Raising the barre
In 2019, ballet dancer Imogen Chapman was cast as Anna Karenina before Covid shut the following season down. Before taking the stage in her role this month, she talks to Vogue.
In 2019, ballet dancer Imogen Chapman was cast as Anna Karenina by a visiting choreographer before Covid shut the following season down. As she prepares to take the stage this month, she talks stepping up and the serendipitous moment that reassured her the role would still be hers. By Jessica Montague. Styled by Philippa Moroney. Photographed by Jake Terrey.
Casting a major ballet production is usually a pretty straightforward affair. Principal dancers get selected to play the coveted lead characters in big-name shows like Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, while those a little further down the dancer hierarchy support them in roles more suited to their ranking based on experience and skill. Every so often however, a casting decision is made, often by a guest choreographer, that both surprises and delights onlookers.
That’s exactly what happened when Imogen Chapman, a soloist with The Australian Ballet, was personally chosen by visiting Russian choreographer Yuri Possokhov to be one of the dancers to play Anna Karenina is his adaptation of the Tolstoy classic, which hits the stage this month in Melbourne.
In May 2019, Possokhov, a world-renowned choreographer (as well as former principal with the Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Danish and San Francisco Ballet) travelled to Melbourne to spend a few days watching class and rehearsals at The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre. At that point, he’d been commissioned by then-artistic director David McAllister to choreograph Anna Karenina for the upcoming 2020 season.
It was shortly after he left that Chapman, then 27, was told during a mid-year review that she had been chosen by Possokhov to be one of the three to four dancers to play the alternating lead of Anna, a role technically two ranks above her standing as a soloist. “Yuri was taken with the fluid quality of her movement and thought her natural style of dancing was what he was looking for in the role of Anna,” remembers McAllister, who delivered the good news to Chapman, who by all accounts was astonished. “I was stunned because I don’t think it was on my radar at the time. I think I probably just said: ‘Really?!’ I mean, I was just so surprised,” she says of receiving the news.
“[Yuri] spent a couple of days with the company and always in times like that you do your best and try your hardest, but also try not to think too far ahead. We had a lot on our plate with shows coming up, so your brain sort of knows
this is something that’s in the future and obviously you’re hopeful and put your best foot forward, but you’re also not expecting anything,” she says.
But just as Chapman was on the cusp of a massive chance to step up in the role, Covid hit, which not only brought her opportunity to a standstill, but shut down all performances for The Australian Ballet for a year. Chapman found herself back at her parents’ home in Western Australia for almost three months doing barre class in the family living room as she sunk into a sense of uncertainty. Amid the monotony of lockdown, however, she uncovered an unlikely omen.
“We decided a good project was to clean out the shed, which was quite an undertaking,” she smiles. “In the process we found lots of books that Mum and Dad had obviously just put out there and one of them was a really old copy of Anna Karenina. Inside was the name of a family friend of ours who was actually really instrumental in getting my sister and I into dance to begin with. She was a member of the WA Ballet back in the 60s and encouraged my mum to take us to ballet and later she became an English literature teacher. It was a little bit creepy, but also really poignant because she is no longer with us,” says Chapman.
“It was a really special find,” she continues. “Everything was so uncertain last year with all our shows postponed and we weren’t even sure if we were still doing Anna. But then I found this book and thought: ‘Oh, this is kind of significant. I feel like it’s a special sign.’ Ever since I’ve been carrying around that copy with me wherever I go, and have since read the book as well.”
The personal find was foretelling. As the performing arts sector slowly recovered and
The Australian Ballet announced its 2021 programming at the beginning of December last year, Anna Karenina – and Chapman – were both back on the line-up.
“It’s such an honour to be chosen to portray such a complex and passionate character,” says Chapman of having the chance to finally tackle the role. She follows Marilyn Rowe, who is the only other Australian ballet dancer (in 1979) to have portrayed the sophisticated aristocrat who suffers a great downfall following her passionate affair with the dashing young Count Vronsky. On screen, Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Keira Knightley and Sarah Snook likewise brought Anna’s anguish to life (the latter in the ABC’s addictive 2015 adaptation, The Beautiful Lie).
“I’m a big fan of the big, dramatic literature. I love all that drama, like Wuthering Heights,” says Chapman, name-checking another tragic love story for the ages. “I haven’t experienced the things Anna has yet in my life, but it’s such a timeless story and the themes really do resonate even in society today. Just the fact she was so determined to live life on her own terms and also just believing that love is stronger than anything. I think that is something everyone can relate to and that I can really tap into.”
Chapman says the extra time she’s had to “absorb” the complex character might have been a blessing, too. “It’s important as dancers to get a bit of background and a bit of personal research done before we start the whole process, because once you go into rehearsals it’s sort of go, go, go and then it will be on,” she explains.
One person who believes Chapman has the ability to fulfil the potential Possokhov noticed back in 2019, is David Hallberg, the American dance superstar who took over as artistic director of The Australian Ballet following David McAllister’s retirement last year. “Imogen is very touching as a dancer. There is such an honest and genuine subtlety to her that will bode well for the role of Anna Karenina, as the character has much fragility and emotion with her,” he tells Vogue Australia. “Imogen can be quiet on the outside, but there is a storm brewing inside her, which she can use as a vehicle in her interpretation and expression of the role.”
As for whether she can harness the emotional depths required to play a woman tarnished with so much disgrace and suffering loss within her social standing, family and marriage, Chapman is adamant. “I think I’m going to really need to draw on my own experiences. Obviously, they’ll be different experiences, but [I’ll be drawing] from my personal hardships and I think just work on making myself vulnerable so that those emotions – those really in-depth heartaches – can come across and hopefully be relatable to audiences.”
Chapman is further encouraged by the knowledge she was recently a finalist of the prestigious 2021 Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year Awards (which supports our brightest young artists), and that this is her second principal role, so she’s already risen to the occasion once before. In the 2018 production of Spartacus, she was again one of several dancers chosen to play the title character’s wife, Flavia. “She was another quite full-on and desperate character in the end. Not desperate, that’s probably the wrong word,” Chapman corrects herself, “but she went through a lot and I remember feeling really emotionally exhausted after those shows, so this is probably going to be another step up from that.”
Fresh off the back of playing some great roles in Hallberg’s daring New York Dialects (which mesmerised Sydney audiences in April), Chapman recognises this is a huge opportunity for growth and will possibly pave the way for her career in coming years. But she’s also determined to enjoy the experience, particularly after a year off-stage.
“You’ve been given an opportunity, you’ve been given a chance and they obviously believe in you enough to give you that challenge. It’s sort of mine to really get stuck into it and give it a good crack,” she humbly reflects. “I’m just so excited to be able to get into this role and really grow and challenge myself, because it really is going to be a challenge … but a very welcome one, I think.”
Anna Karenina is on stage in Melbourne from June 18 to 29 and in Adelaide from July 9 to 15. For tickets, go to australianballet.com.au.
“ANNA KARENINA IS SUCH A TIMELESS STORY AND THE THEMES REALLY DO RESONATE EVEN IN SOCIETY TODAY. JUST THE FACT SHE WAS SO DETERMINED TO LIVE LIFE ON HER OWN TERMS AND ALSO JUST BELIEVING THAT LOVE IS STRONGER THAN ANYTHING. I THINK THAT IS SOMETHING EVERYONE CAN RELATE TO”