Anna Karenina © Souheil Michael Khoury

Anna Karenina: From Yasnaya Polyana to the World Stage

In the month of Leo Tolstoy’s death anniversary, an exploration of why the immortal novel stands out as a ballet.

Immersed in the realm of words, one of the greatest writers of all time, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy went on to create a 90-volume legacy for generations to come. He bequeathed a massive treasure trove of more than 300,000 rough works, photos, unfinished writings and documents, of which 71,487 were manuscripts alone. More than 50,000 letters that he had received from all over the world along with 22,000 books in 40 different languages make up his personal library at Yasnaya Polyana. His literary genius firmly established his estate in the Tula region as a pilgrim centre for millions of lovers of art. Tolstoy mastered the art of polishing rough sounds and words to perfection until they became music. He evoked a kind of fear in readers—and in people who visited him—as he seemed to understand their unspoken thoughts. Many art critics and composers, including Pyotr Tchaikovsky, did not hesitate to call him perspicacious (‘cepдцe eд’ which translates to ‘a connoisseur of the human soul’). As we read Tolstoy, we are seized with the feeling that we are reading the story of our lives; as if we were in it, and, at times, as though we had written it. The flow of fluid Russian, the richness of the psychoanalytical content resonates in the memory, creating a kind of music that fills the void between the writer and the reader.

There has never been and will never be a list of great works of literature without Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Resurrection, The Death of Ivan Ilych, to name but a few. A novel by Tolstoy, in the words of Matthew Arnold, is not a work of art but a piece of life. Isaac Babel commented that ‘if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.’

In his major writings, Tolstoy vividly portrays his characters’ struggles to understand the purpose of life and also gives them the liberty to develop by themselves. It is pertinent to note that a few factors impacted Tolstoy’s journey as a human being and as a writer: the death of both his parents early in his childhood, his disillusion with formal education, his participation in the Siege of Sevastopol as an army officer, his two trips to Europe in 1857 and 1860-61, his being witness to a public execution by guillotine in Paris, a period of almost two decades of a happy and tranquil married life when he produced two of his masterpieces—War and Peace and Anna Karenina and finally, his close interaction with peasants and common men. His perception of happiness is beautifully illustrated in the opening lines of Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Adapting Anna

Anna Karenina—a novel about a young, beautiful, aristocratic lady, who is caught between her heart and the norms of Russian noble society prevailing in the second half of the 19th century—shows the power of storytelling. A voluminous work of realistic fiction, it comprises eight parts and 239 chapters spread over 800 pages. In narrating the story of the titular character—Anna, to her passionate lover and mother, to a child named Seryozha—Tolstoy brilliantly conveys the disturbing emotional conflict that creates a complex wave of suffering and ends in tragedy.

The immense popularity of Anna Karenina is confirmed by its numerous adaptations. It has been adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson (1992). Films made on the novel include Love, the 1927 American silent movie directed by Edmund Goulding which starred Greta Garbo. One of the most famous and critically acclaimed versions, Anna Karénina (1935), directed by Clarence Brown also stars Garbo with Fredric March as Vronsky. In 1948, the brilliant Vivien Leigh was seen in the role of Anna. It may be interesting to know that a Tamil-language adaptation titled Panakkaari, directed by K. S. Gopalakrishnan, was released in 1953. In 1960, Ezzel Dine Zulficar directed the Egyptian adaptation, titled Nahar al-Hob (The River of Love). It was followed by several film versions of the novel in various countries across the world, the most recent being the British adaptation by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley.

From 1961 to date, a BBC series, Channel 4 adaptation and Filipino drama series, among other productions have found their way onto the TV screen. Several musicals were produced concurrently. Over the last 100 years, operas by Hungarian composer Jeno˝ Hubay, Ukrainian composer Yuly Meytus, Scottish composer Iain Hamilton on his own libretto, and an American adaptation with music by David Carlson on a libretto by Colin Graham have drawn the attention of connoisseurs and critics.

Life on stage

But Anna Karenina stands out as a ballet. The art form, as we see it today, has evolved over the centuries in Italy, France, Denmark and, above all, Russia, especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Among the earlier adaptations, the Bolshoi Ballet’s 1972 version was composed especially for Maya Plisetskaya by Rodion Shchedrin who drew from themes of Tchaikovsky’s instrumental works. The production was choreographed by the prima ballerina herself. Boris Eifman’s version, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 2005, also featured music by Tchaikovsky, this time an amalgam of excerpts from Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Little Russian’, Manfred Symphony in B minor, Hamlet overture-fantasy, and a number of others.

An overwhelming number of ballets produced over the last 50 years tower over the traditional musical canon. Most versions of Anna Karenina, from Russia to Germany to Switzerland, to the U.S., Canada and Australia give the heroine a voice of her own through masterly choreography (in some versions she dances in the popular Polish folk dance style mazurka) and powerful music (from Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich to Demutsky). As the ballet progresses onstage, it becomes clear that it is a story wrapped in temptation and passion, steeped in moral conflicts, a constant parallel between life in the city and the countryside, between old societal values and evolving modern tendencies of man-woman relationship, as also a tale of treachery, vulnerability to greed and desire for wealth, dreams chased and shattered, and the ultimate punishment for getting swept off one’s feet by love. The depiction of this very real and eternal conflict onstage is why the work has emerged as one of the most coveted and fascinating ballets. Transcending geographical barriers, it has also been warmly received in Istanbul, Qatar and Muscat.

Throughout his life, Tolstoy carried with him a sense of conflict and contradiction about the very purpose of life. He constantly spoke of happiness but in War and Peace and in an unpublished variant of Anna Karenina, he stressed that there is nothing special in the life of happy people, whereas unhappy people have numerous stories to tell, thereby creating a Tolstoy-moment (as I would call them). These Tolstoymoments function as the cornerstone of his writings. So, for any choreographer and composer it is essential that these subtle moments do justice to his writings. It is pertinent to mention that some of the productions miss the Tolstoy-moments while others enhance the climax with innovation and creativity.

Evolving classic

It took Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet seven years to come up with a brilliant and fresh reimagination of Anna Karenina in 2019. A few words cry for special mention for Possokhov’s insightful conceptualisation and choreography of the ballet which features classical, contemporary, folk and formal dance styles set to Demutsky’s score which also includes Russian folk songs performed onstage by a mezzo-soprano. Minimalist sets innovatively depicting aristocratic salons, and lavish costumes and historical scenes all paint a picture of the Russia of the 1870s. Through myriad forms of projection and lighting, Kitty’s farmhouse, the racecourse, the Karenin home, the poignant scene of the station and finally, an oncoming train are brought to life onstage.

From Eifman’s Anna Karenina to the Joffrey Ballet’s, many of these adaptations have the power, like the novel they are based on, to resonate at a deep level and leave the audience haunted by many relevant questions pertaining to life and society, long after the performances have ended. No other word than the German augenschmaus (feast for the eyes) can possibly define the beauty of the ballet Anna Karenina.

By Dr. B. Hasan. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the November 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.