“Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy’s vast novel of illicit love among the nobility of Czarist Russia, begins and ends with the image of death on the railroad tracks: the first an accident witnessed by the married Anna and her lover-to-be, Count Vronsky, and the second a suicide, the most famous in literature. In Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna’s fate is like an unstoppable train that bears down on her from the moment she strays from the code that governs her sex, class and culture.
Joffrey Ballet’s magnificent revival of “Anna Karenina” (first staged by the company in 2019) captures the book’s tragic, inexorable power. Beneath the surface gorgeousness of the production—including Yuri Possokhov’s elegant and eloquent choreography; Ilya Demutsky’s period-flavored yet unmistakably of-the-moment score; Tom Pye’s lavish, character-revealing costuming and richly textured, atmospheric stage design; and Finn Ross’ magical, space-defining projections—there’s a darker, more ominous note that’s always thrumming away, reminding us that actions have consequences and present pleasures come with future costs.
It begins cinematically: a winter tableau with the St. Petersburg train station projected on a screen and the performers behind a gray scrim that gives the scene an antique cast, like a sepia-toned photo. We see Anna (movingly portrayed by the long-limbed, luminous Victoria Jaiani) as she first encounters the Prince Charming-like Vronsky (played with airy lightness by Alberto Velazquez) over the body of an old man struck by a train, his life crushed out of him in an instant. The connection is made between erotic attraction and death, two forces that disrupt every effort at order and control.
Finally the screen rises, revealing the dancers dressed in a dazzling array of colors and fabrics, looking every inch the aristocrats that they are. The full corps de ballet appears, pairing off in the ballroom while the work’s major characters—Anna, Vronsky, Anna’s considerably older husband Karenin, her young and vivacious relation Kitty, and Levin, Kitty’s dogged suitor and the novel’s moral and spiritual center—enact through movement their complicated, shifting relationships. We learn of the teenage infatuation of Kitty (danced with warmth by Anais Bueno, whose smile lights up the stage) for Vronsky, which is dashed by the already obvious torch he carries for the black-garbed, seductive Anna, and of the parallel disappointment of Levin (danced by the gifted, high-leaping Yoshihisa Arai, who is underused here) as he takes in Kitty’s crestfallen response to Vronsky’s merely polite interest in her.
Working from a novel with dozens of characters and many subplots, librettist Valeriy Pecheykin had no choice but to narrow the adaptation’s focus onto key figures and moments. Whereas the novel is, among other things, a portrait of a still-feudal country undergoing modernization, the ballet is essentially the story of a love triangle consisting of Anna, the husband for whom she has a strong but passionless love, and the lover she craves not least because their relationship is so thrillingly, romantically transgressive.
It’s Dylan Gutierrez as Anna’s injured husband who gives the most memorable performance. As tall as a basketball player and as agile as an acrobat, Gutierrez dominates the stage, fully embodying Karenin’s strength and dignity, as well as his cool, brooding detachment. His dancing has an angular, somewhat jagged quality, reflective of the anger and resentment he feels as not only a cuckolded husband, but also an ignored liberal statesman in autocratic Russia.
In fact, relatively little of the show’s dancing is purely and simply beautiful in the classic ballet fashion. There’s often a sideways note of tension or anxiety, from the subtle dissonances and syncopations that punctuate Demutsky’s neo-romantic score (masterfully performed, as always, by Scott Speck’s orchestra and complemented by Lindsay Metzger’s haunting vocals) to Jaiani’s occasionally rigid rather than flowing positions and Velazquez’ slightly awkward solo in the first act, indicative of a debonair man who has lost his usual equilibrium.
This “Anna Karenina” is an overwhelming sensory experience that reveals the full emotional impact of the source novel. It has the scope and intensity of a Wagnerian opera. But whereas Wagner was strident and grandiose, the Tolstoy novel and this dance adaptation are compassionate and psychologically acute, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of plausible, complex human beings. The production emphasizes that there are no bad guys in this story, just imperfect people trapped in impossible situations. That’s what makes this tale a tragedy, rather than the romantic melodrama it could have been.
Unfortunately, the show’s ending hits a wrong note, as the scene shifts away from the city to the countryside, with Kitty and Levin enjoying their blissful marriage, and joyful country folk alternately threshing grain and rolling around in it. It feels like the channel has been changed, switching us from Tolstoy to “Oklahoma!,” and leaving out the story’s denouement.
Ending aside, “Anna Karenina” is a tour de force for the Joffrey, displaying the company’s awe-inspiring artistic and technical capabilities. If you can see this show during its brief two-week run, do so. Note that opening night a group of peaceful demonstrators gathered in front of the theater, expressing outrage at Putin’s twenty-first century Russia via Tolstoy’s nineteenth-century novel.
But Tolstoy is hardly their enemy, and neither is this ballet. He was a pacifist and citizen of the world, who reached deep into our shared humanity. Like all great art, “Anna Karenina” is peaceful and generous in spirit, helping us get in touch with our highest and best selves. Tolstoy depicts tragedy in order to encourage us to create an un-tragic world, one that’s less fateful and more hopeful. Based on the success of this ballet, it’s a vision that still inspires.
Joffrey Ballet at Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker, (312)386-8905, joffrey.org, tickets start at $36. Through February 26.