May 2024



Anna Karenina
at the Joffrey Ballet

Tolstoy with Twists

Renate Stendhal

Even if you haven’t read Tolstoy’s voluminous novel you are probably familiar with the story: the beautiful Anna Karenina has a passionate affair with a young officer and can’t get a divorce. Faced with the loss of her child and the social disgrace, she throws herself under a train.

The story has intricate sub-plots and innumerable characters, but that hasn’t deterred a number of choreographers from turning it into ballet. The latest rendition is by Yuri Possokhov, the Ukrainian-born, Bolshoi-trained choreographer in residence at San Francisco Ballet. Possokhov’s creations have been hit or miss. There have been masterpieces–like his 2015 Swimmer, or works full of originality and daring like Stravinsky’s Violin Concert last year (both reviewed in these pages). His Anna Karenina won an international choreography award and got rave reviews but is vastly over-rated in my view.


The work was commissioned by the Joffrey Ballet in 2019. Because of pandemic delays it came to the SF Bay Area only now, presented by Cal Performances in Berkeley. Possokhov obtained a score from a Russian friend, 35 yea-old Ilya Demutsky, and problems with this score (played by the Berkeley Symphonic Orchestra under Scott Speck) showed up already in the prologue. A minimal train platform with a few travelers is veiled in steam clouds. Upfront, a mechanic dances frenetically to an orchestration so bombastic that one could imagine Russia’s great wars were to come next. But all that comes is a little stumble as the mechanic lands on the rails, a mere foot below the platform. No train appears. Anna and her future lover, Count Vronsky, are dimly seen watching the fatal accident. They also look at each other, but no emotion emanates from the music-swollen scene. In the novel, the metallic clanking of the mechanic’s hammer haunts Anna to her last day–a sound I hoped to hear in the score (as a Wagnerian leitmotif, perhaps), but I didn’t detect it. This discrepancy of over-emphatic music and a flat scenic outcome right at the start occurs throughout much of the evening.


That said, there is some grand spectacle in the video-dominated sets and lavish period costumes, the excellent dancers of the Joffrey Ballet, and the operatic addition of a mezzo soprano (Lindsay Metzger) who sings every now and then in Russian. Might she be reading from Tolstoy’s novel? If there were no better examples of Anna Karenina ballets one might say, okay, it’s a start and one will have to wait for better things to come.

Unfortunately, the better things have come already: in 1972, a stage and film version by the great Russian ballerina Maya Plissetskaya, and in 2011, Russian expat Alexei Ratmansky’s version for the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov). Plissetskaya and Ratmansky both chose the same music: a shorter symphonic composition by Rodion Shchedrin that is more subtly attuned to the psychology of Tolstoy’s characters: both ballets focus on the contradictory impulses and obsessions of the protagonists. Both works can be watched on YouTube. Possokhov, by contrast, caters to big, simplistic certitudes: stiff husband, unsatisfied wife, ardent young lover – all awash in “irresistible passion.”


The first grand scene is the ball where Vronsky (Alberto Velasquez) abandons young princess Kitty who is in love with him. Kitty (Yumi Kanazawa) has rejected her suitor Levin (Hyuma Kiyozawa) for Vronsky, but Vronsky gets infatuated with Anna (Victoria Jaiani). An unappealing waltz lumbers on, spinning a number of couples around and around in conventional movements. The ballroom is gloomy. The ball gowns are greyish-dark. Even the debutante Kitty is clad in (light) grey. Lost is the big splash Anna makes in the novel because she appears in the midst of the ballroom glitter in sumptuous black.

Fortunately, the superb Georgian dancer Victoria Jaiani makes sure Anna stands out in the gloom with her pronounced sensuality and languor. Vronsky is dashing, Anna is flattered, Kitty is devastated. The whole scene should have lasted a few minutes to render its promise, but by now we are almost half an hour in, growing antsy with waltzing.


Next, the most alluring visual scenes of the book is oddly left out: the night train, when Anna and Vronsky meet accidentally on a platform in the falling snow and admit their attraction. It’s a loss, but Possokhov adds a convincing solo of longing for Vronsky while a movie-star portrait of Anna is projected on a scrim. I liked the idea of giving the infatuated lover a larger role–and the fine, athletic Alberto Velasquez does the role justice. Vronsky’s character, however, is not extended to his more contradictory traits. Particularly in the following scene of the racecourse, there is no hint that he gambles away a sure victory through his grandiosity and


Anna, her husband and members of the aristocracy watch from the tribune as a group of officers mime a melee of riders–a divertissement with a touch of male gymnastics. Vronsky falls – another undramatic stumble while  the music swells . The drama is only indicated by a hysterical reaction from Anna that vastly overplays her indiscretion in the novel. Anna is finally dragged away by Karenin, there is a pistol shot, and we are left with the huge projection of the wild eye of a horse.


One of the convincing scenes is the consummation of Anna and Vronsky’s  passion in his rooms. Here Possokhov shows his talent, giving youth and inventive sensuality to the couple. Vronsky is like an infatuated boy adoring more than possessing; Anna is like a lithe nymph with exquisite, romantically abandoned arms. When she leaves, pulling her dress behind her, he throws himself to the floor and touches the flounces of her skirt with a last kiss.


Another inspired scene is Anna on her sickbed in a morphine vision. She imagines her husband Karenin ( the compelling Dylan Guttierez) and Vronsky sharing her love equally. The two men pass her tenderly back and forth in surprising, beguiling moves and let her fly from one pair of arms to the other. It’s a dreamlike, emotional scene, and for once the music holds back with a gentle piano passage.  


Possokhov shows Karenin in a government session where he stiffly stalks around gesticulating. Nothing relevant is added to the story with this scene while another essential scene in the drama is missing: Anna’s night at the opera, where she appears in grand attire and is snubbed by everyone.

Psychologically, this humiliation is the turning point. After losing the right to see her son, Anna realizes that she alone, not Vronsky, is expelled from society and has no way out.  Possokhov doesn’t show her anger and jealous distrust of Vronsky. He gives her a solo of lonely despair, and the next moment, she is on the train tracks.


Now a couple of disturbing things happen.

First, at the train station, Anna walks toward a blinding light backstage—the oncoming train—and we see her silhouette on the frontal scrim getting bigger and bigger the closer she gets to the locomotive–a visually effective move. But then the huge shadow-figure of Anna suddenly strips off her clothes. Hold on! Anna Karenina, a member of the aristocracy in 19th century St. Petersburg, goes naked before throwing herself on the rails? Is it sensationalism? Is Tolstoy’s tragic ending of the story not enough ? Does Anna Karenina need another, final humiliation inflicted by the choreographer?


Not enough with this bizarre twist: Possokhov doesn’t stop with Anna’s death. The stage lights up, we see a blurry field of wheat, and now Kitty, who has finally accepted her country husband Levin, dances a pas de deux of happy coupledom, soon joined by six merry peasant couples cavorting in the sun. The mezzo soprano sings a Russian folk song in disjoint harmonies (not exactly rousing), but the frolics around a pile of hay go on… and on. Finally, huge drapes of greenish silk come down and covers the whole stage. Levin, who is a main character in the novel but hardly appears in the ballet, has the last word, so to speak: danced by Hyuma Kiyozawa, he fondly caresses the drapes before vanishing behind them. The program notes explain: “He finds contentment in understanding the purpose of his life.”

Surely, this epilog is meant to be Tolstoy’s vision of social harmony rooted in mother Russia’s soil, but it comes across as kitschy socialist realism and even awakens uncomfortable associations with propaganda for the Russia of today. Possokhov is not known for making long words about his work, so it is left to anyone’s guess what to make of the muddle.

Photos by Cheryl Mann


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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. ( is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2024 Renate Stendhal
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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