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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Cal Performances at UC Berkeley presents The Joffrey Ballet “Anna Karenina” March 15-17, 2024 Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

Anticipating the pleasure of an engaging afternoon, the audience is gathering at Zellerbach Hall to share The Joffrey Ballet’s and Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina. It feels like preparing to see a celebrated friend after several years’ absence.  Cal Performances has been the Bay Area home of Joffrey Ballet since 2013, and fortunately for us all, will continue to be so over the next eight years, this being the first of four bi-annual presentations. 

Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and Anna Karenina’s Choreographer Possokhov, are Bay Area dance royalty, former San Francisco Ballet (SFB) Principal dancers who have gone on to even greater things. At Joffrey, Wheater leads an internationally accomplished company, and Possokhov continues to craft award-winning ballets around the world, while also serving as SFB’s longtime Choreographer-in-Residence.

Locally it has been a stellar month for story ballet, with this Bay Area premiere of Anna Karenina coming on the heels of SFB’s world-class productions of Swan Lake and Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The lucky among us last entered Zellerbach for the CAL Performances presentation of Pina Bausch’s unforgettable contemporary dance epic The Rite of Spring. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum and all these experiences inform each other.

Possohkov’s 2019 adaptation of Tolstoy’s 1878 novel, Anna Karenina, soars alongside those experiences. Despite being set in 19th Century Imperial Russia, the piece feels daring and new. The movement has a freshness, drawing from classical ballet but also folk and even a bit of modern-day street dance.  Tolstoy’s heart-wrenching tale of a woman caught between two loves unfolds in a compact two hours, a welcome condensing of 864 pages. Succinct storytelling and astute portrayals by the dramatically expressive cast keep us on the edge of our seats.

The cleverly designed production (Tom Pye costumes & sets; David Finn lighting, Finn Ross projection) uses a series of metal framed scrim walls and projected imagery to transport us to train stations, ballrooms, race courses and bedrooms.  Avoiding visual clutter, a single prop such as a velvet settee, or a toy train, draws us into human-scale drama at play. This is a world in which decorum trumps individuality, which is well represented in the glimpses of colorful lining fabrics that emerge from under the women’s dark- gowns as they twirl across the dancefloor in the arms of their partners.  Projected scenery allows the vaulted ceilings of the vast train station to artfully fall away, as the bustling passengers exit, and the lights isolate the chance meeting between Anna and her future lover, a moment on which all else will hinge.

Cal Performances presents The Joffrey Ballet in the Bay Area premiere of Anna Karenina, accompanied by the Berkeley Symphony, March 15-17, 2024, at Zellerbach Hall.

(credit: Cheryl Mann)

Possokhov’s dancers use touch in tantalizing ways.  A man and a woman stand back to back, tipping their heads so their cheeks brush one another; we feel the tension of future intimacy, which when finally delivered, is breathtaking.

Victoria Jaini is tempestuous and mesmerizing as the conflicted Anna, trying desperately to balance her roles as a good mother and dutiful spouse with an irresistible urge for consummated love.   Dignified and elegant with lyrical length and powerful partnering, Dylan Guiterrez portrays Anna’s husband. Standing tall, he silently commands his wife to take his arm so they might escape the embarrassing revelation of her disloyalty.   

The thrill of new love, the sad disillusionment of a partner’s waning interest, or one’s own faltering affections, are built brilliantly into the choreography. Vronsky, Anna’s lover, is at her mercy, and thus he partners her from his knees as she twirls around him.  As his affections waver, Jaini’s extensions wilt; her Anna stutters over the floor when once she vaulted skyward.

Anna’s sophisticated femme fatale persona, clothed in solids of black and ivory, has a foil in Princess Kitty, portrayed with effervescence by Yumi Kanazawa. In floral prints, Kitty is buoyant and pragmatic as she finds herself making the best of a second chance as she accepts the proposal of a formerly cast-off suitor. 

Possokhov’s adaptation includes two strong male ensemble scenes which reinforce the varied worlds and temperaments of Anna’s two loves.  A dozen members of Parliament consider Alexey’s legal arguments within the confines of a room described by straight lines of chairs. They move together in prescribed angular patterns, in contrast to the curvilinear lines cut by Vronsky and his jockey colleagues as they dash and prance in unpredictable formations.

Live music adds compelling dynamics to dance performances.  It is a treat to have the Berkeley Symphony, under the baton of conductor Scott Speck, performing Ilya Demutsky’s original score in the Zellerbach Hall pit.  The score is cinematic in scope. Cymbals and bass drum reinforce pivotal moments, church bells ring for the dead.  A single female voice present at the beginning and the end, carrying the mantle of womanhood in an unforgiving world, is portrayed onstage and off by the rich voice mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger.

In a stunning piece of stagecraft, Anna’s suicide is rendered in silhouette against the approaching glare of a locomotive’s headlamp. As the intensity grows, we watch her garments blow away revealing her bare unclothed lines.  Would that the piece had ended there.  Instead, we are offered a moralistic epilogue, featuring Kitty and her husband happily pitching hay and barn dancing with their country neighbors.

In 2013, Chronicle reviewer Allan Ulrich noted that a “Joffrey tradition is the quality and texture of the dancing. Beyond technique, the performers of old were celebrated for their versatility, individuality and intense theatricality of attack.”  I found this to be truer today than ever, as they dance new life into the characters of a great literary work.  Despite the trite ending, The Joffrey Possokhov Anna Karenina is well deserving of the 2019 Benois de la Danse International Prize for Best Choreography. 

Review by Jen Norris, published March 18, 2024


Production Credits:


Conductor Scott Speck

Choreography by Yuri Possokhov

Music by Ilya Demutsky

Anna Karenina Victoria Jaini

Alexey Karenin Dylan Gutierrez

Their son, Seryozha Jimmy Gershenson

Alexey Vronsky Alberto Velazquez

Kitty Shcherbatskaya Yumi Kanazawa

Konstantin Levin Xavier Núñez (in for Hyuma Kiyosawa)

Countess Nordston/Betsy Tverskaya Jeraldine Mendoza

Tolstoy/Doctor Edson Barbosa

Kitty’s parents Christine Rocas, Valentino Moneglia Zamora

Nanny Lauren Quinn

Policemen Davide Oldano, Ryo Sasaki

JockeysEdson Barbosa, Reed Henry, Zachary Manske, Xavier Núñez, Davide Oldano, Wictor Hugo Pedroso

Russian SocietyCoco Alvarez-Mena, Valeria Chaykina, Lucia Connolly, Olivia Duryea, Dara Holmes, Brooke Linford, Lindy Mesmer, Lauren Quinn, Princess Reid, Julia Rust, Natali Taht, Ao Wang, Evan Boersma, Maxwell Dawe, Jonathan Dole, Derek Drilon, Fernando Duarte, Stefan Gonçalvez, Reed Henry, Blake Kessler, Zachary Manske, Graham Maverick, Jackson Miles, Valentino Moneglia Zamora, Xavier Núñez, Davide Oldano, Wictor Hugo Pedroso, Aaron Renteria, Ryo Sasaki

PeasantsValeria Chaykina, Lucia Connolly, Anabelle de la Nuez, Olivia Duryea, Nae Kojima, Lauren Quinn, Basia Rhoden, Natali Taht, Derek Drilon, Fernando Duarte, Hansol Jeong, Blake Kessler, Valentino Moneglia Zamora, Xavier Núñez, Wictor Hugo Pedroso, Aaron Renteria

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