#Throwback Thursday: Boris Eifman's "Anna Karenina"

Throw Tolstoy From the Train

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
“Anna Karenina”
New York City Center
May 26, 2005

All good ballets are alike. Each bad ballet is bad in its own way. Or ways. For instance, the ballet Boris Eifman calls “Anna Karenina” is vulgar, meretricious, rapacious, and lewd, a low-brow spectacle cloaked in high brow pretensions. Rather than reminding the viewer of Tolstoy, the author of a novel of the same title, or even of Freud, with whom Eifman seems to confuse him (he notes, in the program, Anna’s “psychoerotic essence"), the work is reminiscent of the MacMillan of “Manon” (though that louche ballet is a paragon of delicacy next to this one) tempered with the subtle elegance of the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s genteel pageantry.

I admit I was vexed with the choreographer going into this, for I have not forgiven him for his portrayal of Tanaquil LeClerq in his ballet about—or I should say, “about”—George Balanchine, made for the New York City ballet for the Balanchine centenary. But I resolved to emulate the open mindedness of Tolstoy’s concert-going Levin.

He, you will recall, is actually a character in the novel, although not in the ballet, where neither he nor his wife Kitty appears (sparing us a childbirth scene). There are, however, some characters in the ballet I could not quite place—for instance, two corps of leather queens and leather goons for whom I searched the novel’s pages in vain upon returning home after the performance. But there, in Part Seven, Chapter V (which would be p. 684 of the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, in the Penguin Classics edition), Levin attends a matinee. “Both pieces were new and in the new spirit,” Tolstoy writes, “and Levin wanted to form his own opinion of them....[he] resolved to listen as closely and conscientiously as possible. He tried not to get distracted and spoil his impression....” Me, too, and it wasn’t easy.

Eifman chooses to set the opening scene of his ballet to the same music Balanchine chose for “Serenade,” the first ballet he made in America, and well enough known to me that I could run it in my mind while watching the Eifman—or to be more precise, I couldn’t not run it. At the opening, a little boy is playing with a train. (The whole thing takes place, basically, in a set that is variations on a train station. A ballroom that sees frequent service is an inversion of it, and the whole thing reeks of foretelling and doom and sexual imagery unknown to readers of the novel, who actually do not know in advance that Anna is going to kill herself, as neither does she.) A beautiful woman in a gorgeous velvet cocoon coat parts her legs and opens her arms, and drops the coat at the exact moment the girls in “Serenade” snap out of parallel position.

I doubt this is a coincidence. Eifman is smart, and Eifman is talented. He is also an extrovert, without any seeming self-knowledge, or indeed a sense of humor. (He is not, for instance, self-knowing in the way Liberace was, though certainly given to flash.) It probably hasn’t occurred to him that but for politeness, one could fall out one’s seat laughing at some of his excesses, like the sex scene where Anna engages erotically with her bedframe, or the one where she drinks a potion like Alice in Wonderland and has a bizarre hallucination in which, seemingly naked (nude unitard, and, let’s not forget, toe shoes),she dances a section of something not unlike Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage,” if Robbins had included a chorus of the damned (also naked). After this, she gets carried off stage, stiff as a board.

These scenes occur after Anna, who in the Eifman ballet is married to the mob—or at any rate, to a domineering older man who looks like a mobster—has fallen in love with a younger man, a real hottie, who likes to paint her portrait when not attending parties in variously hued tailcoats. Although he never scorns her that I could see, and her ominous spouse still seems eager to have her in his household and underwrite her lavish wardrobe, she quickly—and the second act goes pretty fast—falls into an inexplicable decline, ending with her suicide, but not before she despairs in a down spot, and some swirling snow.

There are two good scenes in the ballet. The first occurs when Anna and her lover, of course named Vronsky, are seen in their separate rooms, spotlighted on either side of the stage. Unfortunately, he is on a couch and she is on her bed and they are wracked with desire, but that does not diminish the impact of their moving, though apart, in exact synchrony. Then they dance out of their rooms and into the middle of the stage, and the moment is totally destroyed. The other really good scene is—I am not making this up—the scene in which the company depicts the train under which—or actually, into the midst of which—Anna is going to throw herself. For one thing, the score—a patchwork of Tchaikovsky, who like Tolstoy is conveniently long dead and thus unable to protest, or for that matter, sue—gives way to train sounds. Chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga.

To this inexorable sound, Eifman choreographs, very cleverly indeed, a little Constructivist ballet, quite forceful and, for a change, formal. Movement, and not a lot of expression layered on to it and into it and under it and over it, inspires a visceral response. Drama, not melodrama. Then Anna jumps from the train station platform, and the next thing you know, her corpse is being wheeled center stage on a luggage trolley. Curtain. And mad applause. Just, in fact, what Levin heard that day he went to the concert. “He was in utter perplexity when the piece ended,” writes Tolstoy, “ and felt great fatigue from such strained but in no way rewarded attention. Loud applause came from all sides....Wishing to explain his perplexity by means of other people’s impressions, Levin began to walk about, looking for connoisseurs....”

These were not hard to come by at City Center, where one Eifman devotee, in from the suburbs, told me “This is what ballet needs. Ballet needs passion.” What could one say? To complain about this ballet is like complaining that “Oliver” distorts Charles Dickens, or that “Les Miz” misconstrues Victor Hugo, or that “Cats” is a misreading of T.S. Eliot, or that “The Phantom of the Opera”—well, you get the idea, though at least those entertainments don’t pretend to be close readings. To take Eifman’s “Anna Karenina” seriously is to give it too much credit. It isn’t appalling, it is merely atrocious, and successful. The dancers, by the way, are very glamorous, and very good at dancing Eifman. They chew up the scenery. He chewed up a novel.

copyright ©2005, 2015  Nancy Dalva
first published in danceviewtimes.com
also published in Reading Dance, edited by Robert Gottlieb