Eifman Ballet Of St Petersburg
Hong Kong, Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
19 October 2013
A version of this review previously appeared in the South China Morning Post
Eifman Ballet made a triumphant return to Hong Kong with one of choreographer/artistic director Boris Eifman’s most successful ballets, Anna Karenina. The company is a perennial favourite with the Hong Kong audience, so much so that an extra show had to be added – a rare accolade in a community where the arts are mostly low on the agenda. Anna Karenina did not disappoint the fans. Quintessential Eifman packed with athletic choreography, striking theatrical effects and superb dancing, it makes gripping entertainment if not high art.
Eifman has jettisoned the sub-plots and philosophical aspects of Tolstoy’s novel to focus on the central story. Anna Karenina falls in love with dashing cavalry officer Vronsky and eventually runs off with him, abandoning her husband, Karenin and small son. After initial happiness the affair falls apart – and while Vronsky returns to his old life, Anna will always be an outcast. Having lost her lover, her child and her place in society and now addicted to morphine, Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.
In terms of dance Eifman, as always, makes huge demands on the technique and stamina of his dancers and they respond nobly. Anna’s pas de deux with Karenin and Vronsky are filled with spectacular acrobatics and the ensembles for the corps de ballet are almost equally difficult. Some of the choreography is outstanding, notably the final scene where the evocation of the fatal train by the corps is brilliantly done. Other memorable moments include the scene where Anna and Vronsky, in separate places, echo the same moves as they express their longing for each other, and the lively drinking sequence in the officers’ barracks.
On the downside, the choreography is too busy – every time Anna goes near either her husband or her lover they promptly embark on a series of death-defying lifts which, however thrilling, tell us more about the dancers’ physical prowess than the characters’ psychological development. There is a lack of contrast – the eye begins to crave moments of stillness to punctuate the relentless pace. The Hieronymus Bosch-like sequence where a leotard-clad Anna is tormented in a morphine-induced delirium is powerful in itself but jars with the rest – we seem to have jumped into another ballet.
Dramatically, Eifman give us a graphic novel/manga version of Tolstoy which has both the strengths and the weaknesses of that approach. The critical moments of the story are portrayed to great effect through a series of vivid scenes which stand out in the mind. At the same time, the plot is so tightly telescoped (into two acts of 45 minutes each) that it feels rushed, and too many links are missing. Above all, the ballet fails to convey the complexity and emotional depth of Tolstoy’s characters and their relationships. Admittedly no easy feat to pull off in dance, this isn’t impossible – think of works like Jardin aux Lilas, Month in the Country or Mayerling.
However, sublety has never been Eifman’s middle name and nuance is not his nature. He has a real gift for creating leitmotif movements to convey what his people are thinking, but character roles are non-existent – in an Eifman ballet, everybody has to dance. The pitfalls of this are illustrated by the portrayal of Karenin – instead of a stuffy official 20 years older than his wife, we have yet another tall, blonde principal with a big jump and strong partnering skills. This undermines the sense of the story and weakens our sympathy for Anna.
Vyacheslav Okunev’s costumes are excellent, particularly the gorgeous gowns for Anna. The Tchaikovsky score is a well-chosen selection of the composer’s greatest hits (although here marred by hideously tinny sound – a black mark to whoever was responsible).
The performance of the evening was Oleg Gabyshev’s Vronsky, magnificently danced and passionately acted. In the title role Nina Zmievets danced with astounding strength and fearlessness but failed to move me – she came over as too strong a character to be convincing as this hapless heroine. Oleg Markov was a fine Karenin and the corps performed with inexhaustible energy and commitment.