For all their classical roots and tradition, the Mariinsky Ballet opened their week at the Metropolitan Opera House with an innovative performance of Anna Karenina. Artistic director Maestro Valery Gergiev blended a number of unique elements to bring Leo Tolstoy’s epic to life, including his own conducting of Rodion Shchedrin’s modern score.

Anna Karenina: Andrei Yermakov and Yetaterina Kondaurova © Natasha Razina
Anna Karenina: Andrei Yermakov and Yetaterina Kondaurova
© Natasha Razina

First, consider the Mariinsky Ballet’s long history. The company grew out of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, which remains a world-renowned school and method of teaching, in 18th century in St. Petersburg. Imperial support both secured the company a home at the Mariinsky Theater and, years later, provoked Soviet scrutiny and a name change (Kirov Ballet). The signature aesthetic and high standards that developed are now recognized as hallmarks of Russian ballet across the world. Dancing the title role, Diana Vishneva embodies this flawless technical ability and artistic grace. Yuri Smekalov took the place of Konstantin Zverev as Count Alexei Vronsky, the object of Anna’s extramarital desires.

Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky (premiered by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2004 and revised for the Mariinsky Ballet in 2010) draws largely from the classical tradition embracing the dramatic plot. Anna and Vronsky’s movements are driven by the strong narrative and allow plenty of room for the acting required to convey such a complicated plot. The sparse set, most notably a series of projections designed by Wendall Harrington, provide an unexpected backdrop instead of the typically ornate set designs associated with two act productions. While the detailed interiors of the ball Anna attends and her home can be overwhelming, imagine a Russian library enlarged to the height and width of the Met’s enormous stage; other times they enable the dancers to bring an idea to life.

The scene that opens Act II captures the barely contained chaos of a horse race as three lines of men jump and turn, melting through one another towards an invisible finish line. After being rejected by Anna, Vronsky is a lone bright figure in the dark space backed by roiling storm clouds. Smekalov throws his full body into the movement, slicing a windmill through the air with his arms. The music and set, while most abstract at this moment, reflect Vronsky’s despair to powerful effect.

These instances are successful because Ratmansky uses the tools available to him, dancers, music, set, and lighting, in harmony to tell the story in a creative way. Anna’s love for her son (Roman Surkov) is tangible even when her arms are not wrapped around him. Vishneva’s steps are quick and light, taking on a playful quality. His presence is mirrored in her demeanor and unwillingness to stray far from his side. Without balance, however, there is no room for subtlety or the performer’s individual expression. Anna’s suicide in the final scene is dramatic because of a larger than life projection of an oncoming train and billowing smoke that engulfs the stage rather than the woman herself.

In contrast, Anna’s rejection of Vronsky is delicate and the action understated. Vishneva commands attention to deliver this devastating blow simply by extending her palm. Deafening drums build on the tone she has set and the plot continues tragically forward.

With Anna Karenina, the Mariinsky Ballet offers a glimpse into a future where technology and tradition collide. While the product may not always come together seamlessly, this approach has the potential to create great opportunities for dancers.