All the world is literally a stage in Joe Wright’s 2012 take on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and every movement is dance. Officers file papers to unison beats, the barber prepares for his job with the paso doble steps of a matador, and even the street sweeper floats away gracefully to a 3/4 rhythm on a street that is not actually a street, but rather the auditorium floor of a theatre. This highly choreographed reality is the work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, chameleon and all-round artist of the contemporary dance scene. Throughout the movie, his unique touch creates a heightened atmosphere that rises above the ordinary.
The emotional whirlwind of the story intensifies through the crescendo of the ballroom scene, and particularly during the waltz where Anna and Vronsky’s fates are sealed: it’s lavish, it’s over the top, it’s decidedly meant for effect – and you can’t help but be swept away by its dramatic force. This is more than just a dance scene; it’s a key moment where so many things happen without a single world being spoken. Although Anna and Vronsky (Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are dancing the same choreography as the others in the room (which is not quite your traditional waltz) – hands touching shoulders, arms gently intertwining, feet swiftly gliding from one end of the room to the other – their movements still feel different because of the instant chemistry between them. Watching their waltz is like being witness to something much more intimate. And indeed, when Vronsky lifts Anna high up in the air, we hear a sigh that seems to come from outside their current space and time – a moment that is later mirrored in the first lovemaking scene, which has its own choreography as well.
As if it’s their dance, and only theirs, other couples freeze mid-movement around them. For a while we find them in a single spotlight on a dark, empty dancefloor, like competitors in a TV dance show – seemingly alone but still watched and judged by many. And while they never overstep the limits of the social dance with their movements, they still break one important rule. As the whole room spins faster and faster, we see an increasingly distressed Kitty (who had hoped Vronsky would propose to her that night) dancing with several different men, and it becomes clear: Anna and Vronsky never change partners. This is only the first of Anna’s public mistakes (as, obvious for this era, it’s always considered her mistake, never his), but it’s enough to set off her decline. ‘I’d call on her if she’d only broken the law,’ proclaims one countess towards the end of the movie, ‘but she broke the rules.’
Finally Kitty (Alicia Vikander) breaks free from her partner and, gasping with exhaustion and fury, watches Anna accusingly. With a sudden self-consciousness, Anna walks off the dancefloor so that Kitty can dance with Vronsky – but it’s a very different dance: more duel than duet, where arms cut the air like swords and bodies never touch.
The last of the forebodings of the scene comes when Anna tries to rush away from the ball, but is faced with a mirrored door. Suddenly, behind her desperate reflection we see not the commotion of the ball, but a train approaching threateningly. A tragic story encapsulated in three minutes of waltz; a dance of love and death. ●