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Joffrey Ballet’s ‘Anna Karenina’ a masterful homage to an epic novel

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani in the Joffrey Ballet's world premiere of "Anna Karenina" at the Auditorium Theatre.

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani in the Joffrey Ballet's world premiere of "Anna Karenina" at the Auditorium Theatre. | Cheryl Mann

Love and loss, violence and betrayal suffuse Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” — one of the great novels of the 19th century.

The Joffrey Ballet presented the world premiere Wednesday evening of Russian-born choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s new adaptation of this tragic tale — a sweeping, cinematic and sometimes heart-pounding take with unfailingly superb dancing throughout.

Aptly mirroring the seemingly back-and-forth, bifurcated tenor of our time, this admirably ambitious production smartly and nearly seamlessly modulates in look, choreography and affect between past and present, naturalism and abstraction.

The Joffrey Ballet — ‘Anna Karenina’
★★★1⁄2
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15, with eight additional performances through Feb. 24
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.
Tickets: $35-$176
Info: joffrey.org

Contrasts abound. Although firmly set in the 19th century with stunningly opulent period costumes by Tom Pye, the designer’s set has a contemporary, minimalist feel with panels dropping and sliding in and out and just a sprinkling of furniture or chandeliers to suggest a locale.

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Much of the production’s strong visual and historical sensibility comes via Finn Ross’ masterful projections, which heighten the ballet’s cinematic character with their mostly black-and-white images of roaring train wheels and flashbacks of faces and scenes to suggest characters’ inner thoughts.

Each act begins with an unsettlingly dreamy, abstract prologue that foreshadows the action to come. A few beams of jarring white light (designed by David Finn) from the side combine with fog and the blackness of the rest of the stage to create a sense of coldness and dread that gives this ballet the unexpected feel of a psychological thriller.

Ilya Demutsky’s music — Joffrey’s first full-length commissioned score — is suitably atmospheric, evocative and, again, cinematic. It is ably realized by conductor Scott Speck and the 52-member Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra with mood-setting, recitative-like vocals performed live in Russian and French by mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger.

Reflecting the dichotomies within this production, it harks back at times to the romanticism of Tchaikovsky but in more fraught, intense moments, jumps forward in time with jolts of discordance and percussiveness.

The production’s stumbles come in the storytelling. The book runs more than 800 pages in most published versions, and the challenge here is to convey this multilayered story in movement instead of words and do it in a little more than two hours. The inevitable condensation of the narrative results in some scenes feeling fragmented, and, even after reading the synopsis in the program, it was still difficult at times to follow the plot.

An extended, sexualized duet in Act 1, with the cheating wife and her lover, soldier Alexey Vronsky, snaking around each other on a sofa and Anna cantilevering off him, her legs spread around his thighs, vividly conveys their lust but not any deeper connection.

Arguably too late, the audience doesn’t get a sense of their real love until Scene 3 of Act 2, a beautifully tender duet that is one of the ballet’s choreographic highlights. At its end, Vronsky crumples her into a kind of ball in his arms and drops her onto the floor, and only then do we begin to feel empathy for Anna.

Perhaps the most questionable decision comes toward the ballet’s end. Anna commits suicide in a penultimate scene that is staggeringly well staged. She walks onto railroad tracks that are slowly turned so her back is to the audience. A bright white light — all we see of an oncoming train — flashes blindingly from the back of the stage onto her, casting a giant shadow onto a front scrim as wind from the locomotive whips her clothes.

Finn Ross’ masterful projections frame Victoria Jaiani (as as the titles character) in the Joffrey Ballet production of “Anna Karenina.” | Cheryl Mann

It is a breathtakingly bold and dramatic moment — one that would have made a devastating ending. Unfortunately, Possokhov and librettist Valeriy Pecheykin chose to largely hew to Tolstoy’s original conclusion, going on to show the happiness of Kitty (Anais Bueno) and Konstantin (Yoshihisa Arai), peripheral characters up to then. This approach drained much of the emotional power from Anna’s death, and this scene came off as overly long, anti-climactic and, worst of all, maudlin.

Possokhov’s demanding choreography manages to be both traditional and startlingly innovative. The dancing of the seven-member male ensemble at the end of Act 1, for example, was right out of a 19th-century classical ballet, with its barrel leaps and entrechats. But other scenes were much more contemporary, such as Anna’s off-kilter, drug-induced, hallucinatory meanderings in Act 2.

The ballet makes use of Joffrey’s entire 46-member company (there are three rotating casts in the principal roles) as well as six supernumeraries and a child dancer, the wonderfully polished Oliver Reeve Libke, and the performances are outstanding from top to bottom.

Possokhov puts enormous technical and dramatic demands on the role of Anna, and Victoria Jaiani handled them all with star-like aplomb, powerfully conveying Anna’s momentary ecstasy and eventual dissolution. Also deserving kudos were Alberto Velazquez, who conveyed both the virility and, later, conflicted feelings of Vronsky, and Fabrice Calmels, excellent as the hulking, wronged husband.

Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.

Yoshihisa Arai dances the role of Konstantin and Anais Bueno performs the role of Kitty in the Joffrey Ballet production of "Anna Karenina," choreographed and directed by Yuri Possokhov. | Cheryl Mann

Yoshihisa Arai dances the role of Konstantin and Anais Bueno performs the role of Kitty in the Joffrey Ballet production of “Anna Karenina,” choreographed and directed by Yuri Possokhov. | Cheryl Mann