anastasiaWhat is memory? What is real and what is merely imagined? What distinguishes the difference between the two? Is it what we believe to be true? These are the questions at the root of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, “Anastasia,” at the Royal Opera House. A work choreographed in two parts, the last act originally created as a one-act ballet, the first two acts written later as “prequels.” They describe the life in the Court of the Tzar and his family in the lead up to the Revolution. MacMillan’s ballet seeks to portray — as he always did, through a new language of movement –the extremes of the human psychological and emotional condition.

In 1920, the self-named Anna Anderson was rescued from a Berlin canal by a policeman and thereafter consigned to a mental asylum. During her stay she began to claim that she was, in fact, not an unknown near suicide, but the only survivor of the murder of the Russian Tzar and his family, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. This claim travelled through many courts and countries for nearly forty years and was the subject of books and a film with Ingrid Bergman. There was a popular song written, the first line is haunting: “Anastasia, tell me who you are. Are you someone from another star?” It was only finally resolved after the fall of the Soviet Union when DNA samples concluded that she was not Anastasia but a deranged Polish woman. The questions remain. Whose interests were served by her claim? Where did she get the information that contributed to the seeming veracity of her story? Even today the conclusions of scientific analysis are rejected by some Russian monarchists. Memory, imagination, fact… they become jumbled up in romantic longings.

The first act is a sumptuous party scene on the Imperial yacht. Anastasia, as performed by Natalia Osipova, is a tomboy, a beautiful sprite, a loving daughter and a tender hearted sister to the ailing Tsaravich. The choreography and music by Tchaikovsky are seemingly traditional, but there are surreal hints of the the detachment of Court life from the Russian people. The music is mesmeric, as is the dancing. In fact it is so mesmeric that there were moments when the audience was so relaxed that there was a hint of snoring. Never mind.

The second act is the coming out ball for Anastasia. The chandeliers are slightly askew and although the music and dancing are again traditional in feeling, there is growing evidence of emotional discord within the Court. There are not so distant rumblings amongst the general population and the act ends with the Bolsheviks invading the Palace — killing, maiming and hauling up their victorious red flags. Their resentment and hatred had become very real.

The third act wakes us from our torpor, as the Russian ruling classes were brutally awakened from theirs in 1917. The discordant electronic music of the third act, plus the modernist compositions of the exiled Bohemian composer, Martinu, introduce us to the reality of Anastasia in an asylum. She is tortured by memories of the past (though we know those memories to be false!). She relives incidents from her childhood: the massacre of the Tsar and his family; her escape; her marriage; the birth of her child and its death; and the pursuing Furies of the Imperial family. Some aristocrats believe her. Most do not. MacMillan sets his prima ballerina alight. Osipova literally flies through the air in a sublimely agitated state. Her hands, feet and legs vibrate as if reacting to an electric current. All the great stars of this company are present, including Edward Watson in a somewhat minor role as Anna’s husband and Thiago Soares, as Rasputin. The third act makes sense of the first two. The audience were on their feet, shouting huzzahs in praise of the production and, in particular, of this wonderful, expressive and technically superb dancer.


Kaaren Hale

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