!) featuring Levin (Kota Sato) and Kitty (Calley Skalnik) that could have been enhanced had the women participated.

The history of Anna Karenina as a ballet began with the great Soviet ballet dancer, choreographer, and actress, Maya Plisetskaya. She created the role and was the first to dance Anna with the Bolshoi Ballet in 1972. Plisetskaya also choreographed the production while Pierre Cardin provided the costume designs. Her husband, the composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote an original score for the work.

Neumeier’s use of excerpts from Tchaikovsky, Schnittke and Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam works well enough in his version of the ballet, but I did think that it might have been nice to have also included a small homage to Rodion Shchedrin.

Neumeier relies heavily on Schnittke for underscoring mood dissonance and psychological breakdown but Shchedrin also supplies that in abundance in his original score for Anna Karenina and also in other compositions that would have worked equally as well as Schnittke. Shchedrin’s Stalin Cocktail comes to mind.

Frederick Ashton’s classic condensation, The Dream, adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Ballet in 1964, paired with Guillaume Côté’s, Being and Nothingness (inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre) opens tonight.

Tchaikovsky sans Schnittke returns to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with the opening of the NBofC’s The Nutcracker on December 8th.

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