Joffrey Ballet’s Anna Karenina exciting and fierce yet soulful

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

On February 13, 2019, the Joffrey Ballet presented the world premiere of choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina, which runs through February 24 in the company’s home base of Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre. The ballet is the result of a long and fruitful collaboration between Possokhov and the Joffrey, which has already produced such fantastic short ballets as “Raku” and “Bells.”

The beautiful overture of Russian composer Ilya Demutsky’s commissioned score starts the ballet off on the fantastic footing and remains a consistently rich and well-suited accompaniment throughout.  Tom Pye’s costumes are the production’s second most striking feature. The luxurious colors and textures breathe life into the period piece, with long coats, skirts and petticoats often obscuring that most precious of ballet assets, the dancer’s legs, but the tradeoff is fair and appropriate.

Pye’s set design is arguably much more modern, favoring projections, clean simplicity and an overwhelming amount of gray.  When taking into account that the story is a tragedy and that Anna sees her love affair as a release from an otherwise oppressive life, the choice of a stark set makes sense, but it borders on drab and could have included a little more variation without sacrificing thematic integrity.

Yoshihisa Arai and Anais Bueno. Photo by Cheryl Mann.
Yoshihisa Arai and Anais Bueno. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Possokhov is a choreographer whose work favors expressivity and vibrancy rather than subtlety and temperance. This makes his work exciting and fierce yet soulful, so the subdued, paradigmatic first act of Anna Karenina feels somewhat askew and underwhelming when taking into account Possokhov’s previous work.

The first act focuses on setting up the story and introducing the characters, which is always the least interesting part of any narrative, but in this case, it is also when we get to witness Anna’s burgeoning love for Vronsky.  That initial spark is crucial to the storyline, yet it comes off as inexplicably muted, with the exception of the entirely too short choreography of Anna and Vronsky’s first amorous encounter.

Choreographic redemption comes in the second act.  In a state of delirium, Anna dreams of living happily with her husband and her lover, and the resulting pas de trois is a tremendously sensual and beautifully entangled choreography.  Anna and Vronksy’s subsequent pas de deux, once they have run away together, is also physically complex and created very much in Possokhov’s signature style, but it is not done total justice.

Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani, Alberto Velazquez. Photo by Cheryl Mann.
Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani, Alberto Velazquez. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Sadly, one of the production’s greatest shortcomings is its Vronsky.  Alberto Velazquez is a beautiful dancer, but this role is – at least for the time being – simply too big for him.  On the February 16 performance, he seemed to struggle through a lot of the lifts, there were a number of small yet noticeably awkward flubs, and by the time the second act’s pas de deux came around, he just seemed exhausted.  This may well have been the reason why his chemistry with Victoria Jaiani (Anna) was visibly lacking.

Jaiani has proven time and time again that she is a dancer that strives and attains perfection, but one can’t help but feel that her performance would have been far more brilliant with a different partner.  The piece that resonated most passionately, was ultimately not one of the love scenes but rather the one in which Anna’s husband, performed by Fabrice Calmels, finds her secretly visiting their son. The physicality of his rage and her vulnerability is heartbreaking.  Unlike Velazquez, Calmels moves flawlessly with Jaiani, each making the other’s performance all the stronger and more precise.

While Valeriy Pecheykin’s dramaturgy is strong, the end of the ballet is a bit befuddling, opting to continue after Anna’s suicide with a scene of pastoral merriment, as Levin, a secondary character, reflects on the people who have shaped his life (a.k.a. Anna, Vronsky, etc.).  It’s a jarring choice that detracts from the impact of the protagonist’s demise, but it does at least present the opportunity for a beautiful solo that accomplished Yoshihisa Arai dances with graceful abandon.

Reviewed on 13th of February at the Auditorium Theatre