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In a time of international tumult, there’s something oddly reassuring about pirouetting back into timeless classics. Often dubbed the greatest novel ever written, Tolstoy’s tempestuous ode to love, loss and family was born in a time of war and social change. In this latest edition of Stage Direction, Stephen A Russell traces the tracks of Anna Karenina’s many sumptuous adaptations.

Often dubbed the greatest novel ever written, Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s tempestuous ode to love, loss and family. Ahead of The Australian Ballet production, Stephen A Russell traces the tracks of its many sumptuous adaptations.

Embedded in literary history… this tale can be told, like Romeo and Juliet, through countless lenses, including the choreographic. That’s the power of the story.”
David Hallberg – Artistic Director, The Australian Ballet

How do you follow War and Peace? Count Lev ‘Leo’ Nikolayevich Tolstoy had already penned a huge (quite literally) hit when he sat down to write his second epic Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy witnessed nerve-shredding sights while serving as a junior officer in the horrific siege of Sevastopol by the Ottoman Empire and its allies during the Crimean War. They would leave a deep and lasting mark on the young man who turned 27 the day the city fell, on September 9, 1855.

His missives from this grim front formed the basis of the short story collection Sevastopol Sketches, cementing his reputation as a writer with a gift for capturing the visceral grit of blood in the dirt alongside the grand scope of human triumph and tragedy. It set him to researching Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and eventually penning War and Peace, a historical tome exploring the impact on five Tsarist families.

Serialised, Dickens-style, in magazine The Russian Messenger, it was first collected as a 1000-page plus novel in 1869. But given the weighty turns to straight-up philosophising, Tolstoy himself said that War and Peace was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle”.

As far as he was concerned, Anna Karenina was his first novel proper.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Vronsky beat

No less epic in scale than its predecessor, Anna Karenina (also first serialised in The Russian Messenger) easily surpasses 800 pages in most translations, and yet somehow feels far more intimate. It may reflect the enormous social upheaval of Emperor Alexander II of Russia abolishing serfdom, but its most important battles are those of the heart.

Tolstoy told his wife Sonya, who duly noted it in her diary, “In order for a book to be good, one has to love its basic, fundamental idea. Thus, in Anna Karenina, I loved the idea of the family.”

It is a family affair, but one hung on the coattails of three key romances. Divided into eight parts, Tolstoy guides us through a uniquely realised world rich with interior thought, as relayed by an omniscient narrator who slips between characters. Including Laska, the loyal hunting dog of Konstantin Levin, a wealthy landowner modelled on Tolstoy himself.

Levin loves Kitty Shcherbatsky, but she only has eyes for dashing cavalry officer Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky.

Sadly, Anna spies Vronsky in a St Petersburg train station and falls head over heels in intense lust and love with him while on her way to Moscow. She’s set on playing peacemaker between her womanising brother, Prince Stepan ‘Stiva’ Arkadyevich Oblonsky, and his miffed wife, Princess Darya ‘Dolly’ Alexandrovna (Kitty’s sister), but soon causes her own commotion.

While the accidental death of a railway worker seems like a bad omen, she pursues a torrid affair with Vronsky nonetheless, abandoning her older husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. Karenin bars her from seeing their beloved son, Sergei. All roads lead back to the railway track.

It’s a hot mess of the very best kind that has captivated readers for almost 150 years. As The Australian Ballet’s David Hallberg puts it, “everyone loves the drama”.

“I know now that there’s no escape for me. I love you, Alexei, I love you.”

Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina in the 1935 film

“I know now that there’s no escape for me. I love you, Alexei, I love you.”

Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina in the 1935 film

From page to popcorn to stage

Hollywood certainly loves tragic passion, and so the big screen treatment called. French director Maurice André Maitre debuted a silent movie rendition in Russian cinemas in 1911. One of the most memorable films to follow in its footsteps was director Clarence Brown’s 1935 adaptation. With regular collaborator and radiant screen presence Greta Garbo cast as Anna, alongside Death of a Salesman star Fredric March’s Vronsky, it won Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival.

As The New York Times review notes, “Miss Garbo, always superbly the apex of the drama, suggests the inevitability of her doom from the beginning, streaking her first happiness with undertones of anguish, later trying futilely to mend the broken pieces, and at last standing regally alone as she approaches the end”.

Garbo had a first stab in Edmund Goulding’s 1927 silent film Love, which included an alternate American ending minus the train fate but packing plenty of erotic frisson between her and co-star John Gilbert. Stepping from silent film to commanding the airwaves, Marlene Dietrich lent her vocals to The MGM Theater of the Air radio play in 1949.

Vivien Leigh depicted Anna in French auteur Julien Duvivier’s 1948 version. You can catch dashing Omar Sharif as a Vronsky analogue in Egyptian Arabic-language movie The River of Love (Nahr el Hub) from 1960. And Keira Knightley ditches Jude Law to run off with Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Atonement director Joe Wright’s lavish 2012 production, which secured an Oscar for costume designer Jacqueline Durran.

On the small screen, Sean Connery starred as Vronsky to Claire Bloom’s Anna in a BBC telemovie broadcast one year before he stepped into Bond’s suave tailored suits with 1962’s Dr No. Sometime Bond girl and Bullitt star Jacqueline Bisset paired with Superman lead Christopher Reeve in 1985. And more recently, the ABC transferred the action to contemporary Melbourne in The Beautiful Lie. Succession scion Sarah Snook blazes in the eponymous role, supported by a cast of Australian favourites including Celia Pacquola, Robert Menzies and Daniel Henshall.

Of course, a towering novel from a titan of Russian literature commands the Bolshoi Ballet’s attention. The revered company’s first turn debuted in 1972, as choreographed by star Maya Plisteskaya.

Five years later, The Australian Ballet tackled the mighty tome for the first time, as led by choreographer André Prokovsky. American star John Neumeier conveyed Tolstoy’s drama in dance in 2018, in a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada and the Hamburg Ballet.

Tolstoy’s operatic plot has also inspired arias from composers, including American David Carlson and Scotsman Iain Hamilton. Anna’s downfall was even captured in musical theatre form, in a Broadway production in 1992, with book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by Daniel Levine, as led by Ann Crumb.

The many faces of Anna Karenina

From androids to erotic art, Anna Karenina has been adapted in almost every form imaginable over the last 150 years.

Ann Crumb starring in the short-lived Broadway musical adaptation of Anna Karenina

Ann Crumb starring in the short-lived Broadway musical adaptation of Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, an erotic painting by New York artist Aleks Kontr.

Anna Karenina, an erotic painting by New York artist Aleks Kontr.

Philippine television series Anna KareNina (2013), itself a remake of hit Philippine show Annakarenina (1996), was about three girls (Anna, Karen and Nina) claiming to a missing rich heiress.

Philippine television series Anna KareNina (2013), itself a remake of hit Philippine show Annakarenina (1996), was about three girls (Anna, Karen and Nina) claiming to a missing rich heiress.

The 1997 Hollywood production of Anna Karenina starring Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau is the only international version filmed entirely in Russia.

The 1997 Hollywood production of Anna Karenina starring Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau is the only international version filmed entirely in Russia.

The Beautiful Lie, a six-part Australian reimagining of Anna Karenina starring Sarah Snook.

The Beautiful Lie, a six-part Australian reimagining of Anna Karenina starring Sarah Snook.

Android Karenina is a 2010 parody novel written by Ben H. Winters and is part of a series of supernatural adaptations of classic novels by Quirk Books.

Android Karenina is a 2010 parody novel written by Ben H. Winters and is part of a series of supernatural adaptations of classic novels by Quirk Books.

Anna Karenina (1948) starring Vivien Leigh.

Anna Karenina (1948) starring Vivien Leigh.

The trailer for the 1935 MGM adaptation of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo.

The trailer for the 1935 MGM adaptation of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo.

Keira Knightly in the 2012 Oscar-nominated Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright.

Keira Knightly in the 2012 Oscar-nominated Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright.

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Ann Crumb starring in the short-lived Broadway musical adaptation of Anna Karenina

Ann Crumb starring in the short-lived Broadway musical adaptation of Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, an erotic painting by New York artist Aleks Kontr.

Anna Karenina, an erotic painting by New York artist Aleks Kontr.

Philippine television series Anna KareNina (2013), itself a remake of hit Philippine show Annakarenina (1996), was about three girls (Anna, Karen and Nina) claiming to a missing rich heiress.

Philippine television series Anna KareNina (2013), itself a remake of hit Philippine show Annakarenina (1996), was about three girls (Anna, Karen and Nina) claiming to a missing rich heiress.

The 1997 Hollywood production of Anna Karenina starring Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau is the only international version filmed entirely in Russia.

The 1997 Hollywood production of Anna Karenina starring Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau is the only international version filmed entirely in Russia.

The Beautiful Lie, a six-part Australian reimagining of Anna Karenina starring Sarah Snook.

The Beautiful Lie, a six-part Australian reimagining of Anna Karenina starring Sarah Snook.

Android Karenina is a 2010 parody novel written by Ben H. Winters and is part of a series of supernatural adaptations of classic novels by Quirk Books.

Android Karenina is a 2010 parody novel written by Ben H. Winters and is part of a series of supernatural adaptations of classic novels by Quirk Books.

Anna Karenina (1948) starring Vivien Leigh.

Anna Karenina (1948) starring Vivien Leigh.

The trailer for the 1935 MGM adaptation of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo.

The trailer for the 1935 MGM adaptation of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo.

Keira Knightly in the 2012 Oscar-nominated Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright.

Keira Knightly in the 2012 Oscar-nominated Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright.

Dancers from The Australian Ballet’s first-ever production of Anna Karenina, choreographed by the Parisian-born Russian choreographer André Prokovsky and costumed by the renowned theatre designer Peter Farmer.

Prokovsky’s Anna Karenina premiered in 1979, with a starry cast: Marilyn Rowe and Gary Norman as Anna and Vronsky, and Garth Welch as Karenin. Read more here.

A dancer from The Australian Ballet’s first-ever production of Anna Karenina, choreographed by the Parisian-born Russian choreographer André Prokovsky and costumed by the renowned theatre designer Peter Farmer.

Prokovsky’s Anna Karenina premiered in 1979, with a starry cast: Marilyn Rowe and Gary Norman as Anna and Vronsky, and Garth Welch as Karenin. Read more here.

From St Petersburg to the Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s latest take on Tolstoy’s epic, a co-production with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, is arguably its most breathtaking yet. Deftly dancing around the heart of the text, it thrums to mesmerising choreography from Ukrainian-born choreographer Yuri Possokhov and a brilliant new score by St Petersburg-based composer Ilya Demutsky.

Creating a bridge between stage and screen, Finn Ross’ spectacular projections transport us from a steam-filled railway station to the Karenin mansion, from an Italian escape with Vronsky to fields of golden wheat in seconds. His deft scene-setting is ably assisted by David Finn’s sublime lighting design and paired-back sets by Tom Pye, who also crafts the lush costumes for Anna and co. There’s even an opera singer narrating onstage for good measure.

After navigating lockdowns, Hallberg is overjoyed to finally bring this all-in masterpiece to the Sydney Opera House stage. “It’s quite cinematic,” he says. “There’s a lot of power in its refined design.”

Hallberg will soon return to the stage to dance in The Australian Ballet’s upcoming season of Kunstkamer at the Opera House, but for now, he’s happy to observe. “The Opera House offers such an intimate space,” Hallberg says. “It’s much more of an immersive experience.”

And Anna Karenina deserves to be seen up close and personal. Hallberg, a former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, understands the eternal pull of the text. “Absolutely separate to what’s happening in the world right now, Russians have very deep souls, and that has consistently been communicated through the arts, through Tolstoy, ballet, music and more.”

Whether it’s an impassioned pas de deux between Anna and Vronsky, or a desperate tussle with Karenin, it all comes alive in this new ballet. As Hallberg says, “You don’t need words for that”.

If you’ve ever looked at the brick that is Tolstoy’s novel and balked, you might just find this Anna is the right way into this tunnel of haunted love for you.

“Whether you’ve read the novel or not, Karenina is one of those stories we can all connect to. A tale of love and passion, and also of an escape from domestic boredom. These are emotions we have all come across, whether it was centuries ago or now.”

David Hallberg – Artistic Director, The Australian Ballet