There is a cinematic quality to Christian Spuck’s reimagining of Anna Karenina for Ballett Zürich that owes much to Alfred Hitchcock – in the grainy black-and-white film clips of trains and train tracks that are repeatedly projected on a white drape, in the austere design’s use of shadow, and in the score brilliantly cobbled from brittle contemporary compositions and lush Rachmaninov. We all know how it ends for Anna, so these ominous portents in the ballet are purely artistic, rather than spoilers.

Filipe Portugal (Alexej Karenin) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Anna Karenina) in Spuck's <i>Anna Karenina</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Filipe Portugal (Alexej Karenin) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Anna Karenina) in Spuck's Anna Karenina
© Monika Rittershaus

Spuck has done an admirable job of plucking episodes from this sprawling epic to translate into ballet, conjuring up a rich yet bleak emotional landscape. He largely succeeds where Cranko failed with Onegin – whose unforgettable pas de deux and a single solo (for Lensky) barely compensate for the second-rate Tchaikovsky score and the long stretches of dreary filler choreography. Companies continue to trot out Onegin, mainly to give their top-flight ballerinas a shot at the high drama of Tatiana. But ballerinas should now be clamoring to portray Anna. And not just Anna, but two other emblems of 19th century Russian womanhood, the Shcherbatskaya sisters, Dolly and Kitty, whose romantic entanglements provide dramatic counterpoint to Anna’s combustible liaisons.

Spuck intelligently limns the arc of each of these relationships, and moves the action along at a terrific clip. His deployment of the ensemble, in a glorious haze of silk and taffeta, all twitchy wrists and elbows and damning glances over one shoulder, gives us damning insight into the social fabric of the time.

Viktorina Kapitonova as Anna Karenina © Monika Rittershaus
Viktorina Kapitonova as Anna Karenina
© Monika Rittershaus
He is well-served by the smashing Viktorina Kapitonova as Anna – who knows how to work a ballroom, her long graceful neck wreathed in diamonds, eloquent shoulders speaking novels in low-cut gowns, and long feet with their finely sculpted arches thrusting her impetuously in one direction then another. The choreography further bestows on her a stirring dimension of motherhood that is rarely seen in ballet. Kapitonova’s dramatic strengths are vividly put to use in the conflict between Anna and her husband (a chilling Filipe Portugal), in the paranoia over her lover’s dwindling affections (the dashing William Moore) and in the agony that Anna suffers upon being stripped of the right to see her child (the adorable Isaac Wong Hei.)

That the supporting characters are strongly rendered in the wake of Anna’s dramas is a tribute to Galina Mihaylova and Daniel Mulligan as Dolly and her philandering husband Stiva, and Michelle Willems and Tars Vandebeek as Kitty and her fiancé, the upstanding landowner Konstantin Levin. Mihaylova turns in a feisty and dignified portrayal of Dolly, far from the martyr that the character is often made out to be. Willems keenly conveys Kitty’s frivolous rejection of Levin, her devastation at being thrown over by Vronsky, and subsequent epiphany as she realizes that Levin really is her soulmate. 

The boyish and charming Vandebeek makes an ideal hero – the enlightened landowner, sincere and good. In the most arresting ensemble scene, he attempts to join the peasants who are scythe-mowing his fields. At first, they scorn him and his lack of facility, but eventually he gets the hang of it and is admitted into their tribe. The choreography, that owes as much to street dance as it does to ballet, creates a wondrous semaphore of agriculture, swept along by a powerful industrial soundscape manufactured by Martin Donner. 

Artists of Ballett Zürich in Spuck's <i>Anna Karenina</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Artists of Ballett Zürich in Spuck's Anna Karenina
© Monika Rittershaus

Yet Spuck’s balletic imagination fails him at two key moments – first, in the love-making scene between Anna and Vronsky, which is reduced to literal bodice-ripping and a bunch of rolling around on the floor. (Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 should have inspired something more than B movie-grade sex here.) Second, in the Italian idyll which Anna and Vronsky enjoy after escaping the stifling confines of Petersburg, Spuck delivers a generic happy pas de deux. Perhaps pure romantic bliss is a harder emotion to portray in ballet than a tortured psyche! 

The epic score exploits the rich textures and controlled chaos of Witold Lutosławski’s work as well as that of Sulkhan Tsintsadze and Josef Bardanashvili. Together with Donner’s wizardry, the score is evocative of a period and yet timeless – echoing the grip that the novel has maintained over readers through generations and across continents. So, it was a bit of a letdown to experience the production at the Hong Kong Arts Festival with a soundtrack that, for practical reasons, had to be taped – save for a handful of transcendent scenes in which pianist Luigi Largo and mezzo soprano Lin Shi joined the cast on stage.

Artists of Ballett Zürich in Spuck's <i>Anna Karenina</i> © Gregory Batardon
Artists of Ballett Zürich in Spuck's Anna Karenina
© Gregory Batardon

In the first act, Shi accompanies Levin as he flees the city for his country estate; she sings his loneliness and frustration over losing Kitty. Later, as Anna is shunned by society, Shi gives voice to Anna’s despair. Shi ends the song and walks offstage, leaving behind a small bottle, which Anna retrieves. It turns out to contain the opium which fuels Anna’s final descent into hopelessness. This masterstroke of staging delivers a metaphor for music as the driving force behind ballet – more than novels, no matter how great.