Anastasia review – method in her madness

Royal Opera House, London
Fine performances lift this Royal Ballet revival of MacMillan’s strange ballet about the woman who claimed to be a lost Romanov

In 1967 Kenneth MacMillan choreographed a one-act ballet for the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, of which he was then director. The piece was about an unidentified woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who had somehow escaped the brutal murder of the Romanov royal family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The ballet, set in a mental asylum, was a starkly expressionist work set to Martinů’s Fantaisies Symphoniques. By 1971, MacMillan was director of the Royal Ballet, and decided to expand the piece to full-evening length, adding two acts to precede the earlier one. The new acts, set to Tchaikovsky’s first and third symphonies, were more conventionally balletic in style, and represented memories of Anastasia’s life. As to whether these memories were real or false, and whether the woman (who had taken the name Anna Anderson, apparently at random) was indeed Anastasia, the ballet did not commit itself.

Anderson died in 1984, and 10 years later, DNA tests proved to the satisfaction of all but the most determined believers that she had been an impostor. This put a fresh complexion on MacMillan’s ballet, already viewed as something of an anomaly (following its hostile reception in 1971, the choreographer suffered a nervous breakdown). Today, the piece remains a flawed and fascinating oddity, perhaps more revealing of its creator than of its ostensible subject.

Anastasia opens in 1914, on the imperial yacht, the Standart. Anna Anderson (Natalia Osipova) enters in her austere grey asylum dress, flitting among the royal family and the smartly uniformed naval officers. The scene resolves itself. Anderson is now Anastasia, the youngest of the Romanov sisters. The officers dance and entertain the young people; the act ends with news of impending war. Osipova is engaging as the 13-year-old Anastasia, but her wide-eyed, soubrette charm looks forced. Her sisters, danced with nicely judged restraint by Olivia Cowley, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmine Naghdi, are much more convincingly regal. Stix-Brunell’s Tatiana is notably excellent; she carries herself with the serene certainty of one who knows that the world will shape itself to accommodate her every wish. A bitter irony, given the end that awaits her.

Yasmine Naghdi, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Olivia Cowley and Natalia Osipova as the Romanov sisters.
Yasmine Naghdi, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Olivia Cowley and Natalia Osipova as the Romanov sisters. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

The problem with this opening act is that it goes nowhere. We’re becalmed, like the royal yacht, and in this context Osipova’s over-emphatic display is understandable. She’s dancing the title role, the choreography is banal, and she’s trying to make things happen. Act 2 transports us to Petrograd, three years later. At a ball to celebrate Anastasia’s society debut, with courtiers and officers costumed in autumnal shades of buff and russet (implausibly, they wear their caps and shakos on the dancefloor), the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (Marianela Nuñez) is giving a performance with her partner (Federico Bonelli).

Nuñez dispatches the sequence with her customary elan, and the atmosphere is charged by the fact that Kschessinska was once the tsar’s mistress. This prompts a miniature ballet of embarrassment, with Tsar Nicholas (Christopher Saunders) shifting uneasily in his seat, the young grand duchesses exchanging complicit glances and pressing the hands of the stony-faced Tsarina Alexandra (Christina Arestis), and Rasputin (Thiago Soares) looking on with baleful calculation. This is the kind of detail at which the Royal excels, and it animates what is essentially a dull tranche of exposition.

Anastasia is live in cinemas on 2 November.

The presence of Rasputin, who by 1917 had been dead for a year, reminds us that we are still spectators of Anastasia’s memories, and that these memories are unreliable. The distortion of time and place is echoed in Bob Crowley’s design, with its obliquely angled chandeliers and ambiguous architecture. Anastasia’s point of view, and the ballet’s internal logic, are both abandoned when we visit a revolutionary camp in the city and witness the storming of the palace. It’s a rushed and creaky end to an act that, although lit by fine individual performances, among them Vincenzo Di Primo’s fierce young revolutionary, is as dramatically inert as the first.

With Act 3, however, everything changes. This is MacMillan at his darkest and most thrilling, and Osipova meets the work’s challenge with authority. As the Martinů score fractures and splinters, and snatches of old film flicker on the walls, she prowls the asylum like a sleepwalker, her tread as agonised as if she’s walking on broken glass. Assailed by images of her family’s murder, she twitches like a marionette, her coordination dissolving. “Who am I?” she asks, and MacMillan seems to echo her question. Of what are we composed, if not of our memories? And which of us is quite what we seem?


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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