Becoming Anna Karenina in the Era of Modern Feminism

Anna Karenina, Alexandra Berger
Anna, World Premiere, Alexandra Berger
Photo Courtesy of Ian Douglas

Earlier this year, the Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre ensemble stepped onstage to premiere a dance inspired by Tolstoy’s epic novel, “Anna Karenina.” My six colleagues and I are modern dancers, and this was not a story ballet. There was no linear narrative, but instead a look inside the characters and relationships within the novel that may or may not be timelessly relevant. I have personally always enjoyed Tolstoy, and, in the interest of preparing for this work, I found myself reading “Anna Karenina” for the third time through. The first time I read for pleasure. The second read pursued the work as historical fiction. The third time I read it as a feminist, hyper-aware in our current political climate of my rights and their fragility.

Anna Karenina, Alexandra Berger with the company
Anna, World Premiere, Alexandra Berger with the company
Photo Courtesy of Ian Douglas
Anna Karenina, Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre
Anna, World Premiere, Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre
Photo Courtesy of Ian Douglas

In many ways, I identify not just with Anna, or Kitty, or Dolly (the women of the novel), but also with the men—Karenin, Vronsky, Levin. How lucky I am to live in a time when I can voice my experience as a human as much as my experience as a woman. But, for the purpose of this work, I was asked to channel Anna, so I focused on exploring the nature of gender roles as they were in 1877, and how that experience might have felt as a woman with such limited agency.

 
Can you imagine stepping into a society feeling that everyone who knows you is judging you for choosing something they are likely afraid to choose?
 

As Anna—and in this work, all of the women are, at different points, Anna—I am not playing a part. I am not asked to pretend. I am asked to infuse into movement my own history in a way that resonates with the ideas behind this story: Who is Anna? How is she me? What is the difference between a choice and a decision?

Anna made choices. She was a woman of intelligent instinct. She was bound by consequences that were very much a matter of social construct. She chose the pain of honesty over the disassociating blanket of deceit. For her honesty and love, she was scorned by her husband and by society. Can you imagine being tied to a man who actively avoids feeling on all levels while you, his wife, are starved for the humanity of emotion? Can you imagine stepping into a society feeling that everyone who knows you is judging you for choosing something they are likely afraid to choose? And how about the inner moral conflict of having compassion for others but at the same time choosing to prioritize your own needs, knowing full well that those that you care for will likely turn their backs on you for not putting them and their needs first?

 
Perhaps being a female human, even in light of all of the progress that has been fought for and the strides that have been made towards equality, is more complicated.
 

This dance was a process of discovery and self-discovery. Perhaps we are discovering that being human is complicated. Perhaps being a female human, even in light of all of the progress that has been fought for and the strides that have been made towards equality, is more complicated. Emotional sensitivity and getting in touch with one’s feelings are still not completely acceptable things to have or do, even as I do think we are beginning to understand their importance. Art-making, dancing, these are places where those ideas are, for the most part, championed. In the ‘real world,’ we are still working on it.

Through this dance, I took on the essence of Anna Karenina in ways that I could relate to on my own terms. Society may be shifting in a way that allows women more equality, more freedom of choice, more agency in our own destinies. However, the qualities of being human—not just woman, but human—the qualities both good and not-so-good, still exist within us. How do we come to terms with this humanity? We can disassociate, turn to our screens and our curated bubbles on social media and scream for ‘progress’ from safe cocoons. Or, we can dance. I make my choice. I choose to dance.