Ashley Wheater knows that great dance is no longer enough. “We’ve seen a change in our audience,” says the Joffrey Ballet’s artistic director. “Everyone sits at home with their phones, laptops, and iPads.” The Joffrey, he proposes, has to incorporate more flash to lure audiences away from their screens and other entertainment. “We are also competing with Broadway and the theater,” Wheater says. “So we have to present our work in a way that’s engaging.”
The Joffrey certainly managed that last year with its North American premiere of Alexander Ekman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That ambitious production, which turned a Scandinavian solstice celebration into a visual spectacle, drew $1.1 million in ticket sales, far surpassing the company’s goal. Now the Joffrey aims to exceed that sensory experience with its revamped interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, featuring the first commissioned score (by Russian composer Ilya Demutsky) in the company’s 62-year history. “It’s not going to be like watching a movie,” says Wheater, “but there is theatrical magic.”
Tom Pye, the show’s scenic and costume designer, says he wants to “take audiences’ breath away” with a multimedia approach to the epic story of an extramarital affair and the disastrous events it triggers. Pye has created translucent panels that glide along overhead tracks to convey smaller domestic spaces and larger areas like a ballroom and racecourse. Tony-winning designer Finn Ross will project images — a mixture of premade material and live video that will be shot backstage — onto these panels to conjure Anna’s feverish nightmares and morphine-induced hallucinations.
While this labyrinth of panels gives the show flexibility and a certain abstract quality, Pye’s costumes evoke a specific time and place: 19th-century Russia. That involves getting the petticoats just right. “It’s about the scale of the tiny waist and the huge billowing skirt,” Pye says. The attention to period detail extends to the headwear: fur hats, top hats, straw hats, veiled hats, plus pieces made of feathers and jewelry — all designed by milliner Sean Barrett, who also worked on the 2012 film version of Anna Karenina.
The production elements dance on the edge between traditional and modern, and so does the choreography of Yuri Possokhov. “He’s one of a few choreographers today who is working in what I consider a hybrid language: classic ballet but with a very contemporary freedom to it,” says Wheater of the Russian. The movement in the ballroom scene, when the flame between Anna and her lover first ignites, recalls a 19th-century waltz, but with a twist. “The waltz is quite a tame society dance,” Wheater explains. “Yuri adds complexity and makes it much more physical, demanding the dancers break out of their restrained manner.” That’s meant to reflect Anna’s struggle to break from societal constraints. The challenge for Pye was designing costumes that kept true to the period’s formal look while being free enough and light enough to allow the dancers to take on the demanding, athletic movements.
For Wheater, who spoke on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary to his partner of 21 years, Tolstoy’s tale of infidelity and honor resonates personally. “There are many married people who run off and have affairs with someone younger or more beautiful, and they destroy the very thing they were looking for. And there are people who honor each other and find complete happiness in that.” Sounds like the premise of a new Netflix series — or, now, a Chicago ballet.
Details:Anna Karenina Feb. 13–24. Loop. Auditorium Theatre. $35–$176. joffrey.org