Almost every country has celebrated literary works that capture the innate character of its people. That’s certainly the case with Russia and “Anna Karenina,” a tragic tale of passion and betrayal penned by Leo Tolstoy over four years beginning in 1873.
Long a fan of the novel, Yuri Possokhov had already contemplated an adaptation of it when Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, approached him about just such a project. So, the San Francisco-based Russian choreographer didn’t need much persuasion to sign on.
“I’m kind of an emotional person,” Possokhov said. “My choreography is little bit emotional. I think in the book, Anna Karenina is emotional. [There are] so many things that are typically Russian. It’s huge drama. For ballet, it’s perfect.”
The Joffrey Ballet — ‘Anna Karenina’
When: Feb. 13-24
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $35 to $176
The world premiere of the resulting ballet, “Anna Karenina,” the Joffrey’s first collaboration with the Australian Ballet, will open Feb. 13 at the Auditorium Theatre and run for 10 performances through Feb. 24.
This new work represents another major step in the Joffrey’s continuing evolution from a company that once performed primarily shorter, non-narrative repertory to one that presents mostly full-length story ballets.
The shift began in 1995, when it moved to Chicago and switched from being largely a touring company to a resident ensemble. The transformation gained more steam in 2013, when the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation awarded the Joffrey a $500,000 challenge grant to begin an endowment for the creation and presentation of full-length story ballets like this one.
“In terms of building our subscription (base) and ticket sales here and what the audience wants in Chicago,” Wheater said, “we’ll always have a place for experimental work. But we know that experimental work does not pay the bills.”
In 2018-19, three of the company’s four programs feature evening-length story ballets, including this new take on “Anna Karenina.” “I thought,” he said, ‘Wow, how would it be to tell the story today of Anna Karenina? What about that book is still important and still relevant today?”
To choreograph the work, he immediately thought of Possokhov, who has worked with the Joffrey several times before. “It is in his blood – all those great Russian novels,” the artistic director said. “When you grow up there, you know them all.”
In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna abandons her husband and child to pursue her love for Aleksei Vronsky, a dashing young officer (performed in this production by a rotating cast of Dylan Gutierrez, Greig Matthews and Alberto Velazquez). But when he tires of her and goes off to war, the adulterous wife throws herself under a train and dies.
Working with dramaturge Valeriy Pecheykin on the libretto, Possokhov drew some guidance from a 1972 adaptation that was created for famed Russian ballerina Maya Plisetkaya. But he chose to include the novel’s sub-plot surrounding Konstantin Levin (danced variously by Yoshihisa Arai, Rory Hohenstein or Graham Maverick), who has a contrastingly happy marriage.
The resulting ballet, which runs a little more than two hours, involves Joffrey’s entire 46-member company as well as eight supernumeraries, a child dancer and mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center.
Wheater believes that audiences who know the novel will feel comfortable with this necessarily reduced version of the story. “By keeping it to really the key characters, I think it has made it clearer for the audience,” he said. “We want them to understand the humanity of these people and how we can all make mistakes in life but we pay the price for them.”
For the music, Possokhov turned to a Russian composer he has worked with three times before – 35-year-old Ilya Demutsky. “We feel the same,” Possokhov said. “We think the same. In the ballet world, it’s hard to find a composer whom you trust. Several times in my life I have canceled performances because the music I commissioned never worked.”
Music Director Scott Speck describes Joffrey’s first full-length commissioned score as masterfully crafted with hummable tunes. It shows clear influences of the great Russian ballet composers of the past, including Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and especially Prokofiev.
“It creates a sound world,” he said, “which is already to a large extent familiar to the audience and, therefore, it will immediately bring them into Imperial Russia, which is, course, when this takes place.”
Victoria Jaiani, one of three Joffrey dancers who will portray the ballet’s title character, believes the music perfectly evokes the novel. “It’s easier for me to bring out Anna in me,” she said, “because I relate to the music and it evokes just the right feelings for me.”
Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated designer Tom Pye has created an abstract set that uses projections on a series of moving panels. Possokhov called his opulent costumes “very precise” re-creations of the flowing 19th-century styles, with the choreographer having to make concessions in the movement to accommodate them. “It’s worth it,” the choreographer said of the historical aesthetic. “It’s amazing.”
Possokhov began setting the choreography and rehearsing the dancers last spring, returning to Chicago in the summer and fall. He has put the finishing touches on the work in the five weeks leading up to the approaching debut.
“It’s a great story,” said Jaiani, who is in her 16th season with the company, “and I relate to it because it’s about love, it’s about passion and it’s a lot about family values and then the choices. I think it’s really beautiful. I’m excited to wear the costumes. They’re stunning.”
Possokhov’s choreography is anchored in classical ballet, but it requires considerable versatility from the dancers and pushes them in sometimes unexpected ways, including lifts in which Jaiani feels like she is flying. “The movement is very much free,” she said, “not in the sense that you are free to do whatever you want, but it feels large.”
“I’m having a great time,” the dancer continued. “I’m getting nervous as we’re getting closer to premiere, because it feels like we need more time. We always need more time, but I think it is coming together nicely.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.