Anna Karenina is too long and often head-scratching, but there are rich rewards

ANNA KARENINA choreography by John Neumeier (National Ballet of Canada). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to.

ANNA KARENINA choreography by John Neumeier (National Ballet of Canada). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to November 18. $73-$168. 416-345-9595, See listing. Rating: NNNN

Audiences are in for an intense, and often challenging evening at the National Ballet of Canadas full-length Anna Karenina by master choreographer John Neumeier.

Neumeiers inspired by version is set in modern-day Russia and hits most of the late-19th-century Leo Tolstoy novels major plot points and characters: the coldly married Karenins Annas doomed affair with Vronsky and the price she pays for it the alternative love stories of Annas brother, the philandering Stiva, and his long-suffering wife Dolly Dollys sister Kitty and the country aristocrat Levin.

Anna is the fulcrum and Neumeiers choreography gives her much to do. On opening night Svetlana Lunkina embodied the character with unflagging sensitivity and elegance. Juggling emotional demands from husband, lover, son, friends, the ghost of a dead railway worker who appears at tense moments Anna eventually collapses under the burden. Lunkina delivers many shades of guilt, strength and longing before that collapse, all the while hitting technical marks that would defeat a lesser star.

Neumeiers choreography may be grounded in classical vocabulary, but he confidently deviates from it often. Hands leave conventional port de bras to slice the air at an angle, shoulders shimmy, lifts executed against a wall take on added erotic meaning. NBoCs dancers attack it with gusto.

Piotr Stanczyk is thrilling in the opening scenes as rising politician Karenin, all stilted angular gestures, mouth emptily opening and closing as he mobilizes his supporters and the paparazzi capturing the rally. Harrison James makes a compelling, lacrosse-playing Vronsky. And the ballet introduces newer talent like second soloist Felix Paquet, whose Levin represents values of the land, loyalty and constant love. His scenes are among the strangest. Clad in leather pants, plaid shirt and rubber boots, hes a kind of hipster aristo-bumpkin, literally stumbling at the sight of Antonella Martinellis Kitty, who is also immensely watchable, especially in her (superfluous and extended) sanatorium mad scene.

The awkwardness of Neumeiers positioning of more basic, enduring rural values as an antidote to the stressful protocols of high society is just as hard to swallow as the disproportionate wages of sin extracted from Anna.

But the beauty of the choreography, the dream-like staging, and the weird music treatments to contrast the selected excerpts from work by Tchaikovsky and Alfred Schnittke used elsewhere, Neumeier sets many of Levin and Kittys scenes to Cat Stevens tunes, including Moonshadow and Morning Has Broken make it hard to look away, even as youre scratching your head at some of the choices.

Still, the ballet feels overly long, two interminable acts that could be so much tighter and more succinct. Just as many begin reading Tolstoys epic only to give up halfway, this Anna Karenina is not for everyone. But for ballet buffs who are able to shrug off the excesses and absurdities, there are many delicious rewards.

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