Natalia Osipova is Incandescent in Revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky and Martinů, Anastasia (Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan): Soloists, corps de ballet and Royal Opera House Orchestra / Simon Hewett (conductor). Broadcast to the Cineworld Cinema, Basildon, Essex. 2.11.2016. (JPr)

Natalia Osipova (Anna Anderson) & Thiago Soares (Rasputin)
(c) Tristram Kenton

Cast included:
Anastasia / Anna Anderson – Natalia Osipova
Mathilde Kschessinska – Marianela Nuñez
Kshchessinska’s Partner – Federico Bonelli
The Husband – Edward Watson
Rasputin – Thiago Soares
Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna – Christina Arestis
Tsar Nicholas II – Christopher Saunders

Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky and Bohuslav Martinů
Electronic music – Fritz Winckel and Rüdiger Rüfer
Production realization – Deborah MacMillan
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting designer – John B. Read

Though I have reviewed Natalia Osipova’s forays into contemporary dance on this site my only opportunity to follow her dancing with the Royal Ballet is through these cinema transmissions. In 2014 there was her sublime Giselle, in 2015 a disappointing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and now in 2016 – and there is a no better superlative – a truly incandescent Anastasia, a performance which – in its display of suffering – would not have been out of place in an Eisenstein film.

A brief view of story tells us that in March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated because of the outbreak of revolutionary activity, and following the subsequent Bolshevik ‘October’ revolution the Imperial family was imprisoned. On the night of 16/17 July 1918, the Tsar and his family were murdered by Bolshevik forces at Ekaterinburg. It was in 1920 that Anna Anderson, a woman patient in a Berlin hospital was recognized as one of the daughters of the Tsar. Until her death Anna Anderson endeavoured to prove her identity as the Grand Duchess Anastasia. After her death in 1984 DNA evidence revealed that she was in fact Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker with a history of mental instability.

Kenneth MacMillan originally mounted Anastasia as a one-act ballet for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, in 1967 and I subsequently saw it at Covent Garden in 1986 with the incomparable Lesley Collier. Set to a specially composed introductory electronic score followed by Bohuslav Martinů’s Fantasies Symphoniques, this now is Act III of the full-length version performed here and shows a deluded Anastasia’s fantasy world following the Russian Revolution. In creating this version MacMillan found music by Tchaikovsky to reflect the Tsarist autocracy and provide a contrast for the ‘prequel’ scenes with Martinů’s luminous and restlessly surreal music which now seems even more apposite for that final act. In Act I there is the First Symphony (‘Winter Dreams’), and in Act II the music is the Third Symphony (‘Polish’). The full-length three-act version of Anastasia received its world premiere in July 1971. It has been 12 years since it was last revived by the Royal Ballet and is now ‘realised’ by Kenneth MacMillan’s widow, Deborah, in Bob Crowley’s 1996 designs.

There is a suggestion that MacMillan believed Anna Anderson was Anastasia; anyway, Lady MacMillan said when interviewed ‘We all have identity crises, I certainly did, and Kenneth was riveted by that.’ What would have been good in hindsight was if Bob Crowley’s film about his sets had been shown at the beginning, as it was only then that I truly understood the current concept for Anastasia. For the first two acts Anastasia is a teenager and for the last is hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. It is in that ‘ward’ where briefly the ballet starts and there is a sense that we never really leave it, as what we then see takes place within it as some sort of elaborate ‘Russian doll’.  Act I is set on the imperial yacht with its huge funnel askew that Crowley described is a ‘metaphor for a family in trouble at sea’. The ballroom of Act II has its chandeliers weirdly off-kilter, but isn’t that a keel at the back and stage-right a wall of the room Anastasia is confined in? As Crowley said, it is just ‘gilded false remembrance’.

Probably quite understandably, Deborah MacMillan has been very reverential to her husband’s work, but I suspect there might have been an attempt to make it more ‘believable’ considering the subsequent confirmation through DNA evidence. Unfortunately, it still lacks the narrative coherence that one simple ‘edit’ would correct. At the start of Act III when a mind in disarray is trying to come to terms with all the genuine or false memories and imaginary presences, Anna envisions the fatal events of Ekaterinburg and then is shown images of war and revolution, as well as the Tsar and his family in happier days. Anna seems to respond to Anastasia on the screen and at that point she could be shown to go back in time and ‘relive’ what she fantasises had happened to her; later being shown totally deranged in hospital once again at the end.

As it is there is a lot of pleasant dancing in Acts I and II which reminded me of Ratmansky’s The Flames of Paris (review) where the French aristos dance happily towards their fate at the guillotine; why would the naval officers and Imperial Court be dancing so cheerfully on the yacht, or at Anastasia’s coming-out celebration, when on the cusp of war and revolution? These initial acts are deeply traditional despite Anastasia entering on roller-skates and there are solos, duets, trios, as well as a Petipa-like pas de deux. Only when Anastasia is ‘thrown’ late in Act I between two groups of officers and stripy bathing-suited swimmers do we see something truly unique. The costumes were often so elaborate for the women they hid their legs and that apart, the court scenes could have come from any nineteenth-century ballet if you can ignore the hallucinatory quality of the scenery.

Natalia Osipova doesn’t have a great deal to do until her tour-de-force in Act III, but throughout she has an innate dramatic presence, is gamine and communicative. There is also a lyrical grace to all she does, notwithstanding what she is put through in Act III, including its graphic rape scene with Rasputin. I have not mentioned him before but he is almost ever-present whether healing the Tsarevich or inveigling himself into the affairs of the royal family. Osipova has such a strong technique and moves so naturally that she does show up the faults of those around her, who clearly need to think rather more about what they are doing. It may not be a coincidence that when dancing with a so-so partner in Swan Lake she was not comfortable, yet when dancing more on her own as in Giselle and again here, Osipova seems at her happiest (if that is an appropriate word for Anastasia?). In the psychodrama of Act III she was the embodiment of a tortured – in more ways than just mentally – soul and was mesmerically deranged. My own ‘memories’ of her haunting staring eyes, contorted, twitching, body, deep fear and distress, will stay with me long after most of the rest of MacMillan’s Anastasia recedes into the deep recesses of my own mind. How much better cinema audiences will have witnessed this in Ross MacGibbon’s close-up camerawork, since had you been in the Royal Opera House itself you would had to have been on stage with her or in the front rows of the stalls to have experienced her performance like that.

Christopher Saunders and Christina Arestis were very dignified as the Tsar and Tsarina particularly during their elegiac duet in Act II when Nicholas’s former lover, the ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska (Marianela Nuñez) and Anastasia’s suitor (Edward Watson), as well as, Rasputin, eventually join in. Only Nuñez – and to some degree Watson who reappears as Anna’s angst-ridden husband – have the presence on stage to match Osipova. The always sparkling and charismatic Marianela Nuñez is partnered adequately – but no more – by Federico Bonelli. Due to the filming not always pulling back sufficiently we lost a little of the tension I suspect there must have been between the ballerina dancing at the ball and the Tsar and Tsarina, due to his previous liaison with her. Anastasia’s sisters, the naval officers, members of the Court and revolutionaries all perform well without entirely eliminating the evidence that this ballet is new to them. As for Thiago Soares as Rasputin, if all he was asked to do was go through the ballet – often lit with a ghostly glow – stiffly and with a stony face then he did it satisfactorily; however much more should have been done with this character to bring him to a semblance of ‘real life’.

There is the usual caveat that I was hearing the music through cinema loudspeakers, but I must praise the gorgeous accompaniment from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Simon Hewett. I never expected Martinů’s ‘symphonic fantasies’ to make me think of Mahler or Shostakovich, nor demand that I seek out more of the composer’s music before too long.

Finally, I would like to add that the presenters (Gethin Jones and Darcey Bussell) of this first ballet transmission of this season – though they could have done better at introducing the story we would see unfold – were so much more genial and relaxed than the rather stilted introductions there have for the operas so far.

Jim Pritchard

To view the list of productions remaining for 2016/17 and to find a cinema near you visit

Leave a Comment