Anna Karenina: Tolstoy’s tragedy interpreted by six choreographers

Anna Karenina, the movie directed by Joe Wright and starring Kiera Knightley, opens with a painting of the curtain at the Palais Garnier in Paris.

The luscious gold and red sweep of the fabric signals that the entire movie is going to be removed from reality. Many scenes unfold in an imaginary theatre, from the auditorium, to the wings, to the flies, to a prop room, and to the stage itself, complete with cardboard cut out footlights.

This puts the action within a storybook distance so that our connection with the tragedy is at arms’ length, but maybe that’s what Wright set out to achieve.

Although the story takes place in Russia in the 1870s, the Academy Award winning costumes borrow from the 1950s and the film features a rollcall of British actors and crew. The set was created at Shepparton Studios in Surrey, Joe Wright is British as are many of the actors, among them Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald and Cara Delevingne, and London is the second home of the choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who works in association with Sadlers Wells Theatre in Rosebery.

Wright’s Anna Karenina reminded me of a ballet or operetta rather than a theatrical drama. Every element appeared to be choreographed in detail, the first ballroom scene in particular.

Why were the characters dancing in such a mannered way with their wrists and arms entwining and their hands making strange shapes?

At the time I didn’t know that the entire movie, not just the ball scene, had been choreographed by Cherkaoui.

A few days after I saw the movie I read in the March 2013 issue of British Vogue that Joe Wright has a connection through his family with theatre and ballet.

In the Vogue feature he discussed his marriage to the sitar player, Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar, adding that “it makes total sense that I married a musician. My Dad used to be a scene painter for the Ballet Rambert and he would take me to Sadlers Wells…”

It was Anoushka who introduced him to Cherkaoui.

A search for connections between Cherkaoui and Anna Karenina, brought me to a New York Times’ feature late last year in which Wright told the dance writer, Gia Kourlas, that he conceived Anna Karenina as “a ballet with words…I really love the part of my job that is blocking – the movement of actors in space, and their physical relationships, and how you express that through a camera”.

Wright likened Cherkaoui’s choreography to Escher drawings, “so intensely mathematical but also expressive.

“In creating the movement and dances, which include two waltzes and a mazurka, Cherkaoui led a three-week workshop in London before filming began with the cast, which features 50 dancers. (He selected 10 he frequently uses; the others were hired after auditions in London.)

“He also worked closely in Antwerp, Belgium, where he is based, with Alicia Vikander, who portrays Kitty and who trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School for nine years”.

So, that makes Sidi Larbi the sixth choreographer who has created a dance interpretation of Tolstoy’s story.

The first was choreographed by Maya Plisetskaya for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Plisetskaya herself danced the role of Anna Karenina in costumes designed for her by Pierre Cardin.

As she wrote in her memoirs, I Maya Plisetskaya, the production had a rocky start, as the Soviet Union’s Deputy Minister for Culture, V.F Kukharsky gave it the thumbs down.

Eventually, he allowed it to be staged in 1972.

The next Anna Karenina ballet premiered in Belgrade in 1973, choreographed by Dimitrije Parlic, and the third in Melbourne in 1979 with André Prokovsky’s Anna Karenina for the Australian Ballet, with designs by Peter Farmer.

Boris Eifman’s version followed in 2005 and then Alexei Ratmansky’s in 2011.

I don’t think that Prokovsky’s Anna Karenina has been staged by the Australian Ballet since 1995 when, in August that year, I saw Miranda Coney as Anna and Steven Heathcote as Vronsky.

Joseph Janusaitis was Karenin, Stephen Baynes was Anna’s brother, Prince Oblonsky and Nigel Burley was Levin.

A program article by the Australian Ballet’s former archivist, Edward H. Pask, recalled the 1979 premiere, when the first cast Anna was Marilyn Rowe with guest artist Galina Samsova dancing the role for the second performance. In that first season Anna was also danced by Christine Walsh and Ann Jenner.

The role of Anna’s son, Seryozha, was danced by Stanton Welch alternating through the season with his brother, Damien.

Despite the considerable input of all six choreographers over the course of more than four decades it could be argued that Anna Karenina as a ballet has not yet succeeded as well as two other dance interpretations of great works of Russian literature, Onegin, (choreographed by Cranko), and A Month in the Country, (choreographed by Ashton).