Monday, March 18, 2024

The Joffrey Ballet - "Anna Karenina"

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani in
Possokhov's Anna Karenina
Photo Cheryl Mann

Cal Performances presents
The Joffrey Ballet
Anna Karenina
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 15, 2024

If you look on my bookshelf, you will indeed find a copy of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, procured at the beginning of the pandemic. It was going to be a homebound season, so what better time to tackle such an epic and mammoth novel. Well, four years later and it’s not yet finished. Someday. Thankfully, there are plenty of online resources to fill in the blanks – characters, plot points, overall themes. So, when attending any dance adaptations of the book, I can, for the most part, follow the narrative line. 

This past weekend, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet brought their 2019 version to Cal Performances on the UC Berkeley campus, accompanied live by the Berkeley Symphony. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov (well-known to local audiences as the longtime choreographer-in-residence at San Francisco Ballet), Anna Karenina takes the viewer on a wide-ranging emotional journey of duty, yearning, lust, hope and despair. Weaving classic movement with video projection by Finn Ross, song by Lindsay Metzger and stunning scenic design by Tom Pye, the two-act ballet was entirely engrossing. Possokhov had a lot of story to cover in a short time, and he did it. A multitude of scenes unpacked all the action, and each was cinematic, grand and fast-moving without feeling rushed. The motifs were all there: the trains, the idea of flying informing every pas de deux. And the theme of rebelling, resisting, and reacting to the era’s structural, cultural and societal norms was abundantly present all the way to the final blackout. This ballet gets many things right. From the undeniable passion to the compositional structure to the relation of a complicated narrative, if you get a chance to see it, go.

Act I has a lot going on, but again the transition from one landscape to another was incredibly smooth and well done. Early in the act, we visit Kitty Shcherbatskaya’s (Yumi Kanazawa) home where Possokhov’s choreography really shines. The partnering and solos were clean, inventive and surprising without feeling fussy. It is here that the audience encounters Anna’s (Victoria Jaiani) infatuation and entanglement with Alexey Vronsky (Alberto Velazquez) despite the fact that she is already married with a family. And from then on, the thesis of the ballet is set - the chasm between satisfaction with what one has and the desire for the ‘other’. What follows are multiple large group sequences – ballrooms, train stations, a racecourse. Whether there were too many dancers or too large a set for the Zellerbach stage, the movement within these larger scenes got muddled and crowded from time to time. For me, the choreography was stronger (and quite mesmerizing) when there were fewer people present - smaller groups, solos or the many duets. 

Act II’s first scene was perhaps my favorite of the evening, a brilliant pas de trois between Anna, Vronsky and Anna’s husband (Dylan Gutierrez). What a moment Possokhov built showing the interconnectedness and shared reality of these three characters. Arising out of that trio was an equally moving pas de deux for the two men. Unison phrases indicated and acknowledged how their lives were following the same track – in love with Anna, wanting her, and wanting her to want them. While I found this part of the ballet particularly compelling, I must say that I was totally enthralled with all of Act II. I know this because I barely took any notes. I just wanted to be in the room, witnessing the wonder that Possokhov, his team and the company was birthing onstage. The only spot where Act II lost momentum was during the lengthy epilogue, where the ballet heads to the rural countryside. The urban/rural dichotomy certainly plays a role in the source material, but these were the final moments of the ballet. It felt rushed (and a bit of an afterthought) to introduce a new theme at this juncture. 

The Berkeley Symphony, conducted by Scott Speck, impressively rose to the technical challenges and grand dynamics of Ilya Demutsky’s score. And Metzger’s vocals were equally sublime. Though as often happens when vocalists are paired with a full orchestra, the sound balance isn’t always ideal. When the orchestra was at full volume, it was sometimes difficult to hear the vocal line.


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