SF Ballet, Joffrey Ballet’s award-winning ‘Anna Karenina’ this weekend

Cal Performances presents the Joffrey Ballet in the Bay Area premiere of “Anna Karenina” accompanied by the Berkeley Symphony in Zellerbach Hall on March 15-17. (Courtesy Cheryl Mann)

Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet’s West Coast premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s award-winning “Anna Karenina” this weekend in Berkeley is the result of a warm collaboration between two former San Francisco Ballet principal dancers. 

“Yuri and I shared a dressing room together for many years,” says Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “After Chicago, the Bay Area is my home, and my years at San Francisco Ballet were instrumental in shaping me as an artist. 

“We always talked about the future — our dreams artistic and otherwise — and it was clear that Yuri loved choreographing, and approaches storytelling with a deep understanding of classical ballet,” Wheater says. “His movements are utterly unique, his choreography so physically expressive. Those two things combined make it very easy to trust where he led us in the studio, and that is necessary to create a ballet like ‘Anna Karenina.’” 

Based on Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, “Anna Karenina” premiered in Chicago in 2019, marking the Joffrey’s first full-length ballet with a commissioned score, by former San Francisco Conservatory of Music student Ilya Demutsky.  A critical success, it went on to win a Benois de la Danse prize for best choreography (known as the “ballet Oscar”).

Wheater (who worked under San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson from 1997 to 2007) asked Possokhov (current San Francisco Ballet choreographer in residence) to create “Anna Karenina” knowing the Ukraine-born artist would have a clear perspective on the famous 19th century story of socialite Anna Karenina, who has a fateful extramarital affair with dashing Count Vronsky.  

Demutsky and Possokhov met at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre when Demutsky composed the score for Possokhov’s 2015 “A Hero of Our Time.” Later, he wrote music for Possokhov’s “Optimistic Tragedy” for San Francisco Ballet in 2017.  

“It is rare to be able to coordinate all of the necessary resources for that kind of undertaking,” Wheater says. “However, knowing Yuri’s relationship with Ilya, who is one of the most talented composers working today, it seemed a commission score really was the final ingredient we needed to bring the ballet to life.” 

Joffrey Ballet Music Director Scott Speck will conduct the Berkeley Symphony in the Cal Performances’ engagement on March 15-17 in Zellerbach Hall. And the cast from the Chicago revival last month at the Lyric Opera House will be largely intact: Victoria Jaiani as Anna, Alberto Velazquez as Vronsky, Dylan Gutierrez as Anna’s husband, and Anais Bueno as Kitty, love interest of Vronksy and Konstantin Levin (danced by Hyuma Kiyosawa).  

An astute production team including video designer Finn Ross (Tony Award winner for “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”); set and costume designer Tom Pye, and lighting designer David Finn accomplished the daunting task of distilling Tolstoy’s complex, sweeping tale into an approximately two-hour ballet.  

Though successful from the start, the show continues to grow.  

“We’ve gotten better at it,” says Wheater. “That sounds flip, but this production has settled so beautifully on the company, and every time we return to it, they uncover something new about this story, these characters and Yuri’s vision. Our production team has streamlined how we execute the very technical demands that come with live video projections, complex scene transitions and the intricate lighting design.” 

As one of the greatest, most widely read works of literature in history, “Anna Karenina” would seem to be a natural candidate for a story ballet, especially since the tale is what Wheater calls “a mirror of us and of our complexities as human beings.” 

“One of the themes that became very apparent as we moved through the developmental process of this ballet was that in life we are confronted by lines and boundaries—we honor those lines or we cross them—either way we bear the consequences,” Wheater says. “Tolstoy shows us through the relationship between Anna and Vronsky as well as Levin and Kitty that these sorts of choices reverberate through our lives and even come to define them.” 

Cal Performances presents The Joffrey Ballet’s “Anna Karenina” at 8 p.m. March 15-16 and 3 p.m. March 17 in Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, University of California, Berkeley campus. Tickets are $44-$192 with discounts available at (510) 642-9988 or calperformances.org. 

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