Here, belatedly, is my reaction to last week’s Royal Ballet screening of Kenneth MacMillan’s revived work Anastasia. Originally only one act long, this three act ballet was inspired by Anna Anderson, the woman who famously claimed to be the surviving daughter of the murdered Russian Tsar. But i’s clear when you watch Anastasia that it wasn’t all created at the same time – the three acts convey vastly different moods and styles, and the whole thing doesn’t quite cohere.
Act I is Anna/Anastasia’s “memory” of a happy gathering of the Imperial Family on board their yacht: a golden vision of officers in pristine uniforms and girls in white lacy dresses dancing under the stars. It’s pretty, but there is so little variety in the tone or choreography that – dare I say it – I got rather bored. Its saving graces are the graceful, heartfelt performances from Anastasia’s sisters (Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Yasmine Naghdi and particularly Olivia Cowley), and the final moment of poignancy when Anastasia misses her chance to say goodbye to her father before he leaves to fight the rebels. As the curtains close on her looking crestfallen, we see a chilling glimpse of her future isolation. In hindsight, Act I is necessary to create a contrast with the stark, horrific Act III – and to provoke empathy for Anna/Anastasia – but I’m sure this could have been done in a more interesting way.
Act II is an improvement. An array of glitteringly-dressed ball guests dance under giant, tilted chandeliers (showing the distortion of Anna/Anastasia’s memory). The grand duchess is now grown up and being officially introduced into society, but stealing her spotlight in this act is the ballerina (yes, it’s meta) Mathilde Kschessinska – danced in fabulously provocative style by Marianela Nunez. Kschessinska, former mistress of the Tsar, dances a pas de deux for the ball guests with her partner (Federico Bonelli). It’s incredibly difficult, full of unusual lifts, awkward balances and assisted turns – but Nunez and Bonelli pull it off with aplomb. The subsequent pas de quatre between the two performers, the Tsar and Tsarina is a fascinating exploration of the tense, complex relationships between the four characters.
This slate is wiped clean with the arrival of Act III: Tchaikovsky is replaced with contemporary electronic music/the work of Bohuslav Martinu, the gilded ballroom is stripped back to reveal a hospital ward with a single bed, and Anastasia/Anna – previously in a tiara and golden dress – is in a grey smock with her hair shorn.
This, at last, is Natalia Osipova’s moment to really inhabit the role – and she does it with chilling accuracy. Cinema close-ups reveal the wild, haunting terror in her eyes as she watches grainy footage of the Imperial Family being shot – her movements alternate between violent spasms and rigid stillness. This manic behaviour could be alienating, but thanks to the previous acts and regular visions of her family appearing onstage, we see inside her mind and can understand her terrible suffering. As the procession of characters relentlessly continues, it is impossible to see what’s real and what’s imagined. The final tableau sees Anna/Anastasia encircled by her visions, with no glimmer of light or hope of breaking free.
Anastasia offers two brilliant roles for Royal Ballet principals: Mathilde Kschessinska, with its technical challenges, and the dramatic, tormented title role. While both Nunez and Osipova excelled, I’m not sure these characters are enough to make this ballet a classic worthy of the regular repertoire.