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Robyn Hendricks in “Anna Karenina” by Yuri Possokhov. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Family Ties

The Australian Ballet's “Anna Karenina”

Performance
The Australian Ballet: “Anna Karenina” by Yuri Possokhov
Place
State Theatre, Arts Centre, Victoria, March 1, 2022, live stream March 8, 2022
Words
Gracia Haby

At a train station of the St Petersburg Railway, I arrive. A prologue, in Moscow. In the State Theatre, first viewing. Live streaming on Ballet TV, the second. As the engine smoke clears, I get my bearings. Taking my seat on the platform, in both audiences, I am rendered diminutive. The station is a vast cavern, looming overhead. It is a projection, but it is so cinematically real in its rendering. I might be experiencing the Australian Ballet’s new co-production with the Joffrey Ballet of Yuri Possokhov’s “Anna Karenina,” but I am also visiting a friend: Tolstoy’s timeless literary work. And not unlike Anna herself feeling that “everything was beginning to go double in her soul,” I am in 2022 and I am in the Industrial age Tolstoy so opposed.

I take my guidance from the familiar lines of the novel on which this ballet is based, “all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.”1 As Tolstoy later wrote in a letter to his wife, Sonya, in 1877: “In order for a book to be good, one has to love its basic, fundamental idea. Thus, in Anna Karenina, I loved the idea of the family.”2 Family is the nutshell which encases both the novel and this sumptuous retelling on the stage. Family obligation and restriction, and its support. Family ties, many and varied. Through Anna, naturally, married to Alexei Karenin, and the “bewitching tension” between her and Alexei Vronsky which reaches “such a pitch that she was afraid every minute that something within her would snap under the intolerable strain.” And Konstantin Levin, who “Whenever he arrived in Moscow, … was always agitated, frantic, slightly awkward, and annoyed by this awkwardness and, more often than not, came with some completely new and unexpected way of looking at things.”

The Australian Ballet’s “Anna Karenina” by Yuri Possokhov. Photograph by Jeff Busby

From a vantage similar to the book, I am placed in the swirling, shifting middle of things. This journey is one of an infinitude of human emotions, not dissimilar to when Vronsky first encounters Anna: “it was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will.” Both casts whole-heartedly embody this sense of things overflowing the confines of the body, and the changing patterns of the dancers, and the rolling sets by Tom Pye, convey the many swift changes of mood. This ballet demands, through enticement and flashes of jewel-coloured underskirts, that you keep up, lest you be made a fool of in the company of Countess Nordston3, played with relish and vim by Jill Ogai (upon first dip) and Nicola Curry (live stream, beamed). The lighting design by David Finn, and projection design by Finn Ross enhance Tolstoy’s words: “All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”

Robyn Hendricks and Calum Linnane in “Anna Karenina.” Photograph by Jeff Busby

Anna Karenina, the novel, draws many shapes between its characters to be explored in multi-faceted detail. The push-and-pull triangle of Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky, for one. Shapes reflected in the choreography, which principal artist Robyn Hendricks, describes (in a video interview with Catherine Murphy, aired as part of the live stream, and I’m paraphrasing) as like turning the body inside out to make shapes that are not necessarily the conventional, classical shapes we are familiar with. Hendricks continues, there is no consistent shape you hit in the port de bras. Rather, they are all really free and afford an individual interpretation of movement, which can be especially challenging for dancers who train for hours on end every day to perfect certain shapes.

Benedicte Bemet as Kitty in “Anna Karenina” by Yuri Possokhov. Photograph by Jeff Busby

In the exquisite Delirium pas de trois she shares with Adam Bull as Karenin, and Callum Linnane as her Vronsky, the movement is fluid and the shapes achingly extreme, as if somewhere the kaleidoscope has been turned. Hendricks is carefully spun back and forth between the pair one moment, before the trio move as one fluid ripple, connected even when apart, the next. Bull and Linnane take turns diving before her feet, before Hendricks is tenderly suspended upside down. Her body like a pendulum, with her arms gently outstretched, and her head cradled in the shoulders of Bull, and the tiny pieces of coloured glass tumble into a new formation: Reality (Scene 1, Act II). Morphine administered, a band of warm golden light is akin the watching the syringe empty its contents into Anna’s vein. All of the rehearsal to make the movement feel natural and fluid, conveys Anna’s despair, in such a physical and emotional role that it leaves Hendricks equally battered and bruised. From the raw sun blister of Anna and Vronsky’s Italian pas de deux when faced with the “everlasting sameness” of their contracted world to Anna’s unravelling amplified by Mezzo-Sopranos, Dimity Shepherd (State Theatre performance) and Jacqueline Dark (live stream), such heartache, laid bare. Or rather, the soul within made visible by a body flipped inside out.

As Hendricks summarises, in remembering where you started and looking at where you end up, you can see all you’ve accomplished. In the smudging of what is real and what is a character on stage, so too, Valerie Tereshchenko’s Anna, who deftly, beautifully conveys the moment the darkness that has enveloped her lifts “and for an instant everything glowed before her with all its past joys.” In her all is illuminated moment before being “enshrouded in darkness [once more, and everything] flickered, grew dim and went out forever,” her “awakened from a deep sleep” moment, and ultimate path, so different to Levin’s.

Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in “Anna Karenina” by Yuri Possokhov. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Both Chengwu Guo and Brett Chynoweth, each as Levin, afford him a genuine life-affirming awareness that though “anything can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless.” An awareness thanks largely to Kitty Shcherbatskaya (“she understands, she knows what I am thinking about”), inhabited by Jade Wood and Benedicte Bemet, whose seemingly casual timing always reveals the existence of stars for Levin when he can no longer see them. From the moment Kitty and Levin meet, this unspoken connection is palpable. It is in the playful twirls of her feet which move independently of her intended actions when he lifts her from the ground in their first pas de deux; as if her feet know in advance how their lives, once entwined, will play out. It is in the deep, grounded swan neck professions Levin makes to her, which in turn grant me, in the audience, my own revelatory moment, for though their stage time feels comparably briefer to that of Anna, with Vronsky and Karenin, it grants me wings and lets me fly, just as Kitty’s very presence enables Levin to feel “sure he could fly upwards or lift the corner of the house, if needs be.” I may not float like Kitty can, but my heart says otherwise.

Years ago, I made an indent on the page of my copy of Anna Karenina and dog-eared the page for my future self: make your “heart contract with happiness” and “melt within.” This new work, years later, did just that.

  1. All quotations from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are from the translation first published in Penguin Classics 1954 by Rosemary Edmonds.
  2. Judith Armstrong, “Guide to the Classics: Anna Karenina”, citing Sonya’s diary entry, dated 3rd March, 1877, from The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy translated by Cathy Porter, with an introduction by Doris Lessing, in The Conversation, January 19, 2018, https://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-anna-karenina-86475, accessed March 2, 2022.
  3. Jill Ogai and Nicola Curry, in keeping with the changeable nature of all things, where a snow storm can suddenly appear “more beautiful than ever,” later play Princess Betsy Tverskaya.