Kenneth MacMillan’s three-act ballet Anastasia is strange, flawed and ultimately devastating. It wasn’t created conventionally. What is now the final act was originally made by MacMillan at the Deutsche Oper Ballet in 1967 as a standalone piece – a raw, expressionist portrait of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the sole surviving member of the slaughtered Imperial family.
Back at the Royal Ballet in 1970, MacMillan decided to turn the work into a full-length ballet, choreographing two preceding acts to Tchaikovsky’s First and Third symphonies that detail, in neoclassical style, the gilded existence of the Romanov family as revolution foments. There’s a picnic onboard the royal yacht in Act I, followed by a coming-out ball for Anastasia in Act II, at which the famous ballerina (and former mistress of the Tsar) Mathilde Kschessinska puts in a star turn (sleekly performed by Marianela Nuñez, as musical and magnetic as ever).
The ensuing outbreak of revolution feels a little perfunctory (there’s some ineffectual bayonet jabbing by an elderly Bolshevik) and isn’t matched by a corresponding dynamic in the music, but Bob Crowley’s designs cleverly remind us that we’re not witnessing a danced historical documentary – rather, ambiguous scenes conjured from the unreliable memory of a woman in search of an identity. (In 1994, two years after MacMillan’s death, DNA testing proved conclusively that Anna Anderson wasn’t Anastasia, but a Polish woman called Franziska Schanzkowska). Expressionist angles slip a sense of queasy unreality into the academic Petipa-influenced pomp – the yacht’s chimney is set curiously askew; the ballroom’s huge chandeliers are starkly tilted, while the exterior of the Winter Palace conflates oddly with its interior. Then there’s the dubious presence of Rasputin (a glowering Thiago Soares), who was murdered in 1916, at Anastasia’s society début in 1917.
All the cast deliver fine-tuned performances, rich in dramatic detail. As the royal sisters, Olivia Cowley, Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell are blithe and girlish without being twee. When the Tsar (Christopher Saunders) is summoned to military duty at the outbreak of war, his stiffened gait and strained expression betray fatal tinges of uncertainty and ineptitude – he’s much more comfortable as the family man, taking photographs, carrying the Tsarevich about protectively. And, of course, there’s Natalia Osipova as the larky teenage Anastasia. She enters on rollerskates, careering around with an impish grin, then skitters on pointe across the stage, the buoyant carriage of her arms and upper body radiant with youth and privilege. There are occasional longueurs, such as a protracted dance between Tsar, Tsarina, Rasputin, Kschessinska and her partner, but in a weird way they’re quite effective, evoking a sense of blinkered complacency that only heightens the horror of what’s to come.
And what is to come is the extraordinary third act, a suspended howl of psychological anguish that resonates long after the performance ends. Her hair cropped, wearing an asylum-issue grey dress, we first see Osipova’s Anna sitting on her hospital bed, hunched and haunted, while nurses and sceptical visitors look on. To a soundscape of garbled voices that gives way to Martinu’s restless Sixth Symphony, Osipova veers between catatonic stillness and frantic torment. Figures from the past keep re-appearing – Rasputin becomes a kind of demonic antagonist, brutally hauling her through desperate contortions, while Olivia Cowley’s Grand Duchess Olga offers some respite, before being carried off by Red Army soldiers. Osipova is astonishing: emotionally uninhibited without ever descending into histrionics. It’s one of the most profoundly powerful pieces of dance I’ve ever seen.
Anastasia is on at the Royal Opera House until 12th November 2016. Click here for more details.