Sometimes, a foreign language has words better fitted to express a certain sensation. We, after all, defer to Yiddish to describe somebody’s chutzpa, use the Italian bellissimo, and relish in French's joie de vivre! But Christian Spuck's production of Anna Karenina for the Zurich Ballet, which premièred last Sunday, is nothing less than a true German Augenschmaus – a “feast for the eyes”. The dancers’ performances, against a backdrop of Romantic and modern music, are a delight to watch, the modest sets ingenious - and succesful, and the elaborate costuming any little girl's Disney film come to life.

Viktorina Kapitonova © Monika Rittershaus
Viktorina Kapitonova
© Monika Rittershaus
Admittedly, it was some assignment to reduce the Tolstoy tome to a choreographed work that lasts only a little more than two hours. Readers know Anna Karenina is the story that countless other literary figures have cited as the mother ship of all great novels. But challenges of that sort hardly got in Spuck's way. In fact, the company's director made a point of focusing on the melodramatic narrative of the protagonist, Anna, precisely because it posed that challenge, suggesting that the written form gives "a concentrated insight to figures and situations, while dance, on the contrary, opens up possibilities to reveal the whole emotional palette and contradictions of the psyche".

The beautiful Anna (Viktorina Kapitonova) lives in St. Petersburg, in a colourless marriage with her husband Alexei Karenina (Filipe Portugal); a dry, self-assured, and highly respected government official, with whom she has a son. When she first meets the lively and pleasure-loving military officer, Count Vronsky (Denis Vieira), she is reluctant to enter into an affair with him, but soon gives way to his overpowering attraction. In the pas de deux of their first encounter, the two dancers were so erotically entwined as to bring even the fairly liberal Zurich audience to the edge of its seats. In one unprecedented manoeuvre, the handsome Vronsky strips Anna of her red satin bodice. It is to Kapitonova’s credit that she can recover it as gracefully as she does, clutching the gown to her chest, in a delicately choreographed moment of remorse.

Viktorina Kapitonova and Denis Vieria © Monika Rittershaus
Viktorina Kapitonova and Denis Vieria
© Monika Rittershaus
Predictably, it’s not long before the affair between the two is discovered, and oh, the irony! While Vronksy can carry on socializing openly and still commands the respect of his peers, the adulteress Anna is ostracized by society, and her husband even skirts her beloved young son away from her. Torn between moral duty and her love for Vronsky, Anna begins a descent into despair. She is increasingly jealous of her lover’s interaction with other women, and of his easy acceptance by the friends that meet her only with aversion. Ultimately, all things lost, she commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train.

Bolshoi-trained Viktorina Kapitomova excelled as Anna, both technically and emotionally. The arc of feelings she conjures up without words: from the heights of erotic love, to the depths of despair at losing both her precious son and her position in society, were utterly convincing.

Tolstoy’s is the story of a love affair doomed by prevalent moral attitudes, but the novel also serves to illustrate a peaked panorama of Russian society in the late 19th century. In this opulent portrait of the traditional mores, the upright landowner Levin and Kitty – daughter of a St. Petersburg prince – are Anna and Vronsky’s polar opposites. Their relationship is dominated by simple sincerity and tenderness, and they find fulfilment in a happy life in the country. While the Kapitonova - Vieira duo took the prize for its electric charge, Tars Vanderbeek and Katja Wünsche, as Levin and Kitty perfectly paced their innocent and playful pas de deux. Set against a rural black and white pastoral image and to an enchanting Rachmaninoff score, Spuck's choreography for the lovers was as sweet as any can be. Even the most complicated of steps felt a natural expression, and the pure joy Vanderbeek's and Wünsche's dancing imparted was almost as sweet as double cream. 

While the modern music selections included the challenges of unexpected syncopation, the corps remained a solid ensemble, tackling the choreography with confidence; the ladies’ sweeping, voluminous petticoats subliming both the accents in the movement and the dynamism of the accompanying orchestral and engineered sounds.

Further, Tieni Burkhalter’s original and breath-taking video design must be commended. At intervals throughout the performance, projections – both moving and still – fall on a simple white curtain drawn across the back of the stage. Something homely and 'shadow puppet show-ish' about it has tremendous appeal, particularly in its contrast to the lavish costuming. In the wind-up to Anna’s suicide, a turbulent musical score underscored sepia coloured, close-up images of a 19th century steam locomotive and the shimmering tracks beneath it. Anna simply falls to the ground, as if 'cut down.' A simple, but powerful ending.

Viktorina Kapitonova and Denis Vieria in <i>Anna Karenina</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Viktorina Kapitonova and Denis Vieria in Anna Karenina
© Monika Rittershaus
The fate of Tolstoy’s characters is superbly accompanied by symphonic and chamber music, primarily by Sergei Rachmaninoff and the more modern Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski. While the Russian’s music is used as a backdrop to the erotically charged and lyrical romance, the edgy, strident tones of the Pole’s work reflect the torturous grip of jealously and rejection. The seamless bridging of the two genres alone felt like a stroke of musical engineering genius. What’s more, the three Russian melodies sung by accomplished soprano Anna Stéphany gives the staging a nostalgic dimension. Pianist Josiane Marfurt also gave extraordinary colour, then intimacy to her Rachmaninoff; the demanding 2nd piano concerto, particularly, yanking at the heart's strings in a way no other repertoire is able, at least for this reviewer, to do.

The performance had begun with a group of city folk in their fine stuffs, promenading at a grand railroad station and strutting their material bearing. Just so, the ballet ends with the collection of the same tightly laced Czarists on stage, people locked in the grid of their conservative conventions. Audiences throughout theatre history have known tragic stories of love, loyalty and betrayal. Yet in the case of Anna Karenina, it is the very passion that liberates her that will ultimately cause her own demise. Zurich Ballet’s is a becoming adaptation of that narrative, and one that lovers of tinkling chandeliers and 19th century fashion statements will enjoy unreservedly. Of course, this wasn’t the first time a good woman has gone down on stage, and it certainly won’t be the last.