Opera House, Zürich, Switzerland; December 5, 2014
Christian Spuck has an instinct for ferreting out a good story and Anna Karenina is one of the best. For his ballet, he has not taken the easy route and focussed narrowly on the main protagonists, Anna and Vronsky, but has brought in the full panorama of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian landscape. While passionate, forbidden love is central to the story, Spuck’s talents, well suited to byzantine complexities, find scope in the various other pairings and couplings. Ballett Zürich rose to the occasion to provide a roster of dancers to fill the many named roles and a strong corps to back the action.
However this is still Anna Karenina’s ballet and as the eponymous heroine, Viktorina Kapitonova has a role to display both her formidable technique, notably an exquisite pair of feet, and to challenge her dramatic gifts. In Emma Ryott’s flattering costumes, she has the looks to attract attention across a crowded room (or busy railway station) and the charm to hold it. Her strong will and passion are evident at every junction of her fatal journey as she gives full rein to her emotions in the sweep of a ronds de jambe or plunge into arabesque.
Act II opens on the idyll of romantic love as she and Count Vronsky escape to sunny Italy. Denis Vieira is well cast as Vronsky: an able partner and fine dancer but the more interesting pas de deux, both choreographically and dramatically, is between Anna and her husband played by Filipe Portugal. He captured the complex range of emotions as longing and loathing are supressed under a quiet pragmatic exterior. It is a role full of nuances and Portugal gave an excellent performance.
Spuck also gives inspiring roles to Levin (Tars Vandebeek) and Kitty (Katja Wünsche) whose path to love does not always run smoothly but ultimately ends happily. The opening of their wedding scene, as Levin cycles onto the stage clasping Kitty on the crossbar, drew a spontaneous response from the audience and encapsulated the elation of the scene. Levin, the character who most closely mirrors Tolstoy’s own values, longs to be a son of the soil but finds, as Tolstoy probably did, that the gulf between serf and landowner is deeper and wider than imagined. It takes persistence to find acceptance but Vandebeek finally picks up the rhythm of the peasant boys.
Wünsche is a joy, transparent in her desires and her disappointment and eloquent in her dance, she has the audience with her all the way. Vandebeek, who has joined the company from the ranks of the Junior Ballet, is a great asset. An instinctive dancer, who seems incapable of a wrong move, he dances with power and grace.
The different moral values assigned to the behaviour of men and women are made clear from the start. Arman Grigoryan plays Stiva with naïve charm giving evidence of his philandering ways from the opening scene where he flirts openly with the servants while Dolly (Galina Mihaylova) his long suffering wife simply picks up the pieces and makes do.
In the liberal atmosphere of the ballroom where desire blossoms amid the rustle of silks, couple waltz and twirl, all skilfully manipulated by Betsy, (a spirited performance from Giula Tonelli) while her infatuated suitor, Wei Chen tempers his phenomenal technique to comic use.
The opening scenes introduce the characters and are played at breathless speed. Thankfully, with Levin’s solo the pace slows to a country measure and the action fully enters into Tolstoy’s world. The choice of scenes, some brief, some given greater depth, tell the complicated story succinctly and with clarity making a successful transition from page to stage, which is no small achievement.
The choice of music is eminently suitable: Sergei Rachmaninov for the grand passion, Witold Lutosławski for much of the rest and Martin Donner, Spuck’s long-time collaborator, providing the incidental sound score. He accurately captures the pounding of horses’ hooves or the rush of the train’s wheels and in brittle tinkling sounds sums up Anna’s isolation and thoughts of death as she throws on her jacket and heads for the train station.
The theme of the train follows the action: from Anna and Vronsky’s first meeting at the station to her final secret visit to see her son where we see him playing with a model train which ominously derails as she enters. The fatal train is depicted in video: the gleaming rails and churning wheels in frightening close-up. Tieni Burkhalter, who is responsible for the video effects, brings similar excitement to the horse race. Here Spuck creates a coup d’theatre. The ensemble, suitably hatted and suited, are placed on a series of terraces and wittily choreographed to intensify the thrill of the moment and create a contrast with the horror and drama that follows.
Spuck is a choreographer who possesses both intelligence and theatrical flair, qualities which work to great effect in this ballet.