For the many Utahns who have felt as if they were in Moscow the last couple of weeks, the return of "Anna Karenina" to the Capitol Theater seems ideal timing. All that's needed is a few sleigh bells, and the crunch of runners on the snow under crackling midnight skies, to make Anna feel right at home.
Ballet West will present the Prokovsky-Tchaikovsky full-length ballet drama, based on Tolstoy's tragic novel, in six performances, Feb. 15-20. If you didn't see it before, you will want to experience this evocative setting of one of the grand passions of 19th century literature - the ill-starred love between Anna and Count Vronsky, which led to her fall from social grace, her loss of husband and son, and eventual suicide."There is nothing more popular than a romantic three-act ballet," said artistic director John Hart. "It's a difficult genre, especially in modern times, but Prokovsky's is as successful as any I know. The pas de deux are especially beautiful."
In this ballet, Andre Prokovsky has cast the full company in scenes depicting the lifestyle of the aristocracy in late Czarist Russia - balls and other social events, skating, country revelry - to dashing effect. Costumes and settings by Peter Farmer add to the spectacle.
The remarkable score was compiled by Guy Wolfinden (composer-conductor who supervises music for the Royal Shakespeare Company) from bits and pieces of Tchaikovsky's complete works. Wolfinden faced a big challenge - to discover music of lyric-dramatic impact, yet not hackneyed or worked to death in other contexts.
He chose the theme from a fantasy overture, "The Tempest," Op. 18, as a sort of leitmotif to characterize Anna at significant moments in the drama. He drew liberally from the little-known opera "The Maid of Orleans," for the ballroom concert waltz, which he filled out with his own composition, and for the seasons section of Act II. Snippets from overtures, piano suites and solos all add up to a score that Tchaikovsky himself might have struck off.
Prokovsky has not returned to renew the piece on the company, which has seen considerable turnover since "Anna's" North American premiere here, in September 1987. Instead, artistic assistant Marrie Hadfield has supervised the reconstruction, working from Benesh dance notation that she recorded when the dance was first set.
"Andre taught the dance in 1986, then we had to postpone for a year for lack of funds," said Hart. "But several of our principal artists learned the original - Pamela Robinson, Bruce Caldwell and Raymond Van Mason."
The greatest challenge, of course, goes to the three women who play the pivotal role of Anna - a role associated in movies with such stellar actresses as Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh.
"Though the choreography is the same all the way, Galina Samsova who starred in our premiere made little changes to highlight her own style, and all our women do the same," said Hart.
"Pamela is our only returning Anna, and she's made great strides with her characterization, some of the best progress I've seen since I've been here. Erin Leedom has a wonderful lightness, fragility and delicacy. She is a `flyaway' dancer, very effective in ethereal roles, who is learning to weight Anna with the importance the role demands. And Daniela Buson has a natural flow of emotion that she can turn to her advantage in this piece."
The three women themselves are a little in awe of the larger-than-life character they must portray. And though they don't yet entirely understand her, they find points of agreement between her and their own lives, and can empathize with the desperate situation in which she finds herself.
As Anna, Pamela Robinson, who has been with Ballet West four years, will dance her first opening night in a major role on Wednesday. She and Raymond Van Mason have publicly performed the ballet several times, however - in Ogden and in school performance, also on tour, where they have sometimes excerpted the second act pas de deux.
"After I danced Prokovsky's `Gershwin, by George,' I found myself more comfortable with his choreography," said Robinson. "I fell in with his style. And Ray and I have become more relaxed in our partnership, we've reached the comfort level where we're not as concerned about the steps, and the characterization is easier. It's fun working together; we discover things together.
"To develop Anna in the dance mode, I work like an actress, I create a mental dialogue in certain scenes," she continued, "and the character develops more rapidly. For example, in the skating scene, I devise a little conversation about getting acquainted, and not pushing it too fast.
"The most difficult spots are the long stretches of 20 or 30 bars where you have nothing to do. You must project your character, by the play of emotions through your mind and on your face.
"Anna is really high society; she has married wealth, and she's at ease with her beauty, she has natural grace and elegance, she's secure in her position, but bored. Until she met Vronsky, she had blocked out all thought of passionate love. I find it easiest to do the scenes after she gives in to Vronsky. The scenes with her husband are the hardest. She is highstrung, but not out of control until the end."
Pam relates Anna's love for Vronsky to the feeling she has for dance - a compunction that rules her life, to which she's been willing to sacrifice everything else. "Everyone is looking for the ultimate fulfillment in life, and for me it has been dance," she said.
Robinson was raised in Lexington, Ky, graduated from high school a year early, and soon found a job with Cleveland Ballet, where she stayed for three years - not a good experience. She almost left the field, but was encouraged by Sonia Arova, head of the Birmingham Ballet, to continue. After a few years in Birmingham she went to Mississippi Ballet, where she met Ballet West's Denise Schultze, there to set a choreography, and accepted an invitation to come to Utah.
Erin Leedom, a pencil-thin blond, has been commanding attention in secondary roles with the company since last summer, when she signed on here after 10 years with Oakland Ballet. A personal emotional crisis and desire to broaden her experience and repertory led her to Ballet West.
"I love Salt Lake City; it's already like home, and I love being in this company, which has a classical repertory and is much more clearly defined than Oakland," she said. "It's healthy for me to be here, in a larger group where I am just one of many good dancers. It gives me a reason to strive harder, and something to push against."
As for Anna, "I am small-boned, I have always played light roles, and I have worked to create the illusion of physical stature and importance that I feel Anna must have," said Leedom. She finds Anna's story very real, and can relate to the pain Anna feels, "like an actual physical, suffocating knot in the chest," she said.
"Anna has great spontaneity of emotion, she's a unique individual. I am trying to understand her, she is very complex. She has always kept her emotions under control, but she gets thrown off guard, sidetracked by her love for Vronsky. I don't think she ever goes mad, she just can't deal with the depair because she can't have her son. In the end she has no marriage, no divorce, no lover, and it's hopeless.
"There's a lot of chance-taking in this ballet's choreography, and it's best not to think about it, to just go with the flow," Erin concluded.
Daniela Buson, a small, volatile Italian, finds Anna quite different from anything she has ever done - a difficult role physically, to be sure, but even more so emotionally.
"I and Marcello (Angelini, her partner) know Andre's style from other companies we have danced with, but this interpretation is hard, and foreign to my nature. The dance is period-based, a very interesting period on stage. The Russian aristocracy lived in a different world, and Anna is a very classy lady. I like her style, she is high society, and I must be careful not to be too girlish.
"I feel that Anna was very confused and unhappy before she met Vronsky, but she held in her discontent, never let it show. When she found out what she was missing, she could not resist.
"When I think it through with a cool mind, I feel myself into the role, but when I add the steps it's a different matter. The steps are difficult, but they express half the emotion. We have nine pas de deux in all!"
Besides the three Annas and Vronskys, the cast features Peter Christie and Charles Flachs as Karenin, Rhonda Lee and Isabelle Creste as Kitty, and Robert Arbogast and Angelini as Levin.
Tickets ranging from $6 to $36 are available at the Ballet West box office in the theater, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays; at Smith'sTix outlets, or by phone charge at 533-5555. Students with I.D. may purchase tickets at $4, and discounts are available to senior citizens and groups of 20 or more.