Sunday, November 06, 2016

ANASTASIA - The Royal Ballet's Romanov Revival

Looking back it's remarkable that, while Anna Anderson's identity was still being disputed in European courts, it also provoked books, plays and films, most notably ANASTASIA which marked Ingrid Bergman's Hollywood 'rehabilitation' after the scandal of her extra-marital affair with Roberto Rossellini, indeed the film led to the ultimate Hollywood acceptance, an Academy Award.  Anna Anderson and her persistent claim that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, believed killed with the rest of the Russian royal family in 1918, also inspired choreographer Kenneth McMillan to create his version of her story also called ANASTASIA which premiered in 1971.

MacMillan had originally staged ANASTASIA as a one-act ballet in 1967 while artistic director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper with his muse Lynn Seymour as Anna but he expanded the ballet to three acts in 1971 when he assumed creative control at Covent Garden, his original one-act becoming the third act.  It fitted perfectly into MacMillan's volte-face idea for the production; the first two acts, showing Anastasia's pre-revolution life, is danced to symphonic music by Tchaikovsky and the third act which illustrates the fractured mental state of Anna Anderson is danced to a dissonant symphony by Bohuslav Martinu and a specially recorded electronic soundscape.

At first, Anastasia is seen to be a vivacious and precocious girl, dancing with her sisters and with the sailors on the Royal yacht, watched by her parents Nicholas and Alexandra, her brother Alexey and the silent, ominous Rasputin.  The fun ends however when the hemophiliac Alexey falls and hurts himself and Tsar Nicholas receives news that WWI has been declared.  MacMillan's choreography was wonderfully joyous, Anastasia being almost slid across the stage in the arms of her dancing sailors and ultimately being spun over their heads to be caught by another row of sailors behind them.

The second act takes place during a court ball in 1917; in the ballroom the lords and ladies still dance their elegant dances unaware of the revolution growing outside until it overcomes them.  Meanwhile Anastasia becomes aware of strange tensions within her family as Rasputin's hold over the Tsarina grows more intense and Nicholas dances with a former lover, the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska.

This act featured some excellent ensemble work from the corps - the female dancers' beaded frocks audibly swishing round as they moved - and there were excellent featured performances from Sarah Lamb as Mathilde and Steven McRae as her partner, as well as a bigger spotlight on Itziar Mendizabel as the haughty but emotional Tsarina and the omnipresent Rasputin of Eric Underwood.

The third act shone it's harsh light on Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna; her Anastasia had shown a sunny happiness clouded with doubts but she was put through the physical mill with MacMillan's strenuous choreography for the mentally disturbed Anna.  It's quite a wrench for the audience too, confronted with the metallic score which starts the third act - overlaid with taped muttered conversations and grainy projections on the back of the set of the Romanov family which freeze-frame on the face of the real Anastasia - added to the stripped-down set and lighting.

Were the first two acts her real life or the imaginings of Anna's damaged mind?  She imagines the murder of the Royal family, marauding soldiers, the groups of eager onlookers who come to gawp, the man who became her husband as well as her nemesis Rasputin.  Did she really know them?  MacMillan secretly wished Anderson's story to be true and it was only after his and Anderson's death that DNA evidence ruled conclusively that she was a fraud.  But MacMillan ends the act with Anderson in regal parade around the stage on her moving bed, the figures from Anastasia's past looking on... Anna is certain of who she is.

It's not the easiest ballet to take in and I suspect it is one to be admired rather than liked but it is never less than thought-provoking and Gary Harris' revival is helped immeasurably by Bob Crowley's sets and costumes, John B. Reid's lighting and the committed (no pun intended) performances of all onstage.

The real star however is the choreography and genius of Kenneth MacMillan...

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