The revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s compelling and experimental ballet Anastasia is currently being performed by the Royal Ballet for the first time since 2004. The ballet circles around a real life mystery and is rooted in one of the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century. In 1966, while artistic director of the Deutsche Oper Ballet in West Berlin, MacMillan based his ballet on the story of Anna Anderson, a Polish woman who proclaimed herself the Romanov princess Anastasia and sole survivor of the Bolshevik’s assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. MacMillan re-staged Anastasia for the Royal Ballet a few years later, extending it into a three-act performance, recalling the princess’s early life when her family remained in power and then depicting Anderson in a Berlin asylum, suffering from dementia and tortured by recollections of her so-called past.
Like Anna’s identity, the ballet is of disparate parts. The first two acts showcase classical, Royal Ballet tradition. Set to music by Tchaikovsky, we see events through a young Anastasia’s eyes. In Act One we are shown an idyllic childhood in the bosom of her privileged family. It is 1914 and the Imperial family are picnicking aboard the imperial yacht, the Standart. Anastasia dances and joins in with her three sisters Olga, Marie and Tatiana (Olivia Cowley, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmine Naghdi), all impressively regal in their untouchable Imperial serenity. Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, making her debut in the title role, sensitively captures Anastasia’s role as outsider, her separation in being the more tomboyish of the four. The scene is laced with poignant irony, given that the audience knows their fate. It is rather uncomfortable viewing – in this time of innocence and luxury; one full of dancing and entertainment, all appear blissfully ignorant to the poverty and growing resentments outside of the Imperial cocoon. The only tarnish to their gilded cage is that of the haemophilic Tsarevich, touchingly played by Rory Toms and the haunting and broodingly subtle presence of Rasputin (Eric Underwood).
In Act Two Anastasia seems more aware of the tensions within and outside of the Imperial family. Three years later, we are now in Petrograd at a ball to celebrate Anastasia’s entrance into society. The enigmatic ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (Marianela Nuñez) alongside her partner (Federico Bonelli) performs a miniature ballet causing the Tsar Nicholas (Christopher Saunders) to shift uneasily as he recalls a liaison with Mathilde prior to his marriage. Suddenly abandoning the trajectory of Anastasia’s memories, the production cuts to a rather rushed and hollow scene showing a revolutionary camp. Although illustrating the impending revolution, this scene seems to interrupt the flow of the Act. Back at the palace, Bob Crowly’s elaborately skewed stage design captures the doom that is at the Romanov’s doorstep. The chandeliers are at a awkward angle, the background is hazy and dark and with fire now engulfing the palace, it is a dark and thrilling close to the scene.
It is only in the final act that we see the sharpness and spikiness that MacMillan was so renowned for. Now we see Anna Anderson, a shell of a being in a Berlin asylum. Osipova finally breaks out from the conventions of the first two acts, and is mesmerizing in this inventive and experimental section. Distorted voices play over a electronic Bohuslav Martinů score and harrowing archive films of the imperial family play on the walls of the asylum. When the focus falls onto an image of a young Anastasia, Anna Anderson twitches. Her identity is shattered, she is a lost soul. The Duchesses, like ghosts reappear in their fine white lace dresses. They dance, but this time they do not dance with Anastasia but with Anna Anderson, the imposter in her grey asylum uniform. The choreography expresses her severe suffering; with tormented force her anguished body roams around the bare, austere room. It is a remarkable and defining performance by Osipova.
Kenneth MacMillan was by nature, a storyteller who used choreography to illuminate themes of great contemporary significance. This production poignantly captures the thin veil between one woman’s personal fantasy and the impending global cataclysm. The imperial padding of the first two scenes slows the pace and does little to move the story forward; but they do provide a context and their conventions no doubt symbolize the cloistered imperial world that encased the Duchess. The ballet is indicative of MacMillan’s interest in real-life, as well as psychological, subjects; the search for identity amidst the trauma of revolution is what is at the heart of this production. MacMillan was sympathetic to Anna Anderson – here is a woman, not just an imposter. In 1994, years after MacMillian’s death, a DNA test revealed that Anderson was not, in fact, the late Tsar’s daughter. MacMillan’s wife has stated that he always wanted to believe that Anna Anderson was Anastasia and this production leaves the audience wanting, for her own sake, that Anna is indeed Anastasia. By intermingling memory and fantasy and lacing uncomfortable distortion that twists itself through the story, MacMillan has built a ballet of parallels; lightness and darkness, peace and revolution, madness and memory. Nothing and no-one are quite as they seem. Macmillan was a storyteller with a penchant for the ‘outsider’ and the story he weaves here is one not of historical fact but of a turbulent, yet worthwhile exploration of identity.
By Lucy Binnersley
The Royal Ballet
26 October – 12 November 2016