To me, ballet is one of those art forms where even if you don’t understand or enjoy it, you can’t help but sit mesmerised at the talent and the outcome. Not pretending to know the first technical thing about ballet, I do happen to love Russian literature. In particular, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s slightly shorter, albeit not by much, subsequent novel to War and Peace… So, when I saw Anna Karenina, the ballet, advertised in those posters in tube stations, (the ones that make the long escalator rides bearable if merely by filling me with a list as long as my arm of things I want to see or go to but can’t begin to contemplate finding the time or money to do so), I knew I had to see it. It was performed by the lesser well-known Eifman ballet, of St Petersburg origin for two nights at the London Coliseum as part of a season, which also included Onegin, a novel written in verse form by Pushkin.
The ballet began with the scene of a small boy sitting in the middle of a train track as an electric train surrounded him, symbolising his content home life with a loving father, Karenin, and respected mother, Anna. Cutting out the sub-plot of the tale of Kitty, Anna’s sister and her suitor Levin’s courtship, the ballet allowed itself to focus on the love triangle between Karenin, Anna and Count Vronsky, whose chance meeting with Anna at a society ball has tragic social and domestic consequences for the family and destroys the quaint life apparent in the first scene.
Eifman’s choreography was fantastic; a modern take on classical ballet dances with a great deal of floor work and contortion to highlight the torment and frustration of the characters. Fast paced scene changes and passionate encounters between the three main characters brought suspense and drama whilst retaining some technically impressive and elegant dancing. The scene where Anna and Vronsky finally succumb to their emotions was an inventive and illustrative one, flickering between the spotlights of the two characters alone in their homes and culminating in a dramatic rendezvous, which was marred only by a rogue blackberry light a few rows in front.
Slightly shorter than usual ballets at just two hours including the interval meant the narrative was communicated with an urgency that illustrated the desperation and desire of the characters, while maintaining high quality performance. Nina Zmievets as Anna was outstanding, particularly when she was acting under the influence of opium. The corps de ballet were also phenomenal, with some excellent stage formations creating the scandalous high society Russian back drop for the meetings of the three main characters.
Eifman’s choreography managed to illustrate the breakdown in the Karenin household with precision, imagination and emotion. Relating the passion of Anna and Vronsky to the present day by contemporising the ballet, Eifman ensured that Tolstoy’s novel retained the social and psychological impact it originally envisaged. The show epitomised Eifman’s philosophy; he is concerned with the spiritual and mental elements of his characters, striving for representation of the human psyche through creativity and movement, and the interpretation of older tales and music. Anna Karenina was a perfect example of this, a unique yet undeniably imaginative show overflowing with talent and emotion.