It was a pleasant surprise. Could the text of Leo Tolstoy’s rich tome about pre-revolutionary Russian aristocratic life, with all its multi-coloured characters, be reduced to just three performers and a corps de ballet? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, on its second visit to London, offered a visual feast in its production of Anna Karenina. This version focuses only on the love tragedy of the three protagonists: Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Count Vronsky. There is a very brief glimpse in the ball scene of Kitty, who is in love with Vronsky, and there is little Seriozha, the Karenins’ son, but other than that, the ballet relies on the talents and energy of just the trio, supported by twenty-four excellent corps dancers to tell the story. The production moves quickly, using short, beautifully lit scenes, and is born along with the taped music of no less than fourteen well-known and heart-stirring snippets from the great Tchaikovsky’s scores – with the addition of a few church bells and some rock cacophony by A. Sitkovetsky in darker moments of the plot.

Boris Eifman founded his company in 1977 (when I first saw his work), and from the start he showed how differently he looked at dance, despite the lack of contact with the outside world and its fast-moving developments. The Soviet era was a time to celebrate the glories of pristine Russian classical masterworks, and ‘contemporary’ meant letting hair fall loose, taking off pointe shoes and flexing feet, but otherwise still doing recognizable, acceptable steps. Eifman, with no influence from the West, set out to be different, despite the huge criticism heaped on him, and his work was – and continues to be – unique. His aim was to shock his audiences, to make them sit up and see dance from a different perspective, and he has magnificently succeeded. It is extremely theatrical and usually combines a good mixture of reality and fantasy. His dancers are all classically trained but he does not give them the ‘tricks’ of the ‘elitist’ ballet world, which show only the technical abilities of the exponent. His success lies in giving his dancers the freedom to contort, to leap with angled limbs, and to traverse the stage with athletic prowess. His work is fast-paced, super-energetic, and often acrobatic, with constant tricky lifts and high extensions. It is also filled with dramatic and often psychological overtones. He chooses to present the ‘soul’ (a favourite topic of Russian writers, choreographers and dramatists use) through the body’s movements to impart the character. His works alone are to be found in the company’s repertoire.

In Anna Karenina, the first of two ballets brought to London, the stage overflows with emotions – motherly love, sufferance, passion, guilt, revulsion, anguish and despair – which he captures in a most effective manner. The curtains part to show a little boy with a mop of carrot-curls, playing with his train. His doting mother, on her way to a grand St. Petersburg society ball, comes in, hugs him and reluctantly departs with her austere husband. At the ball she sees Vronsky for the first time and from that moment on, their intense physical attraction pulls her apart from her family and from society. While she finds herself a passionate and sensual woman with Vronsky, she is still torn by her maternal love for young Seriozha, whom Karenin refuses to allow her to take away. As the ballet proceeds, Anna falls into decline as she is shunned by society, and foresees the break-up of her relationship with Vronsky, and we see her in a drug-induced stupor, before she finally commits suicide in front of the train.

Eifman’s choreography realistically shows how the life of this normal young woman is destroyed, by first giving her lyrical steps which show her inner harmonious lifestyle, followed by progressively fiercer and more volatile behaviour as she is destroyed, not only through her own actions but also through those of the highly critical society around her. As Anna, Nina Zmietvets proved herself to be an amazing ballerina. Extremely flexible and controlled, her body is like elastic, stretched to its limits before whipping back into shape as she conveys in body-movement her innermost feelings and desires. Oleg Markov was her government official husband, who also has a beautiful technique and line. He kept his air of superiority aloof, but for me he seemed too young, too handsome and too passionate towards his wife. However, Oleg Gabyshev (Vronsky) had all the qualities for breaking up a home – dashing and strong with an open cheerful face – he was definitely a catch worth chasing. He and Markov are to praised for their marathon of superb, vigorous and energetic dancing, and all three were well supported by an excellent corps of dancers who showed that each and every one was deeply involved in the actions going on around them.