Praised by Fyodor Dostoevsky as "sheer perfection as a work of art" and prompting Ivan Turgenev to write a letter from his deathbed petitioning its author to keep writing, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has captivated readers with its story of passion and adultery since it first appeared as a magazine serial in the 1870s. It has inspired countless adaptations for stage and screen—no fewer than 14 films, nine operas, at least two plays, several television miniseries, and five major ballets, dating from Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya's first choreographic effort in 1972 with a score composed by her husband, Rodion Shchedrin, to recent works by Boris Eifman (2005) and Alexei Ratmansky (2010). This February, the Joffrey Ballet brings an entirely new production of Anna Karenina to the Auditorium Theatre, with a score by Ilya Demutsky, choreography by Yuri Possokhov, sets and costumes by Tom Pye, and lighting design by David Finn.
Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater describes a fascination with Anna Karenina dating from his experience dancing a version choreographed in 1979 by André Prokovsky for the Australian Ballet.
"Anna Karenina contains everything we are as people," he explains. "We love, we fight, we betray people, we have infidelities. There's a line in life you can honor. If you overstep the line, your life can become very difficult. We can't help our emotions as human beings, but there's a price to pay for everything."
In conversation with current Australian Ballet artistic director David McAllister a few years ago, Wheater proposed that Prokovsky's work needed updating. The two directors decided to enter a partnership, something that is becoming more common when institutions commission ambitious new works. "Today, in the ballet world, you invite someone, and you say, 'You have three weeks—give me a ballet!'" says Wheater. "So there's no area for experimentation or development. If we want the art form to keep going, we have to give it the resources. Collectively sharing the cost is a lot more realistic." With a new endowment from the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation earmarked for the production of new narrative ballets, Anna Karenina will be the first such ballet commissioned from scratch by the Joffrey. (It will have its Australian premiere in 2020.)
This partnership has allowed this new ballet the rare luxury of time—time for Possokhov to collaborate on a libretto with Russian playwright Valeriy Pecheykin, time for Demutsky to render a complete score in advance, and time for the Joffrey's dancers to work with Possokhov, who has come to Chicago from San Francisco four times since last April to create the ballet, allowing periods for all involved to reflect on the process. "Every day they come to the studio, and no one knows what part they're going to do and how it's going to evolve," says Wheater, "but you begin at 11:30, and by the end of the day you've created something." v