Lots of movies list a choreographer in the credits, but few boast dances that could hold their own on the stage. That distinction was crucial for director Joe Wright, though, because his Anna Karenina takes place on the stage. “Joe had been playing around with making an ANNA KARENINA that was almost in the form of a ballet,” explains Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the choreographer Wright nabbed for the film. “Slowly the idea transformed into setting it in a theatre.”
Outside this theatre lies the vastness of Russia, where among the protagonists only Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is at home. Inside, the door of one windowless room slams shut to reveal another such chamber, and wheeled panels roll in to further partition the space. This claustrophobic maze suits a love story bounded on one side by the laws of Church and State damning to women and, on the other side, by an aristocratic etiquette of intrigue and deceit. The corridors of possibility must be negotiated with choreographic precision. Which is where Cherkaoui comes in. The artifice, ritual, invisible machinery, and tight parameters that make theatre such a perfect metaphor for Anna’s milieu have been the acclaimed choreographer’s daily tools for more than a decade.
As the son of a Moroccan father and a Flemish mother, the 36-year-old Antwerp native is keenly attuned to cultural codes, whether in theatre — and dance — or out. In Loin (Far), for example, his hilarious and dizzyingly smart 2005 meditation on how culture travels, for the adventurous contemporary dance troupe the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, a dancer recounts her experiences in China on a recent company tour. She is Chinese, but she returned as a foreigner. Her affect is casual and her observations offbeat. And yet she does not speak alone. She stands in a row at the lip of the stage with the 22 other members of Loin’s international cast, and they tell the story, replete with gesticulations, together, like a freaky rendition of Maoist calisthenics. The usual, loaded opposition between spontaneous expression and rehearsed recitation, the spunky individual and the cowed masses, the democratic West and the authoritarian East, collapse.
Loin typifies Cherkaoui’s use of standard choreographic techniques for delightfully perverse purposes. The talking episode both exposes our automatic association of unison with mindless mimicry and shakes it loose, as each dancer inflects the steps differently. Loin does not demonstrate the triumph of individuality over conformity or even the opposite. It layers one over the other so they shade into each other. Such complexity of thought is another Cherkaoui constant.
“The effect I want is emotional,” he says in his excellent if adorable English, the plosives and th’s softened into d’s and b’s. “I want somebody to feel something. But sometimes we do very complicated things [to get there]. I’m not afraid of taking the long way around.”
For him, the indirect route has often meant collaborations that cover vast cultural ground. His own style is already far-reaching, combining hip-hop’s pretzelling, Gumby limbs with martial arts’ floor-skimming perambulations and American postmodern dance’s hands-free, weighted partnering. Then he joins forces with kathak master (and 2012 Olympics choreographer) Akram Khan or flamenco innovator María Pagés or the acrobat-illusionists Pilobolus, to name a few. Even for our non-ideological, fusion-happy age, in which the epic battle between ballet and modern ended in their blissful union as “contemporary dance,” Cherkaoui’s roster of cross-cultural projects is impressive, but more striking is the alchemy he achieves between the disparate forms. Cherkaoui could be describing himself when he says of Wright, “What was fantastic about Joe is he would listen and absorb influences from [composer] Dario [Marianelli] and me and they would be used naturally in his universe.”
The first thing the choreographer absorbed was that “Joe took the choreography seriously. He treated it not as decoration but as part of the storytelling” — an essential part, the filminstantly makes clear.
ANNA KARENINA begins with the well-positioned bureaucrat Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) laid out in a barber’s chair on a bare stage. It is fitting in this starkly theatrical setting that the barber (Elias Lazaridis, one of thirteen dancers in the film from Cherkaoui’s Antwerp-based troupe, Eastman) behaves like a matador, snapping the barber’s sheet like a cape and flourishing the razors like lances. Mundane routine as ritual blood sport: how dangerous a world ringed round by custom can be.
And how mechanical: we follow Oblonsky, fresh from his ablutions, to the long chamber over which he presides, where row upon row of buttoned-up clerks stamp and rearrange papers in a syncopated ballet blanc: stamp, stamp, flutter of paper; repeat; repeat; repeat. The thick stack on the left shrinks as the thin stack on the right grows. “Paperwork,” Oblonsky later exclaims, “is the soul of Russia.” As he passes each row, his minions rise like pistons in a well-oiled machine to the music’s chug and wheeze.
If the opening scenes establish the world we’re in (richly adorned, deeply sublimated, and minutely calibrated) and how its story will be told (ebulliently, inventively, and, above all, theatrically), the ball — in which Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Anna (Keira Knightley) whirl themselves into a passion and cast Kitty (softly radiant Alicia Vikander) aside — carries us into the story’s romance. Most directors appreciate the scene’s importance without making much of the dancing. (A notable exception is the 1935 Greta Garbo version, in which the dancers exchange not only partners but salty badinage.) Wright hands this pivotal moment over to the dance.
Cherkaoui set himself the task of inventing a variation on the waltz that would re-awaken it in all its allure. When he went “back into the books,” he says, “I read a lot about how the waltz was considered indecent. Not proper. It came from Poland” — a colonial outback by Russian lights — “but it seeped into the aristocracy, and people would do it because they couldn’t help themselves.
“I’ve always found this relationship between popular and aristocratic culture interesting. And here I was playing between these two: how we transform something to make it more proper but how at the end of the day it is still a man and a woman and their desire to fly away together.
“Waltzes can be like a cosmos,” he continues, “all these couples twirling around each other but also around the other couples. You would lean in to the arm of your partner in such a way that both partners have the feeling they have no weight.” They could spin all the way to the moon. They could fly too close to the sun. That thrill and danger resounds in the waltzes of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Ravel — and Marianelli, whose waltz for Anna and Vronsky grows progressively discordant the faster it turns.
“Anna and Vronsky’s passion is at the heart of the waltz,” Cherkaoui notes. The other couples freeze until the duo — “generating an energy like some kind of organic clockwork” — sweeps them along in its wake.
The choreographer did not meddle with the patterns of the feet — they lend the waltz its necessary force — but he embellished the arms and upper body to bring out the waltz’s strict comportment as well as its erotic appeal and to adapt it for the camera, which generally favors faces — “how people look at each other” — over feet.
To underscore the form’s exacting rules of engagement, he accented the man’s initial move: the raising of the back of the wrist to lead the woman on to the dance floor. Cherkaoui has the man’s wrist suddenly jut up. It doesn’t bode well for the lady otherwise. When Vronsky spots Anna after he has already agreed to give Kitty a turn, he lifts his wrist so desultorily that you feel the insult.
As for the waltz’s legendary raciness, Cherkaoui began by thinking about the prescribed limits to touch at the 19th century ball: “You would hold the hand without the palms touching.” Only fingers were clasped. “Touching the inside of the hand was considered very intimate, very sensual.” In his version, only the lower arm’s pale undersides graze. The hands are free to undulate and unfurl like time-lapse vines winding up trellises and flowering. “The looseness of the wrist only suggests touch. The hands flow through one another like weaving. I wanted the waltz to be magical, and you know how when you cast a spell it is with the weaving of hands?”
As a fan of Wright’s movies long before he worked for him, Cherkaoui recognized their shared fascination with hands. In PRIDE & PREJUDICE, Darcy dents Elizabeth Bennett’s certainty that he dislikes her — and she will forever despise him back — when he takes her hand for the usual farewell and holds it a beat too long. ATONEMENT homes in on hands as Robbie passes the fateful letter through the slatted fence to the young Briony. And when the thickly sensual Vronsky kisses a lady’s hand, as he does often, Wright maintains the frame low so Taylor-Johnson’s dip downward reads as an intrusion. “Vronsky is quite invasive,” Cherkaoui notes. “Anna had many moments when she tried to stop the affair, even though she was magnetically attracted to him,” but he bore down on her.
Besides choreographing the dances, Cherkaoui helped the actors find physical analogues to emotional or psychological states. In Anna’s case, he noticed that “when Vronsky came into the picture, he threw her out of balance. Suddenly she doesn’t know where to stand anymore with her morals and ideals. So with Keira I tried to literally push her off balance and see what she would do.”
As for Vronsky, “Aaron is a very physical person — very gifted. He really goes for it, and sometimes we had to hold him back” — Cherkaoui laughs — “and say, ‘Yeah, but you also have this elegant side, this education, even though a part of you doesn’t care.’ ”
The struggle “to achieve a balance between obsession and clarity” — passion and restraint — is ANNA KARENINAin a nutshell. One of Cherkaoui’s most affecting scenes expands on this theme very quietly, with no dancing at all. It is a seated pas de deux, slow and liquid, between Levin and Kitty — hope and regret — with children’s letter blocks as intermediaries.
“I got the blocks from Joe, and he said, ‘Make it work.’ ”
Apollinaire Scherr is the New York dance critic for the Financial Times and writes for various publications on books and the arts. She teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.