After two years of Covid delay, Yuri Possokhov’s anticipated Anna Karenina finally made it to Sydney. A co-commission between the Australian Ballet and Joffrey Ballet, this Anna Karenina is danced to an original score by Ilya Demutsky, with costumes and sets by Tom Pye and a libretto by Moscow-based director and playwright Valeriy Pecheykin. Perhaps because of the production's Russianness, or perhaps because of the ballet world's current fracturing over Russian politics, opening night commenced with a dedication to the victims of the Ukraine war.

Robyn Hendricks (Anna)
© Jeff Busby

It’s an ambitious task to reimagine Tolstoy’s sweeping epic – often called one of the greatest novels ever written – as a two-hour ballet. Possokhov claims he achieved the necessary condensing by focusing on the characters’ psychological states. As a result, the production is a stripped-back, monochromatic affair that is slick and cinematic. Sets are shadowy and bare, the odd sofa or table sitting alone on the dark stage (David Finn's lighting). Walls are black mesh partitions that glide silently across. Black-and-white footage (Finn Ross' projections) hint at setting: a railway station, falling snow, windows flicking past as if seen from a carriage. It all creates a strong silver-screen, psychodrama feel. The costumes are mostly dark too, all brooding jewel-tones, with beautiful detail and texture. Anna’s red and orange dress, an exception to the black, is based on the 1885 Aleksei Mikhailovich Kolesov “portrait” of Anna.

Anna Karenina
© Jeff Busby

The music gets in on the psychodrama as well, most literally in the on-stage opera singer (Dimity Shepherd), who represents Anna’s psyche, but also in the score’s dissonance, with brass blaring as an omen of Anna’s fateful train. The music is evidently Russian in flavour – Demutsky claims to have drawn on classical Russian composers such as Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, as well as Russian folk music.

Callum Linnane (Vronsky) and Robyn Hendricks (Anna)
© Jeff Busby

Elements of Russian character dance were also woven into what was otherwise predictable classical choreography, which sat oddly over Demutsky's score. For me, this is where the production began to fall apart – I admit I got bored. I I couldn’t find much synergy between the cinematic musical dissonance and the movement, and this mismatch made everything feel a bit gimmicky. Anna’s dramatic gestures (spasming legs, anguished hand-reaching, hair falling out like Giselle) felt superficial. Kitty similarly got the clichéd ingénue gestures of foot-stamping, dress-smoothing, and being kissed on the forehead by concerned parents, almost indistinguishable from Clara in Act 1 of The Nutcracker. The exceptions were some of the crowd scenes – Possokhov has a strength for corps choreography, and was able to create a real sense of mass and movement using a smaller number of dancers, very fitting given Tolstoy’s ability to write a breathing, feeling crowd in such vivid detail. A real standout was Karenin’s parliament scene, cleverly involving a male corps on wooden chairs, both musically-sensitive and choreographically interesting. It was also the most contemporary, and I wondered if the ballet would have been better with more of this tight edginess.

Adam Bull (Karenin) and Robyn Hendricks (Anna)
© Jeff Busby

There were also real problems with theatrical flow. While it would be almost impossible to capture Tolstoy’s full character arcs, there was too little character development for a “psychological” story ballet. Anna and Vronsky – with almost no build up – have an overly long erotic pas de deux in Act 1 that clearly shows their lust. But unfortunately it’s only by Act 2’s “Italian” pas de deux, as their relationship sours, that we get a hint of a deeper psychological entanglement. As for Anna’s death, it is masterfully staged – initially. A single approaching light signals the oncoming train, made vivid by the sound of train wheels. But then Anna’s spread-eagled silhouette lingers too long, her clothes start dramatically deteriorating, and I again got the sense of something that stopped short at slick cinematic spectacle and went no deeper.

Callum Linnane (Vronsky), Robyn Hendricks (Anna) and Adam Bull (Karenin)
© Jeff Busby

The ballet then finishes with Levin’s joyous “pastorale”. While Possokhov wanted to retain Tolstoy’s ending, it comes as a shock because of the lack of character development. The literary Levin’s country happiness makes sense as an incarnation of his internal religious and philosophical awakening after long anguish. But since the ballet’s Levin has no backstory, we're left a bit disoriented to move straight from Anna’s suicide to Levin and Kitty watching benevolently as their peasants make both hay and love on the stage floor, against a garish pastoral backdrop.

Benedicte Bemet (Kitty) and Brett Chynoweth (Levin)
© Jeff Busby

Production shortcomings aside, the dancers were outstanding. Australian Ballet has achieved a new level of artistic professionalism under artistic director David Hallberg. As Anna and Vronsky, Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane (promoted to Principal last month for his performance in the Melbourne season) gave wonderfully committed performances. Audience-favourite Adam Bull was effortless and warm as Karenin, and the lovely Benedicte Bemet well-cast as Kitty. Special mention goes to Brett Chynoweth, who used his few scenes to dance Levin's dignity and goodness so impressively and vividly.