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Volksoper: Boris Eifman’s Anna Karenina

Today was first real premiere of the Staatsoper/Volksoper Ballet season.

Let’s begin with the good. The audience went mad for the performance after tonight’s premiere of Anna Karenina. Round of curtain call, after curtain call. Choreography Boris Eifman himself was in Vienna from St Petersburg to take the stage, along with Olga Esina (Anna) Kirill Kourlaev (Ivan Karenin) and Vladimir Shishov (Vronsky).

Olga Esina As Anna Karenina With Kirill Kourlaev
Olga Esina As Anna Karenina With Kirill Kourlaev

What a difference a year can make! A year ago we were in the middle of November fleeing the Volksoper shaking our heads in wonder at a travesty performed on the life of one of the Russian greats (Tschaikowski Impressions), here we witnessed a triumph based on one of the Russian classics. Gyula Harangozo substituted out an unknown Italian-Hungarian choreographer for Russia’s sole modern choreographer of substance since Juri Grigorovich.

The performance opened with a bright spotlight on a little boy surrounded by a toy train that went round and round. A woman in a ballgown comes to wish him goodnight before she goes out for the evening with her husband. Ah, the irony – Anna’s son Seriozha is playing with the same toy train which will take his mother’s life.

Fortunately this too clever image was the nadir of the evening. Things only got better.

The stage was immediately filled with dozens of dancing couples, which Karenin and Anna joined.

Olga Esina as Anna was a wonderful casting choice. Ms. Esina has a good part of the charm of the Tolstoi’s heroine – which is an amazing feat. Fortunately Ms. Esina has some curves though not enough to represent the almost voluptuous Anna. A great danger with Boris Eifman’s Anna Karenina would be to cast a rack thin anorexic grand danseuse in the lead. The piece would make no sense.

At this ball Anna and Vronsky meet for the first time. Their meeting somehow was subsumed in the general movement of the ball but that makes a certain amount of sense. When a married woman meets a man who sweeps her out of her life, normally habit prevents her from losing her head immediately.

Soon however we are in dreamland. Anna dreams of Vronsky on her bed. Another weak moment. Ms. Esina hangs over a besotted Mr. Shishov his head thrown into her crotch behind a high wrough iron head of the bed. We can’t see much and it is hardly erotic.

We are amply recompensed by the meeting of Anna and Vronsky in the Karenin’s garden. This first intimate meeting is the choreographic highlight of the evening. Shishov picks Esina up and pushes her over his head and carries her the full width of the stage with her in attitude – unbelievably the pair succeed in making her look light as a feather and like this is a perfectly natural consequence of their feeling. There are many more spectacular lifts some leaving Esina upside down, some sending her flying through the air. Eifman’s free flowing break from the strict Petersburg classicism and his choreographic fantasy are at their best here.

Vladimir Shishov As Vronsky With Olga Esina As Anna Karenina
Vladimir Shishov As Vronsky With Olga Esina As Anna Karenina

Karenin interrupts the meeting of Anna and Vronsky and shows an entirely different language of movement, stiff and formal. Karenin will maintain this very different gesticulation throughout the ballet, giving a palpable visual of the staid and formal world which he represents.

The duel of the two men over Anna will continue throughout the ballet to enormous success each time the three take the stage. Kirill Kourlaev was outstanding as Karenin.

Olga Esina - Kirill Kourlaev
Olga Esina – Kirill Kourlaev

While neither Mr. Kourlaev’s too harsh good looks nor his dark energy suit a prince, as Karenin he is in his element. It is a very interesting choice of casting to choose the young and quite virile Karenin as Vronsky’s counterpoint. It is too easy to make Karenin a dodderer, a mistake film and theatre versions of Anna Karenina often fall into.

Mr. Kourlaev’s dancing was stern and vigorous throughout the ballet, a real revelation. The Volksoper/Staatsoper have found the exceptional male character soloist every substantial ballet company so desperately needs (witness the catastrophic effect on Bolshoi Ballet performances following the loss of Marius Liepa or even Gedaminus Taranda).

At several points Mr. Kourlaev led a full corps-de-ballet also clad in black with the same stiff and formalistic language of movement. These were very imposing scenes, effectively demonstrating the solidarity of the social sphere of which Anna and Vronsky were about to fall foul. The corps-de-ballet showed wonderful unity and preparation throughout the whole ballet.

Kirill Kourlaev As Karenin With Ensemble
Kirill Kourlaev As Karenin With Ensemble

Ms. Esina while charming and a treat to watch could not match the depth or focus of Kourlaev. Anna Karenina is a very big role to take on psychologically and she will still grow into it over the next few years.

The music was up and down, a veritable smorgasbord of Tschaikowsky. Too often it was if we were watching Gone with the Wind with overblown orchestral standards long worn into the grave – trying to play on our emotions so directly with the music is so tawdry. On the other hand some of the pieces were exceptionally well chosen.

As usual in Vienna, the orchestra was very good. I thought Tschaikowsky amateurs could have closed their eyes and enjoyed a wonderful concert. On the other hand, a certain well-known musical producer told me he was holding his ears throughout but he is an over sensitive chap who doesn’t care for the Bratislava Philharmonic either.

At the curtain call the conductor was in extraordinarily good spirts, blowing kisses to the audience, to the musicians, veritably dancing around the stage himself. Ms. Esina looked like she didn’t quite know what to make of the prancing conductor.

The second half of the ballet was not as strong as the first half, once the struggle over Anna’s person and soul came to an inevitable end. A set piece of Venice carnival was a good representation of the Italian context. Anna posing for a painting for Vronsky the artist didn’t go very far, degenerating into pantomime as she packed and closed an open suitcase to represent her desire to return to Russia.

There was a great deal more pantomime in the arguments between Vronsky and Anna and Karenin and Anna. None of it did very much for me.

Olga Esina And Vladimir Shishov (Anna And Vronsky)
Olga Esina And Vladimir Shishov (Anna And Vronsky)

In terms of content, Eifman in his program notes states that the "destiny of women today is just as tragic as the fate of Anna and Vronsky." I don’t think I can agree.

Eifman’s program notes might explain the strange orgies in Anna’s second act dream sequences. Very powerful visual images, the writhing bodies Eifman presents. But why must an emancipated woman invevitably dream of and fantasise about group sex. Surely it’s possible for a woman to love sex and life and not suddenly want to be full of rooms full of naked people, being penetrated in every orifice. This is a question which I’ll have to run by my close girlfriends with good sex lives – how big a role do group sex visions play in their sexual fantasies?

Female sexual liberation surely can take a more romantic form – an ideal and adventurous couple – rather than a purely quantitative quest for more partners. As powerful as they were choreographically, those dream sequences seemed more homeerotic than anything else, rather than anything out in Tolstoi’s heroine’s imagination.

Overall Eifman’s Anna Karenina was far too streamlined, a gross simplification of Leo Tolstoi’s novel. Tolstoi’s novel rests on a dual (and indeed triple storyline). Levin and Kitty’s chaste romance ending in a marriage and rural bliss is contrasted against Anna and Vronski’s impetuous passion. There is a third parallel story of Anna’s brother Stepan Oblonksy’s infidelity at home with the nanny.

By stripping Anna Karenina down to the eponymous heroine’s sole tale, much of the depth and complexity goes out of Tolstoi’s tale.

The final scene with a bunch of railway workers in black Russian chapki prancing around the stage held none of the terror of the massive society dances led by Mr. Kourlaev in the first act. When they all take off their hats together under slowly beginning snow, we are taken back to the trite cliché of the beginning. Fortunately there are so many better points in between, we can easily forgive Mr. Eifman his bout of bad taste and his weakness for kitsch.

Inevitably Eifman’s work has a certain simplistic Disney-like quality. But it is diverting, vigorous and presses ever on. One is rarely bored. And often that is enough.

In spite of my reservations about the dramaturgy of the second act, Mr. Kourlaev and Ms. Esina’s great performances made for a fabulous evening.

Gyula Harangozo seems to have understood his company and has at last achieved the tribute to Tschaikowski which so misfired last year. It was a great idea to bring in a prize-winning ballet (Benois de la Danse 2006).

Dancing Eifman, the Staatsoper/Volksoper look as good or better than Eifman’s own company. There are so many Russian and Russian school dancers that they are ideally suited to the Russian classics (Eugene Onegin was also very, very good).

I don’t understand why we have the fourth best Russian ballet company (The Bolshoi, The Marinsky, Teatre Stanislavsky-Nemirovich-Danchenko are the first three) in Vienna. But I’m not one to complain. Anna Karenina is not to miss.


  1. Liza Liza

    anything but Aterballeto…Please, redefine the term ‘dance’..i don’t even mention ballet…

  2. […] Olga Esina showed up the entire cast with her long arms Dancers like Olga Esina are the reason to justify a trip to St Petersburg or Moscow to see the Marinsky or the Bolshoi. Kudos to Gyulo Harangozo for bringing Esina to Vienna and keeping her her. When you see her on the program, don’t miss the ballet. Kirill Kourlaev was the best of the men and partnered Esina adequately but for the moment the Staatsoper haven’t found a man to match Esina. The search goes on though: she will be dancing Swan Lake with four different partners in October and November. […]

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