A scene from the Zurich Ballet's 'Anna Karenina.' Photo: Gregory Batardon

This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival opened last weekend, with the Zurich Ballet making a welcome return to the festival after 14 years. In 2004, the Swiss company performed two memorable “pure dance” productions choreographed by its then artistic director Heinz Spoerli. Christian Spuck, the current artistic director, opened this year’s festival with his 2014 dramatic work Anna Karenina.

Local audiences had seen a magnificent version of Anna Karenina choreographed by Boris Eifman and performed by his Eifman Ballet, of Russia, during the World Cultures Festival in 2013. This two-act Spuck version, though lasting just over two hours, felt rather long and repetitive by comparison.

Spuck’s approach is too ambitious: He crams in too many narrative strands from Leo Tolstoy’s great novel. A careful reading of the synopsis in the program is necessary in advance for anyone not wholly familiar with the book.

The production, set to an odd mélange of Sergei Rachmaninov and other contemporary composers, opens with a prologue set at the train station in Moscow. This is echoed by the ending, with the whole cast assembling at the station after Anna’s tragic suicide. It’s also noteworthy that the book’s “secondary” couple – Kitty and the wealthy landowner Levin – are given more prominence here than in other productions.

Act 1 has as many as 10 different scenes, while Act 2 has six scenes. Too much: Act 1 feels simply interminable. It does not help that Spuck’s narrative, from the beginning of Act 1 until the ballroom scene, is not all that clear. The duet between Anna and Vronsky, at the end of which the latter removes his shirt, is the strongest scene in Act 1.

The horse-racing scene, which expresses the jealousy of Anna’s husband Karenin, is highly theatrical. However, in the following “haymaking” scene, which features Levin, the ensemble dances are too long and repetitive. Also something of a longueur is the trio involving Anna, Karenin and Vronsky at the end of Act 1.

Act 2, an altogether grimmer proposition, features so many duets that one feels breathless. The final suicide scene is economically presented by means of video and is not overly melodramatic.

Fortunately, the excellence of the cast on the opening night redeemed the unevenness of Spuck’s production. Viktorina Kapitonova, who also danced Anna in the 2014 premiere, was superb, conveying every nuance of the heroine’s internal contradictions and unhappiness. As her suffering husband, Filipe Portugal was sympathetic. Tars Vandebeek danced brightly as Levin. But William Moore lacked charisma as Vronsky.

Spuck’s choreography is generally serviceable but lacking in variety and originality. The costume designs by Emma Ryott are excellent, while the backdrops are simple but effective.

Overall, this production fails to match the ecstasy and passion of Eifman Ballet’s. A second, mixed program would also have been welcome, to reflect better the Zurich Ballet’s artistic range.

Svetlana Zakharova and Vadim Repin. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Another dance production presented at the festival a few days later lifted the spirits. Bolshoi Ballet star Svetlana Zakharova, returning to the festival, joined her husband, the famed violinist Vadim Repin, in a short gala program “Pas de Deux for Toes and Fingers.” There were 10 numbers, five of which featured Zakharova. Their variety provided an excellent showcase for the unique artistry of this great Russian ballerina.

Zakharova won the biggest applause for her performance of the famous  “Dying Swan” solo. Her flexibility and pliancy were also shown to good dramatic effect in the mournful “Revelations” solo, choreographed by Motoko Hirayama. The comic piece “La Ronde des Lutins,” choreographed by Johan Kobborg, provided an upbeat finale.

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