From ‘Anna Karenina,’ lessons for the ballet world


Keira Knightley stars as Anna in "Anna Karenina." (Laurie Sparham/LAURIE SPARHAM)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic December 27, 2012

For a movie, the Joe Wright-Tom Stoppard “Anna Karenina” is a pretty terrific play. In fact, this exquisite film makes a powerful case for live physical theater.

Not only that, but there are lessons for the ballet world to be found in the stylized cinematic storytelling carried out by director Wright, playwright Stoppard (who adapted Tolstoy’s panoramic novel for the big screen) and experimental choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Consider the way Wright sets much of the wide-ranging narrative about adulterous love within the tight confines of a ruined theater, with the actors moving about onstage, backstage and even on catwalks above the proscenium. At times, extras coalesce into the unison movement of an expressionistic corps de ballet.

I found myself watching this film in a sustained state of wonder. Wright’s finesse with the conventions of theater and dance is at once imaginative and logical, even practicable, in a curious way. I could envision much of the film being reproduced before a live audience in a traditional playhouse. (Not the heartbreaking horse race, of course. But there, too, compressing it into an intimate indoor space works — crazily, unexpectedly — to ratchet up the emotional stakes.)

And I was bowled over by the physical grace and understated but powerful feeling Wright summoned from a luxurious cast that was called to move, quite literally, far beyond the norms of movie stars’ duties.


Dress rehearsal of the Washington Ballet Studio Company's "Moon/Dance" directed by Nick Olcott. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

As Anna, Keira Knightley pirouettes as she’s dressing, fluttering her ringed fingers with a dancer’s expressiveness. A balletic barber flings a drape around the neck of Anna’s brother Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) with the showiness of a matador swirling his cape, like something out of the ballet “Don Quixote.” As the camera follows Oblonsky striding through his office, rows of workers bent over their papers become an undulating sea of arms, their documents flapping in a gestural ballet. Servant couples waltz by as the scenery changes.

When Oblonsky’s philosophical friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) decides to leave town and head to the countryside, the rear doors of the stage burst open, and he steps through them onto a snow-covered Russian landscape — a breathtaking through-the-looking-glass moment that has a real-life counterpart. Back in 1967, Robert Joffrey’s landmark psychedelic rock ballet, “Astarte,” ended in this way, with the leading male dancer turning his back on the audience and exiting through the stage doors onto New York’s 56th Street.

There are other scenes in “Anna Karenina” that hint at totems of the dance world: Socialites’ loud, rapid fluttering of fans brings the fan-flapping section of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” to mind. At another point, partygoers awed by fireworks respond with deep, melting backbends, perhaps a nod to the famously flexible spines of Russian-schooled ballerinas.

In a feat of wonderful contrariness, the most anticipated dance moment — the ball where Anna and Vronsky fall tragically in love — is a delirious ode not to footwork or synchronized bodies but to the eroticism of hands and arms. In Cherkaoui’s laser-focused choreography, the ballgoers’ elbows and forearms dip and entwine like the necks of courting swans.

A film that does ballet better?

But it wasn’t just the exaggerated, microscopic use of everyday gesture and movement expression in “Anna Karenina” that captivated me. What I found profoundly moving about this film is that it tells its story in large measure by the old-fashioned, low-tech methods of live theater. More specifically, “Anna Karenina” makes evocative use of the tools of physical theater, that amalgam of dance and physical expression, with minimal reliance on words. A number of the film’s most potent moments —and even entire scenes — are utterly nonverbal.

In place of Tolstoy’s 1,000 written pages, emotions and suspense flare up through physical interactions between characters, whether by a glance, a gesture or expressive movement. Eloquent body language becomes buoyant and even poetic with the film’s abundant use of music (written by Dario Marianelli, the Oscar-winning composer of “Atonement”).

In other words, “Anna Karenina” runs on some of the same seductions of a ballet.

This brings me to a larger point, and a paradox. “Anna Karenina” made such a strong impression on me because, in some ways, it does the job of a ballet better than some ballets do.

To be sure, the emotional intensity you feel from this story has something to do with cinematic values — the fine cast, the narrative pacing, the dance of the camera. But foremost in its success is the collaboration between the director and choreographer.

A ballet company doesn’t need a movie studio’s resources to replicate that. I have long wondered why the choreographers who create evening-length story ballets — or the company directors who stage them — don’t bring in theater directors to help them sharpen the emotion and the drama, moment to moment and over the arc of the production.

Ballet audiences tend to have low expectations for drama. Perhaps this is because fans have grown accustomed to the athletic, highly physical strengths of dancers today. There is a certain level of tolerance for slowed momentum, fractured exposition and bad acting, so long as the actual dancing picks up every now and again.

How to tell a story

In “Anna Karenina,” the director and choreographer worked closely together to create a magical, stylized world of piercing, intensified feeling. In the dance world, such a feat is all left to one person, the choreographer or company director. He or she might have a keen eye for movement sequences and arresting shapes. But making a work of living, urgent and irresistible theater, where every moment works, not just the danced ones, is often simply not in the dance specialist’s arsenal.

Yet the under-achieved storytelling one regularly encounters in a ballet would never fly in the world of plays and musicals. If you think the difference is that ballets are nonverbal while plays talk, take in one of the works by Arlington’s excellent Synetic Theater, run by director Paata Tsikurishvili and his wife, Irina, a choreographer. This is the home of the “Silent Shakespeare” series and other wordless productions of physical theater that manage to tell rich, complicated and deeply felt stories through movement and music alone.

Paata Tsikurishvili’s background, incidentally, is in film directing, as well as mime and acting, which he studied in his native Republic of Georgia. He and his wife, a former dancer, told me they do not believe they are in competition with other theaters in the area, but with technology. With so much entertainment available on screens of all sizes, where the world is condensed into movement and visuals and realities are constantly shifting, they feel the only way for theater to compete is to heighten the intensity, to deliver on the “emotional flow,” as Paata Tsikurishvili put it.

The combination of skills these two possess are formidable, and you see it in what they get their actors and dancers to do onstage. I saw a somewhat similar partnership happen between a choreographer and a theater director in 2007, and it was memorable. Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre collaborated with Nick Olcott, the local stage actor and longtime director of plays and operas, on a marvelous evening titled “Moon/Dance,” which brought together opera singers and dancers. Under Olcott’s guidance, a smart organizing principle made each performer’s intentions part of a logical dramatic progression. Such subtle aspects as the look in the dancers’ eyes and the way they related to one another were fine-tuned for emotional power.

In need of direction

While I haven’t seen such a collaboration since then in the realm of concert dance, I have seen many narrative ballets that have cried out for a director’s eye. (Michael Pink’s “Dracula,” which the Washington Ballet performed this fall, leaps to mind.) Just about any American ballet production could use acting coaching and a drama professional’s guidance to heighten the emotional power. American dancers aren’t trained in acting the way their European counterparts are, and choreographers either have a knack for storytelling (rarely), or they don’t.

Why does all this matter — why should age-old ballet practices change, if ballet is still drawing audiences? One reason is the rise in physical theater on Washington stages, which is giving dance productions a run for their money. Add to Synetic Theater’s offerings such works as Natsu Onoda Power’s “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” at Studio Theatre and visiting productions such as “Black Watch” by the National Theatre of Scotland. In the company of these highly kinetic works, ballet’s conventional approach to storytelling — by which I mean leaving it all in the hands of the choreographer — suffers in comparison. But it doesn’t have to.

Collaboration is the word of the moment in the arts, especially as cash becomes scarcer and new ways to draw ticket-holders are a must. Just as Wright did in “Anna Karenina,” theater directors bring in choreographers all the time when they want to put dance into theater. Think what could happen if ballet companies turn the tables and bring theater into dance.

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