Imogen Chapman is a soloist in the upcoming performance of Anna Karenina at the Sydney Opera House. We discuss the process of adaptation for dance and what this new version has to offer.
Edited for readability and brevity.
I’ve heard the ballet, Anna Karenina, is more akin to an opera than a ballet. Do you feel this way and is the comparison an apt one?
With Yuri Possokhov’s production of Anna Karenina it’s true that we are joined by a live opera singer which is definitely something that isn’t like the other ballets that the Australian Ballet perform. But I would definitely say that it has everything that a lavish, large ballet production has. It is definitely more of a ballet than an opera, but it is really special to have an opera singer onstage with us to add another element of theatre to the ballet.
Have you read the book? Does the ballet require the dancers to understand the adapted text? Or is it just something that helps the dancers gain insight towards the characters and themes etc. should they wish to?
It’s interesting as every dancer has a different approach to character roles. I personally did read the book and I found it really helpful. I know that Yuri Possokhov used the book a lot in order to accurately follow the book and create his ballet. So I really wanted to fully understand Tolstoy’s writing to aid with my character.
I wouldn’t say it’s completely essential though. I know some dancers prefer to go into a role completely fresh without any preconceived ideas. What they create in the moment is how they form the characters. It’s an individual choice. Everyone’s process is unique, and I guess with that method you’re just taking the information that you’re given by the choreography and the information you’re given about the character instead of having an idea about it beforehand in order to create something fresh.
Do you always read the books beforehand if the ballet is adapted from one?
I generally do. A lot of ballets we do, like Romeo & Juliet, are dramatic stories and I love dramatic stories. They’re powerful and full-on. Not only is it a way to explore my character but it’s also just something I enjoy. I love those tales.
How does this version of Anna Karenina differ from the previous two versions? I know the music is different but what else is there?
This production by Yuri Possokhov I guess could be interpreted as quite modern. The score has been commissioned for this new production and it’s a beautiful score. We also have the live opera singer I mentioned before which is not something that you usually see in classical ballet productions. That I think brings a real modern take to it. We also use projections. It’s all quite cinematic. Together it takes this really classic, old story and brings it into the modern era making it relevant.
What does ballet do or what can it offer the famous story of Anna Karenina that other mediums may not be able to do as well?
I think through dance and body movement you can tell a whole range of emotions and feelings just with body language and expression. I think that’s what this ballet does so beautifully. You can really feel the passion and the desperation through Possokhov’s choreography. Even though there’s no words, no speaking, the audience can still really feel that tension and that build-up just from the movement created onstage. You get really swept along with it. Particularly with this production and the added opera singer, she comes in at these crucial moments and it really hits you when you watch it. It’s quite brilliant.
Do you believe that Anna and Vronsky’s relationship was doomed from the start? Was Vronsky really the love of her life that was worth all the trouble she found herself in?
It’s an interesting question because this is a human story, and you can relate it to yourself and the relationships you’ve had personally. How I like to view it is more like this: while there is an element of the narrative that is a love story, I think Anna choosing Vronsky in the moment that she does is more about herself. It’s more about her as a woman making her own decision which, given the time period the story is set, is important as she didn’t feel like she had a lot of choices and she felt quite stuck in the life that was prescribed to her. So in her making the decision to be with Vronsky instead of her husband was her trying to take control. It’s quite a tragic story so it’s hard to say whether he was the love of her life or not, but I do think she needed to make that choice and be strong for herself.
Knowing how to the story ends, if you had to choose between Vronsky and Karenin, who would you choose?
This might be a controversial choice, but I would still pick Vronsky. As I said, the character of Anna, for herself, she needed to make that decision and yes, I would hope that things don’t go as badly as they do in the story. But I do think she needed to make that choice and feel liberated by that choice instead of being stuck in a cycle that was making her very unhappy.
What’s the auditioning process like for lead roles in a ballet?
In the Australian Ballet there is nearly 80 dancers so there’s a rank system. So there’s principals, senior artists, soloists, and so on. There’s not so much of an audition process. Yuri Possokhov, he came out in I think 2019, and he just watched the company for a few days and from there made his choice. You always want to impress the people that come in and watch but there’s not really an audition for a certain role there is just what he saw in people and picked who he thought was right for each character.
Are rehearsals a day-by-day thing or is there a one-time dress rehearsal and then every night you just go out and do it?
We rehearse everyday, six days a week. This process for Anna Karenina, due to the pandemic has been really drawn out. We were meant to perform first in 2020 but obviously all our shows were cancelled. We’ve been learning and rehearsing this since mid 2021. We just finished our Melbourne season. It’s quite a process so you can find your depth and character and master the choreography so by the time you do go onstage each show can be fresh and you can be exploring different things and emotions each time you perform it.
So the process isn’t usually that long?
No, it’s more succinct. For us, if it’s a new work we haven’t performed before we would usually have about a six-week rehearsal process before performing the show.
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