Masterfully-acted MacMillan choreography reflects on a revolution of the mind and memory: the danger of modern-day certainties in a story of uncertainty
In the tradition of technically and emotionally exhausting MacMillan three-acters – Manon, Mayerling, and his magnum opus, Romeo and Juliet – the Royal Ballet have revived his reflection on Russian Imperialism and memory, Anastasia, and relayed it live to cinemas worldwide as part of their Autumn 2016 season. Like memory, the past is impossible to repeat, and this is the crux of the crisis for both show and story. The story of the delusional Anna Anderson and her belief that she was the Grand Duchess hadn’t been disproved by DNA evidence when it was originally staged in the seventies, and the ambiguity of MacMillan’s ballet is obvious: dramatically, he refuses us anything definitive, just as the fragments of Anna’s remembrances in Act III deny her an identity. Similarly, the act of reviving a show is in itself an exercise in repetition, albeit an uncertain one. Steps may be notated, scores noted, but performance, like memory, is ephemeral, existing only for that moment and specific to each performer; an uncertainty fitting for the story of Anna. So where does that leave the show and story in a modern-day context so dissimilar and so much more certain, with live cinema relays, DNA testing, and interval videos that can turn the ephemeral into the ever-lasting?
In pursuit of revival, the Royal Ballet has employed the minds – and memories, imperfect though they are – of dancer and ex-Anastasia Viviana Durante and stager Gary Harris to coach the casts and recreate the production. From someone who was not alive to see the original, but who appreciates the style and lore of his work, MacMillan’s choreography seems lovingly acted and reconstructed. The complex partnering for the principals throughout the piece, characteristic of MacMillan and exemplifying the marriage of technical command and emotive performance, moves from the playful in Act I, as the sisters slide along the floor supported by their soldierly suitors, to the materially and emotionally tangled in the Act II pas de cinq between the Tsar, the Tsarina, Rasputin, the Ballerina and her partner, to the almost acrobatic in the tumult of Act III.
From the lightness of Act I, with its lively canon compositions and sugar-sweet sisters (the exceptional Yasmine Naghdi, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, and Olivia Cowley) to the shaking, screaming, and kicking of Natalia Osipova’s stripped and shorn Anderson with her short hair and grey shift in Act III, the dancers fearlessly plumb the emotional depths that a MacMillan work of such drama demands, without drowning in melodrama. Marianela Nuñez’s Ballerina is so sensual you absolutely see what the Tsar saw when he took her as his mistress – although the pas de deux between her and her Partner (Federico Bonelli) is little more than a divertissement – and why Christina Arestis’s Tsarina is so icily cold in Act II. Thiago Soares’s Rasputin is a sinister shadow, shading the Tsarina’s dances with her husband with an outstretched hand for her to hold and an almost supernatural ever-presence onstage. The acting ability of the whole corps is something to celebrate, and the close-up camera work in the cinema screening really showcases their creativity, believability, and authenticity.
In a wonderfully candid interview screened during the interval, Viviana Durante and Darcey Bussell discuss how dancers draw on the score and each other to develop as actors. In Osipova’s playful but apart Anastasia and powerfully expressive Anna, it seems that relationships with her fellow Romanovs, Edward Watson’s charming suitor and Soares’s intimidating Rasputin inform her acting as the former, and, despite the dissonance in Martinů’s score – especially compared to the Tchaikovsky classicism in the opening two – a surprising musicality shapes her despairing Anna in the third act. The beat pulses through Osipova’s body, bridging the space between stage and screen in the cinema broadcast with her emotionally impressive performance. In the close-ups of Anna as she watches black and white recordings of the real-life Romanovs, the camera captures a myriad of almost imperceptible expressions moving across her face, where the Opera House auditorium sees only the back of her head, and it feels a privilege to be privy to her performance.
It is in these moments in Act III that the cinematic form seems to work well: the long, lingering close-ups not only catch these quiet subtleties but accentuate the creeping discomfort of Anna’s identity crisis, an effectiveness not there in the distracting cutaway close-ups of Osipova in the first two acts. Perhaps the variance in effectiveness of one form is reflective of the dramatic variance across the acts in Anastasia, with such difference in the dance, the music and the drama between Acts I & II and Act III.
Diverse roles in ballet, especially for the leading ballerina, are nothing new – from the duality of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake, to the move from earthly to otherworldly for Giselle, to the riches to rags tale of another MacMillan piece, Manon – but never before have the stories, and their shifts, seemed so driven by character. Without reflection, Act I seems to have no real dramatic arc; the war might arrive with a woefully-received letter and lines of saluting soldiers, but its drive is Anastasia – or Anna’s – character. The shouting, screaming and imagined Romanov shooting in the asylum in Act III is the most somatic drama we see, and even then we’re not sure if it’s dreamed or remembered. The real drama in Anastasia is psychological; the Russian Revolution is only a backdrop, the real revolution is a crisis of identity.
At times, it seems as though the staging itself is in the midst of an identity crisis. With the other aforementioned shows, it’s clear where one facet of character transforms into another, and this is often driven by the drama – Prince Siegfried makes a promise and picks the wrong swan, Giselle is betrayed and dies of a broken heart, Manon’s prostituting forces her into poverty – and separated by an act or scene change. As such, at times it feels Anastasia should be a two-acter to fit this structure; Acts I & II are rooted in the past, in memory, in imagination, whereas Act III is very much present, a struggle wholly real and recognisable. But, of course, real life is rarely that unambiguous. There is nothing definitive about the story of Anna or the staging of Anastasia, about memory or identity, about what is past, present, real or imagined, and the structure reflects this: it strips away the certainty and breaks up the action of the opening two acts like blips in memory as we move from the boat to the ball to bedlam, so we’re never sure what is real. It is as unbalanced and broken as Anna herself by the time we find her in the asylum in Act III.
That is not to say that all narrative discords are necessary, especially those that add nothing to Anna’s character arc: there seem to be simpler ways of showing the revolutionaries arriving than a curtain-down scene change near the close of Act II. It could be argued it’s even already there in the choreography. Their jumps, spins, stamps and claps are enough of a stylistic change from the classical Tchaikovsky-style of the ball in the same scene to suggest that a revolution – in society and style – is in the air. Additionally, staging it this way loses Anna’s perspective and moves it away from memory; it’s presented as a certainty, more analepsis than imperfect memory. Yet, in suggesting change and discord, these details in the choreography challenge us to question the authenticity and certainty of every action, step, and act.
Acts I & II certainly feel authentic, with Russian character in the clipped heels and mazurka hops woven into the choreography and the impressive period costumes; from the stiff-collared soldiers to the ragged revolutionaries to the royal sashes on the perfectly pretty dresses of the sisters at Anastasia’s coming-out party, the details are astounding (see them close up on soloist and Romanov sister Olivia Cowley’s ballet.style blog). Yet, in the details of Bob Crowley’s sets in Acts I & II, it’s deception, not authenticity we see: there’s something steampunk about the ship’s deck in Act I, and the chandeliers of Act II seem all askew. Only the asylum of Act III looks ‘real’, and the mixed-media video projections and recorded voices make this a recognisable place to a twenty-first century viewer, especially one sat in a cinema experiencing the whole performance as a mix of these very mediums.
In the age of modern-day certainties like DNA testing and cinema screenings, the programme for the latter provides a wealth of paratextual material to make meaning certain: Crowley explains in an interval video how the sets’ angles mimic Anastasia’s childlike – or poor Anna’s imagined – perspective. The sets in Acts I & II are a representation of a long-ago reality, mirroring the fragility of memory itself, and are themselves set in the empty expanse of Act III’s asylum. This suggests that the sumptuousness of the earlier acts is imagined, existing only within the starkness and sterility of the asylum and Anna’s mind. DNA evidence validates this in the age of the revival, but MacMillan didn’t know this, and in moments of his Act III choreography echoing the earlier acts, the uncertainty seeps through. Anna’s leap backwards into the arms of Rasputin mirrors the sisters and their suitors at the ball in Act II, only this time it is helpless rather than hopeful, jarring rather than joyous, and crazed rather than courtly. It asks the question, if MacMillan and his choreography work to dispel certainty, is the essence of uncertainty so central to the story lost in screening the reveal-all interval video before we’ve seen the final act? The sets give us Anna’s skewed perspective, lets keep the uncertainty until the curtain comes down.
Ruminating as it does on memory and identity, the story of Anna Anderson is deeply suited to the ephemeral medium of theatre, and doubt rests on its role in the cinema. Nevertheless, other than a few superfluous close-ups and unfavourably-placed insights, the Royal Ballet’s revival of MacMillan’s Anastasia is a masterfully-acted, fearlessly-danced, powerfully dramatic performance, and if cinema screenings mean a wider audience than ever before can see it, then who am I – that question it asks of us all – to wonder if it works?