The Joffrey Ballet presents the world premiere of 'Anna Karenina'

 
Natalia Dagenhart
Updated 1/30/2019 10:03 AM
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  • The Joffrey Ballet Artists Victoria Jaiani and Alberto Velazquez will perform the main roles of Anna and Vronsky in the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov's "Anna Karenina." Photo by Cheryl Mann. Courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet Company. Shot on location at The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

    The Joffrey Ballet Artists Victoria Jaiani and Alberto Velazquez will perform the main roles of Anna and Vronsky in the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov's "Anna Karenina." Photo by Cheryl Mann. Courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet Company. Shot on location at The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

"I think... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts," wrote Leo Tolstoy in his famous novel "Anna Karenina." Whatever your understanding of love is, the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov's historic reimagining of Tolstoy's immortal masterpiece will not leave your mind and heart indifferent. For the first time in its history, The Joffrey Ballet is proud to commission a full-length score composed by Russian multi award-winning composer Ilya Demutsky. This majestic work will be performed in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, in ten performances that will take place from February 13 to February 24.

Everything is truly Russian about this beautiful production -- its original story, the music score, and the choreography. Joffrey's "Anna Karenina" will be performed live by the Chicago Philharmonic, which Chicago Tribune called "one of the country's finest symphonic orchestras." Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck will lead the orchestra in performing Demutsky's score. "It's a real rarity for any ballet company to commission a full-length score," said Speck. "And it was a coup to secure Demutsky, one of the brightest lights in the world of music today. Possokhov is very careful to be true to the score, so he is using Demutsky's musical vision as the inspiration for his choreography. Ilya is the Tchaikovsky of this ballet."

Tolstoy's novel "Anna Karenina" is considered to be the greatest work of literature ever written. The novel describes all the nuances of emotional and psychological ordeals that the main heroine, the attractive Countess Anna Karenina, is going through, as well as the experiences and struggles of other main characters of the story. Stuck in a cold marriage, she falls in love with the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. However, being a married woman in nineteenth century Russia and openly engaging in a love affair is against the norms of society and the Orthodox religion. This complicated story ends tragically while demonstrating all the aspects of hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, marriage, society, and passion.

This two-act ballet production demonstrates Possokhov's and Demutsky's vision of this epic 19th-century story of passion and forbidden love. It features such distinguished professionals as Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated set and costume designer Tom Pye (Gloriana, Fiddler on the Roof) and renowned lighting designer David Finn (Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence). Company Artists Victoria Jaiani and Alberto Velazquez will perform the main roles of Anna and Vronsky.

Possokhov, who is a frequent guest artist with The Joffrey Ballet, is an international ballet choreographer famous for his visceral and expressive style. Being a former Principal Dancer with Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet, he is known for his new groundbreaking works that impress with their unique and exclusive artistry. For The Joffrey Ballet, Possokhov has choreographed "Bells," "Adagio," "Don Quixote," and "The Miraculous Mandarin."

Founded in 1956 by visionary teacher Robert Joffrey and guided by celebrated choreographer Gerald Arpino from 1988 until 2007, The Joffrey Ballet continues to thrive under The Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and President & CEO Greg Cameron. It was my honor to conduct an online interview with Mr. Wheater.

Q. Dear Mr. Wheater, the world premiere of Russian-born choreographer Yuri Possokhov's historic reimagining of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is the centerpiece of The Joffrey Ballet's 2018-2019 season. Such a great celebration of Russian culture right here, in the heart of Chicago! How did you come up with the idea of bringing "Anna Karenina" to our city?

A. I have known Yuri Possokhov for a very long time. He and I shared a dressing room at San Francisco Ballet nearly thirty years ago. For him, "Anna Karenina" has special resonance. For Russians, Tolstoy is a literary treasure. Americans know and love the story. Several years ago, when Yuri and I were discussing future projects for The Joffrey Ballet, we both agreed this would be compelling material for a ballet.

Q. How did you choose the composer? Why did you choose young Russian composer Ilya Demutsky? Were you familiar with his music?

A. Initially, Yuri considered using the music of Soviet composer Rodion Schedrin or Alexander Scriabin. During our planning process, Yuri began working with Ilya Demutksy on other ballets including Hero of our Times and Nureyev, created for the Bolshoi Ballet. His compositions are grand and romantic: as Yuri says, "a 21st century Mahler". His sound is perfect for "Anna Karenina."

Q. In your opinion, will American audiences relate to this psychologically challenging and even tragic story? Are Americans interested in Russian literature and particularly in Leo Tolstoy and his novels?

A. I think Americans are generally familiar with "Anna Karenina." Several movies have adapted this story and the novel is popular in schools and reading clubs. As with any classic work of art, Karenina transcends place and time. Though the novel was written in Russian, the characters seem familiar and their challenges are universal.

Q. Tolstoy's novel is pretty long and explores a diverse range of topics, such as family relationships, love, religion, politics, social norms, morality, gender, and social class. And, of course, it opens some doors to the miraculous Russian soul. Was it an interesting experience to prepare this ballet production and how did you fit such a complicated and long story into just a couple of hours?

A. Adapting any story to dance is a challenge. How do we express the spoken word through movement? How do we distill the essence of a monumental novel? Early in the process, we engaged Russian author, Valeriy Pecheykin, to write a libretto. We were able to identify principal characters and narrative threads which tell the story in an economical way. It can take more time to tell a story with dance than with words. Yuri is a master at giving meaning to physical movement. He can provide one gesture which captures the emotional content of an entire chapter. Also, I believe that music lies at the core of emotional response. We can hear a melody and understand how the characters feel. Ilya's score is instrumental to our storytelling.

Q. Tolstoy wrote "Anna Karenina" in the 19th century. In your opinion, will the audience relate to it now, in the 21st century, especially in the form of ballet?

A. As I mentioned earlier, the personal relationships and the metaphysical issues explored in Anna Karenina are timeless. A great story lives because it speaks to modern people as well as to the original audience. Dance is a physical art form. Dancers are able to express love, hope, betrayal and tragedy without using words. Because of their age and physicality, it is relatively easy to imagine dancers as the characters from the novel. Joffrey dancers are talented actors. They reach the audience and tell the story.

Q. It's not your first encounter with Russian repertoire as you have danced in numerous ballet productions based on Russian music, worked with Yuri Possokhov on "Don Quixote," and even danced with the Soviet ballet and contemporary dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev in "Nureyev and Friends" at the London Coliseum. How does your experience working on "Anna Karenina" differ from all these experiences? What is the most memorable moment of it, or the most touching or challenging moment?

A. I have been incredibly fortunate during my career to work with ballet's finest artists. Many of these artists have been Russian. The Russian ballet tradition is essential to our art form. Whether drawn from Russian or other sources, creativity is the key. As a dancer I learned a great deal about how we can tell stories through movement. I learned that we must simultaneously revere our traditions (shared vocabulary) and expand those traditions to explore new ideas. Being involved in the creation of new work is the most rewarding aspect of my job. I have watched as scenery and costumes transform from a sketch to a physical object. I have heard new music which moves me to tears. I have witnessed completely new combinations of movement, the spark of a choreographer's genius.

Q. I am sure that all ten performances of "Anna Karenina" will gather a full house. What should audiences expect -- a ballet in a classical or contemporary form?

A. As with most work done by the Joffrey, our roots are found in classical ballet. Yuri Possokhov was schooled at the Bolshoi Ballet and is steeped in the classical tradition. In addition to that, Yuri is a great artist. Classical training is only the starting point for his creative process. His work is filled with passion and innovation.

Q. Chicago can't wait to see Possokhov's historic reimagining of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and to hear the majestic music written by Demutsky! Thank you for enlightening Chicago with such a meaningful work!

A. Thank you for your kind words. The people of Chicago are the inspiration for nearly everything we do.

The 35-year-old award-winning Russian composer Ilya Demutsky has a highly professional approach to writing music, which is extremely sincere, emotional and warm. During his bright career, Demutsky has already composed ballets, operas, symphonic poems and film scores, including several collaborations on full-length ballets with Possokhov. His music for "A Hero of Our Time" (2015) won him the most coveted Russian theatre award, the Golden Mask, for the Best Composer in Musical Theatre. More recently, his work on the much-anticipated "Nureyev" (2017) earned a Prix Benois award for Best Composer Work in Ballet.

"There are many interpretations of Anna Karenina in music, theatre, and cinematography, so it's been an honor and a great challenge for me to create another one--a special one," said Demutsky. "Tolstoy's novel is about a storm of feelings and passions, tragedy and family happiness on the back of a massive canvas of morals and manners of Moscow and Saint Petersburg noble society. I've composed an extremely emotional and, at the same time, very intimate score--with ear-catching leitmotifs, harsh harmonies, and bursts of climaxes. It is my fourth ballet composed for Yuri Possokhov and every time it is a truly astonishing experience to see how my music materializes in Yuri's stunning choreography."

This world premiere is the result of collaboration between The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet. It will be presented not only in Chicago with The Joffrey Ballet in February 2019, but also in Melbourne with The Australian Ballet in May 2020.

"All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow," wrote Leo Tolstoy in "Anna Karenina." The Joffrey Ballet will definitely present all the shades of Tolstoy's masterpiece, as it possesses all the spectrum of talents that know how to make it possible.

For tickets, please call 312-386-8905, go to http://www.joffrey.org/anna or obtain them at The Joffrey Ballet's official Box Office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street, as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University Box Office. Single tickets are priced from $35 to $199. "Anna Karenina" will be performed in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, in ten performances that will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 13; at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 15; at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 16; at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 17; at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 21; at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 22; at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 23; and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 24.

Natalia Dagenhart

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