The Royal Ballet’s Anastasia juxtaposes the charmed life of Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter with Anna Anderson’s haunting experience in an asylum. The three-act production by Kenneth MacMillan originally premiered as a one-act ballet, created on Berlin’s Deutsche Oper in 1967. After assuming the position of Artistic Director with the Royal Ballet in London, MacMillan added the first two acts as a prelude to the existing scene. Time, combined with DNA testing, has perhaps stolen the poignancy of MacMillan’s Anastasia – but the splendid dancing from the first act and theatricality of the third are worth a watch.

The Royal Opera House streamed a 2016 performance MacMillan’s Anastasia as part of their digital From Our House to Your House programme, available from 15 – 28 May, 2020. The production, without intervals, is about two hours. ROH’s The Metamorphosis by Arthur Pita streamed for one month from 17 April, 2020.

The From Our House to Your House programme was listed in our dance at home resources, along with other companies that are streaming work and broadcasting classes online.

A woman in a gold gown stands outside of a palace
Natalia Osipova dances the lead role in Anastasia by The Royal Ballet.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Anastasia Ballet Story

While the Anastasia ballet plot more closely mirrors the historical reality than the Disney version of Anastasia, the story changed when MacMillan tacked on additional acts. First we see grand memories of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna’s life; so by the time we arrive at the third scene, the audience feels that Anastasia and Anna are one in the same. We see her try to reconcile the past and present – and since the yacht and party scene are so long and detailed, it seems unlikely they are delusions. The piece lost much of its ambiguity at its Covent Garden premiere in 1971. Then, two more than decades later, a DNA test identified the Anna Anderson as a Polish peasant named Franziska Schanzkowska, ten days after her death.

Frances Welch gives more background in this article about the false Princess Anastasia.

Anastasia wears a gold dress and tiara in the second act of the ballet
Natalia Osipova dances the lead role in The Royal Ballet’s Anastasia by Kenneth MacMillan Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Royal Opera House Anastasia Review

Act I

Young Anastasia (Natalia Osipova) makes her girlish entrance on roller skates, while her family spends a jovial day on the imperial yacht. Her mother, with a veritable collar of pearls, embraces her; and Anastasia frolics with her sisters in matching lacy white cream dresses.

Her father wears a uniform that matches those of the naval cadets, who show off impressive athletic feats. Pas de chats are quickly merged with soutenu turns, jumps with fouette flash by in a fancy flurry and some fouettes even appear as tour jetes when one tucked leg jumps over the other as the body rotates.

Not to be upstaged, Anastasia skitters about to the delight of her company, while a moody Rasputin (Thiago Soares) mostly skulks, solitary in the background. The scene ends as Tsar Nicholas II is summoned to war with a letter – and the children clamor forward to say their goodbyes.

The Romanov sisters gather with their mother, Tsarina Alexandra, in Anastasia by Kenneth MacMillan and performed by The Royal Ballet.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Act II

The second act sees Anastasia in a gilt gown for her coming out party to celebrate her sixteenth birthday. Royal guests in dusty warm toned finery parade around for much of the scene, the quick pace and tight formation changes slightly livening the festivities.

We’re treated to a duet from a pair of Bolshoi dancers (Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli). It’s very pretty, but not even as memorable as Tsarina Alexandra (Christina Arestis) icily glaring at ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska – her husband’s ex-mistress. We see a little bit of drama unfold during a following pas de quatre and perhaps it’s meant to compare with the great tragedy to come… Armed revolutionaries invade the castle, breaking up the party in a fiery blaze of violence.

A red flag waves as rebels storm a palace
Rebels storm the palace at the end of the second act in Anastasia by The Royal Ballet.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Act III

The wide-eyed female lead sits, legs slightly spread, in a large gray gown on a hospital bed. In a departure to the previous festivities, Bohuslav Martinu’s music replaces the symphonies of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as well as electronic music by Fritz Winckel and Rüdiger Rüfer – some phrases reminiscent of The Beatles’ Revolution 9.

Tormenting scenes play before the woman. Soldiers with rifles resting on their shoulders surround and execute her family members; she screams and relives her harrowing escape. Still, the soldiers return, searching for her.

Black and white footage, projected upstage, is layered on top of the choreography. Men collapse backwards into a pit, just after being shot, and others roughly pile corpses in wagons. The filmed version of Anastasia allows us to see Anastasia’s facial expressions up close – mouth agape and eyes searching. Even recognition flashes across her face when she spies young Anastasia with the Romanov family.

Anastasia’s family members protectively surround her when threats approach, whether armed soldiers appear or a gaggle of female gawkers visiting the asylum. Then, Anna’s husband consoles her when their child is taken away. But Anastasia or Anna, she needs no help in kicking Rasputin across the stage, extracting vengeance since his influence on the royal family tarnished their reputation.

The piece ends as the Romanovs line up on either side of the stage, bathed in light, while Rasputin and the husband disappear in the darkness.

A woman sits on the floor and hugs herself in front of an asylum bed
Natalia Osipova plays the lead role, Anastasia, in The Royal Ballet Production.
Photo credit:Tristram Kenton
Star Rating:

Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia for the Royal Opera House begins as an elegant affair and its contrast with the stark final scene wrings sympathy from the audience. Undoubtedly, it would be more stirring were the identity of Anna Anderson still a mystery (or had she been identified as the lost Grand Duchess); and the modern approach in the insane asylum is less revolutionary than during its premiere in the present dance landscape, where dance theater is thriving.

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Have you seen the ballet, Anastasia? If so, do you feel that all three acts are important – or would you have preferred to watch it as a one-act piece? Tell us your opinions in the comments below.

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