Magazine article The Spectator

Dance: Anastasia

Magazine article The Spectator

Dance: Anastasia

Article excerpt

The Romanovs were a hot topic in 1967: it was the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, memories of Ingrid Bergman's Oscar winning Anastasia were still fresh and Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra was on every bestseller list. Kenneth MacMillan was 'sick to death of fairy tales' and his one act treatment of the Anna Anderson story, with its groundbreaking use of archive film and uncompromising Martinu score, was a ballet for grown ups that wrestled with the very nature of human identity. Lynn Seymour, the greatest dance actress of her generation, created the role of the mental patient who might (or might not) be a Grand Duchess and the production, made for Berlin's Deutsche Oper, was an immediate critical and popular success.

Four years later, when MacMillan took over from Frederick Ashton as co director of the Royal Ballet, he needed to feed the public appetite for full evening narratives (plus ça change ...) and decided to extend his expressionist psychodrama with a two act prequel showing the home life of Nicholas II and the early days of the Russian Revolution using music from Tchaikovsky's First and Third symphonies.

It was a wildly ambitious experiment but the shift from Tchaikovsky to Martinu was enough to give you the bends and the new scenes looked desperately stodgy and literal when set beside the edgy, filmic final act. Critics then (as now) hailed the production as an honourable failure but wished he had left well alone.

Hardly a season goes by without a run of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet , Manon or Mayerling but Anastasia can spend a decade or more in the vaults. In 1996, four years after the choreographer's death, the Royal Ballet decided it was time for a revival. I interviewed the company's founder Dame Ninette de Valois that spring and mentioned that the 1971 production was being redesigned by Bob Crowley, the old Barry Kay sets and costumes having been devoured by rats while in storage. The 97 year old did not mince words: 'They picked a good one to eat.'

By 1996 the heroine's story had lost a lot of its romantic mystery. DNA tests in 1994 comparing the Romanov remains with surviving tissue samples of Anna Anderson revealed her to be Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker. This knowledge sabotages the two Tchaikovsky acts of 'memories', which lose much of their poignancy when you know that the woman inhabiting them is simply delusional. The supplementary back story looks more and more like a job creation scheme for corps and soloists. …

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