Review: The Royal Ballet - Anastasia - Royal Opera House

Performance: 26 October - 12 November 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 27 October 2016

The Royal Ballet - Natalia Osipova as Anna Anderson in 'Anastasia'. Photo: Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH, 2016

Performance reviewed: 25 October

Hope still burned brightly in June 1967, when Kenneth MacMillan hurriedly made his one-act ballet, entitled Anastasia, at the end of his first season as director of the Deutsche Oper Ballet, in West Berlin. It still glimmered strongly when he turned it into the third act of a full-evening work for The Royal Ballet in 1971 and hope had not yet been entirely extinguished when in 2004, twelve years after the choreographer’s death, the full-length ballet was last performed at The Royal Opera House. The hope to which I refer was the belief that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna had survived the mass slaughter of her family and faithful servants in the basement of the Ipatiev Mansion, in the centre of Yekaterinburg, during the early hours of 17 July 1918.

Many women alleged that they were Anastasia in the years that followed, the most credible and best-known claimant being a woman who became known as Anna Anderson (she first came to the public’s attention in the early 1920s under another name). Anderson claimed that she had faked death and a sympathetic executioner had noticed her still breathing and helped her to escape in a cart. She then spent over 30 years in a fruitless legal battle to have her identity as Anastasia accepted by the German courts.

Inspired by Anderson’s ‘autobiography I, Anastasia (published in 1957), it was in this context that MacMillan took up the story, for Anderson’s court case was not finally concluded until three years after his one-act ballet’s world premiere, in Berlin. The woman known as Anderson died in 1984 and DNA tests – made ten years later – proved conclusively that she could not have been related to Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra.

But, if not Anderson, then hope still soldiered on. In 1991, the vast silver birch forests outside Yekaterinburg gave up their secret when the grave of the Imperial family was found. But it contained the bodies of only three of four daughters and so the fantasy of Anastasia’s survival continued. The hope was finally turned to myth in 2007, when the remains of the Tsarevitch Alexei and the final daughter (either Anastasia or her elder sister, Maria) were indisputably found. MacMillan was never to know for sure that Anastasia was executed on that godless night in July 1918.

It matters not that this hope turned out to be a fiction, since “Anderson” existed, and the general rejection of her claim made her the perfect outsider for MacMillan’s desire to create an expressionist ballet. Although the full-length ballet was poorly received on its opening night (MacMillan was booed by a section of the audience), in many ways, Anastasia – and certainly Act 3 thereof – stands as a masterpiece in the choreographer’s legacy, even if it’s popularity – and hence the frequency of performance – makes it a very poor relation to his big three ballets (Romeo and Juliet, Manon and Mayerling). It has, in truth, barely survived. After just nine performances in the 1970s, the ballet was not revived for almost 20 years and then after a quick return in the following season (1997), the costumes have come out of storage just twice in the next two decades. It is a neglected gem in The Royal Ballet’s treasure chest.

The ballet is well crafted with Anderson’s false illusions and fantasies played out in flashbacks, preceded by the first act’s representation of an idyllic afternoon on the Imperial yacht, just prior to the outbreak of war in 1914; and Anastasia’s coming-out ball in St Petersburg on the eve of the March Revolution, three years later. The first two acts are made, appropriately, to the music of Tchaikovsky (Symphonies 1 and 3), while the final act is to Bohuslav Martinu’s highly inventive and haunting sixth symphony (Fantaisies Symphoniques), front-ended by recorded sound and voices that MacMillan commissioned from a university in Berlin. The juxtaposition of this music captures the two ‘worlds’ wonderfully well and the orchestra’s performance, under Simon Hewett’s direction, was a highlight of the evening.

Another highlight came in the performance of Natalia Osipova as both Anastasia and Anna. The evening was always going to be an emotional high, if for no other reason that here was the first Russian to dance as Anastasia – now, along with her murdered family, more or less deified in Russia – and that intensity and passion shone through in Osipova’s extraordinary performance, notably in the expressionism of the final act.

Osipova was coached by Viviana Durante on whom Lynn Seymour’s original role was revived in 1996, and there were others in the cast with past experience. Christopher Saunders was Tsar Nicholas II on the evening of Durante’s debut (2 May 1996) and reprised it again on the opening night, in 2004. Strangely, with all this experience, he seemed ill at ease in the Tsar’s uniforms. Perhaps this was intentional, but, if so, the portrayal doesn’t convey the essential image of absolute Imperial authority.

Thiago Soares reprised his brooding, sinister presence as Rasputin, coming to the fore in imagined duets with the Tsarina (Christina Arestis) and her four daughters and especially in the fantasy duets with Osipova in the final act. Marianela Nuñez was dazzling as the great Mariinsky ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (MacMillan provides much interplay to suggest a continued affection between the ballerina and the Tsar) but – as her unnamed dance partner – Federico Bonelli seemed some way off his normal reliable standards, even perhaps a little uncertain, in their second act pas de deux.

The first act was enlivened by Olivia Cowley, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmine Naghdi as the three other Grand Duchesses and Alexander Campbell stood out from amongst their “show-off” officer partners. Edward Watson played the only character that probably did not exist, the supposed husband of Anna Anderson, a man called Alexander Tschaikovsky (although not named by MacMillan) whom she claimed to have married and borne a child, before Tchaikovsky was allegedly shot dead in the streets of Bucharest. MacMillan represented all of these scenes as imagined flashbacks in the mind of the hospitalised Anderson, even fancifully linking the imagined husband to the guard who was supposed to have helped Anastasia escape the Bolshevik mercenaries.

In fact, Anderson did not marry until more than a year after MacMillan’s original ballet had opened in West Berlin (her husband was an eccentric American professor, 20 years her junior). And, many years after the deaths of everyone concerned, DNA tests proved that ‘Anderson’ was, in fact, Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish woman with a history of mental illness who had disappeared in 1920.

Barry Kay’s original designs (described by one critic as ‘Ruritanian’) have long since disappeared, to have been replaced by others from the mind of Bob Crowley. Crowley’s vision, especially for the first two acts, is superb. The impression of being on the yacht – with the green sea sparkling beyond and waves lashing up to the deck – is strong and it’s off-kilter steam funnel, combined with the heavily-skewed chandeliers at the coming-out ball are clear evocations of the political upheaval about to come. The grainy contemporary film of the Russian family at play is followed – in the final act – by disturbing imagery – taken from a 1962 documentary film, From Czar to Stalin – of close range executions and bodies being dumped from a cart, which needs a strong stomach.

MacMillan made two ballets, four years apart, and although they have been joined together for more than 40 years, they remain – in every sense – two separate entities, telling two very different stories. It is a combination of opposites that is not to everyone’s taste; and, given that we now know for sure that “Anderson” was not who she claimed to be, the fascinating uncertainty that partly attracted MacMillan has been debunked.

With one exception, the critics universally disliked the premiere back in 1971, but the man from the FT described it as “…one of those rare and precious works of art….larger….stranger and more exciting than anything he (MacMillan) has done before”. Forty five years later, I’m with him. It certainly merits being ranked alongside Romeo and Juliet, Manon and Mayerling as one of four great full-evening works by a master choreographer.

Continues 28, 29, 31 October and 2, 5, 8, 12 November

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

Find out more about Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia:

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