A terpsichorean toast to Tolstoy: Joffrey debuts Possokhov’s Anna Karenina

Alberto Velazquez (Vronsky) and Victoria Jaiani (Anna) in the world premiere of “Anna Karenina” at the Joffrey Ballet.
(Photo by Cheryl Mann)

What: “Anna Karenina”
Where: The Auditorium Theater
When: Through Feb. 24
Tickets: 312-386-8905

By M.L. RANTALA
Staff Critic

There was a huge crowd on hand Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theater for the world premiere of a stunning new work presented by the Joffrey Ballet. “Anna Karenina,” choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, is a distillation of the classic novel, born again in a breathtaking ballet.

Leo Tolstoy’s story is long, sprawling, and infused with social commentary. So it is no small feat to capture the essence of the novel in 13 compact scenes, each with its own clear narrative.

The ballet opens with a prologue at the train station in St. Petersburg. A railway guard (Edson Barbosa) patrols the area, walking against a strong wind. Possokhov’s choreography makes marvelous use of the guard’s coat: it whirls and twirls as he dances, effectively communicating the harsh weather just before, to the horror of those in the vicinity, he is smashed by an oncoming train. Anna and Vronsky meet on the platform during this tragedy and are drawn to each other. Their fateful romance has begun.

The production incorporates very modern elements into a strong classical framework to create a potent and unforgettable ballet. Brilliantly conceived video images projected onto the stage convey ideas more effectively than would be possible with stage props or other classical devices. The speeding wheels of a locomotive and the pounding hooves of horses adroitly appear on the stage to augment the drama. Anna’s demise is masterfully conceived with lighting and projections providing an electric and heart-pounding moment of high drama.

The staging is minimalist and modern, yet conveys a clear 19th century ambience. In one scene, before we are brought into a large room, a video shows us the front elevation of the building (quite possibly a real Russian structure) and once we are inside we see windows matching the outside depiction.

The sets are made up primarily of wall panels which glide seamlessly as the action moves from place to place. The use of color is admirable. Anna and Vronsky’s love scene takes place in a chamber hung with passionate red wallpaper. Karenin’s study is a tedious drab, like his staid worldview. When Vronsky takes a spill in a horserace, the scene is almost entirely black and white, expressing, as if published in the newspaper, Anna’s unquestionable affection for him.

Ilya Demutsky has composed a work that is evocative and dramatic. His tonal music propels the story forward with the crispness of a film score and has strong dance rhythms. Included are three songs with Russian texts brilliantly performed by mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, a recent alum of the Ryan Center at Lyric Opera.

Scott Speck, the Joffrey Ballet’s music director, leads the Chicago Philharmonic from the pit. His pacing is superb and the musicians offered a strong and committed performance.

The dancing is marvelous from start to finish. The tragic romance is beautifully depicted, with tentative, small dance steps gradually replaced with big, open movements of joy and passion. Victoria Jaiani as Anna embodies ample sophistication in her dancing; she has regal bearing and an easy sense of assurance. Her allure is clear, yet she also presages her own fragility and ultimate demise.

Alberto Velazquez as Vronsky exudes not only virility but also a nonchalant attitude that in the end will play a part in destroying Anna. He moves with authority and power, augmented with a debonair touch. Early in their romance Vronsky takes Anna in his arms and turns her body vertically a full 360 degrees and the effect is remarkable: we know that Anna is literally head over heels in love with him.

As Kitty, Anais Bueno’s dancing is feathery and light while Fabrice Calmels, as the uptight Karenin shows his character’s stodginess with movement that is often awkward and stiff. Yoshihisa Arai offers a Levin who is natural and fresh.

The costumes are gorgeous and complement the dancers’ movements. The ball scene finds the women all in black, but each has multiple underskirts of various colors which emerge as they pirouette.

There is very little to dislike in this new ballet, but sadly the one true flaw comes at the very end. Rather than concluding with Anna’s death, the final scene features the happiness that Levin has found. Since so much of the Levin and Kitty story has been left out of the ballet (by necessity, or the performance would take hours and hours), it seems strange that it should end with them. The music too really falters here, becoming banal and sentimental, and ending on a rather quiet, dull note. But since so much of what had come before was so truly riveting, it seems a small defect.

This bang-up production of “Anna Karenina” uses the entire troupe, with the 46 Joffrey dancers augmented by Oliver Reed Libke as the Karenins’ son Seyosha. Clearly choreographer Possokhov and composer Demutsky have produced a huge success.