Anna Karenina is also a ballet based on Leo Tolstoy's classic novel. In 1972, Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote the music for the first incarnation by choreographer Maya Plisetskaya. Since then several choreographers have interpreted the story in different ways. This writeup is about the ballet choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky which had its World premiere on the Royal Danish Ballet in 2004.
As testified by the writeups above, the story of Anna Karenina is rather complicated. Tolstoy wrote the massive novel only a few years after the even grander War and Peace, and it can be said that whilst War and Peace deals with how the destinies of the characters are changed by external strife in the form of the war, Anna Karenina deals with how the destinies of the characters are changed by the internal strife inside the eponymous (tragic) heroine of the ballet.
The ballet deals almost solely with the main theme of the book, the existential dilemma of Anna Karenina as she is emotionally torn between her husband, the public servant Karenin, and her love, the playboy Vronsky. With her husband she lives the proper and ethical life, a life where she enjoys the highest social regard, and a life—most importantly—with her beloved infant son. But it is also a life without any passion, a life where she is hardly more than a piece of furniture to her husband. Passion is the domain of Vronsky, but while her emotions may trump the social conventions—a rather daring proposition at the time—the question is whether her passionate love of Vronsky can trump her being a mother.
This is a tragedy. Don't expect a happy ending.
A blizzard rages inside Anna Karenina. On one hand, she desires to do what is expected of her and to gain social respect and admiration. On the other hand, she yearns for the romantic satisfaction of requited love. And finally she wants to be with her beloved son.
Anna Karenina is conflicted and as the drama unfolds she tosses and turns from the embrace of one man to the other, but she cannot find happiness in either of the two. In the end, after having left Russia with Vronsky, she finally can't help herself and returns to reunite with her son which Karenin has kept away from her. She is turned away by Karenin once more, and she suddenly realizes that not only has her infidelity lost her her son, it has also ruined her social standing. As Vronsky appears to turn his back to her as well, she fears she has lost everything, and as she stands on the platform of a station a freight train rolls by…
"And just at that moment, when the middle point between the wheels drew level with her, she flung aside the red handbag and drawing her head down between her shoulders she fell underneath the car on her hands, and with a light movement, as though she were preparing to get up again at once, she sank to her knees. And just at this moment she was horror-struck by what she was doing. "Where am I? What am I doing? Why?" She tried to get up, to throw herself back, but something huge and implacable struck her on the head and dragged her down. "Lord, forgive me for everything!" she murmured, feeling the impossibility of struggling…" -Anna Karenina
…and that is the sad end of Anna Karenina.
The above synopsis of Anna Karenina deals only with the part told by the ballet. The novel has other threads as well, even though the love triangle is the main theme.
The ballet is danced in a very dramatic style, and in this fashion it places itself squarely in a tradition in the Royal Danish Ballet of dramatic ballet going back to Bournonville. It is unmistakably contemporary, though. The scenography by Mikael Melbye uses video projection to create cinema-style fast scene changes, and an entire train carriage which moves and swivels across the scene is used to great effect. Because of the love triangle theme there is room for many spectacular pas de deux' (and even some "pas de trois"), but my favorite of the ballet is a scene taking place on a hippodrome where an ensemble of male dancers unbelievably brilliantly recreates the excitement and athleticism of a horse race, entirely without horses.
The music by Rodion Shchedrin deserves mention. It is very diverse and interesting, but it never steals the show from the dancers. Shchedrin's music is a patchwork of different styles and ideas—from twelve tone music to romantic to post modern—but it complements the choreography amazingly, and the end product seems smooth and complete. A particularly stunning part of the score is when Anna Karenina visits the Opera, late in the second act. Appropriately, the opera she is watching is Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi—Romeo and Juliet—and the music from this opera, including a duet, is played from a prerecorded tape. Yet, the orchestra doesn't stop playing. They play on—on top of their prerecorded music which goes on unfazed—describing the shock and reactions from the audience in the Opera as Anna enters.
The ballet occasionally has a hard time conveying the complicated story to the audience. It definitely pays to know the plot beforehand, but that said, while some scenes may be difficult to interpret immediately, you are eventually clued in as the following scenes elaborate on the plot twists and turns, and, all-in-all, the Anna Karenina of Ratmansky is well worth watching, should you ever have the chance. It is an excellent and moving ballet, and the performance in Copenhagen makes it a credible part of the Royal Danish Ballet's ambition of being the world leader of dramatic ballet.