Just before the opening of Anna Karenina, one of the most famous Russian stories of all time, a message is projected on to the stage: “The Australian Ballet opens our heart to the victims of the war in Ukraine.”
It makes for a sobering prologue to this much-anticipated production, which was twice postponed by the pandemic, and now opens in Sydney on a day when the world is learning of Russian atrocities in the city of Bucha. It is a dark time to be watching this story.
The ballet’s choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, was born in Lugansk, Ukraine, and trained in Moscow before joining the Bolshoi Ballet. His distilled and beautifully spare version of Leo Tolstoy’s epic tale of love, adultery, morality and duty, is a jointly commissioned production by Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and the Australian Ballet.
It is a ballet for adults rather than children: no lavish “chocolate-box” elements, no snow on stage, no one arrives in a troika, there are no ballrooms. Instead, we witness a complex psychological drama full of yearning and restraint, desire and madness, on a bare stage with little more than a bed, an easel or a hay bale to provide physical context.
Robyn Hendricks, as Anna, is already a superstar of the Australian Ballet and here she is mesmerising as the young married woman expressing her full seductive power with liquid movements of her arms, draped in black velvet and lace, or a simple stretch of her neck. Later, she lets rip with partner, Callum Linnane (Anna’s lover, Count Vronksy), in one of the steamiest sex scenes in ballet.
Linnane is a rising star who brings palpable heat to the role. His Vronsky is a young soldier with plenty of snap in his legs and a towering, luminous beauty. His acting isn’t as strong as Hendricks’, who is magnificent in her mad scene, but their dancing together looks effortless. Hendricks makes it clear that Anna knows their love story can never work out. One dance, in which a feverish Anna dreams of having a husband (Adam Bull as Alexei Karenin) and a lover simultaneously, is a highlight of the production.
In the smaller featured roles, Benedicte Beme is bright, sharp and bouncy as the teenage debutante Kitty Shcherbatskaya, and her soon-to-be husband, Konstantin Levin, is performed beautifully by Brett Chynoweth, whose final solo is a knockout.
For those in the audience who don’t already know Tolstoy’s story, it might be hard to follow. The plot isn’t spelled out but the striking and sophisticated visual images help the viewer. The train station, the racecourse and a field in the countryside are supported by projected film and glorious lighting (by David Finn) that washes over the stage. The dancers are dressed in the colours of a Rothko painting, burnt orange and red or dark shades of blue, with designer Tom Pye drawing on 19th-century underwear designs for Anna’s “undressed” looks.
The music composed by Ilya Demutsky, one of the most sought-after composers in the world, is a real star of the production. The piano is often front and centre, with wind instruments rather than strings driving the emotion. At times, it sounds like a sweeping film score. Occasionally, the musicians are so quiet and still that we lean in to hear them.
This production is a modern masterpiece to be savoured, a gift for those who love ballet, students of the artform and anyone who appreciates literature, design and music.