The Royal Ballet’s Anastasia

Cuthbertson brings MacMillan’s dramatic intensions to light amid the dark space


Sir Kenneth MacMillian’s Anastasia opens tonight at the Royal Opera House following an absence of over a decade.  Sadly, the ballet’s story is much less coherent that MacMillan’s other works, and though his choreography remains top-notch, the dramatic presence his work is so well-known for is missing for most of the nearly three-hour piece.

Performing the titular role at the General Rehearsal yesterday afternoon was British Principal, Lauren Cuthbertson (who makes her public début on Friday).  Her portrayal in Acts I and II as the Grand Duchess Anastasia is light, curious and full of youth. I waited, excited and with bated breath, while she managed to sustain several long pirouettes ending in arabesque before gently rolling through her shoe to skitter about the stage once more.

As Act III’s Anna Anderson, Cuthbertson brings MacMillan’s dramatic intensions to light amid the dark space.  Nearing the end, she skidded across the stage in a series of dangerous développés en pointe in an angry attack against Rasputin (Eric Underwood).

Sarah Lamb’s Mathilde Kschessinska lacks something when stuck between Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and Cuthbertson’s Anastasia.  Cuthbertson’s bourreées throughout are supple and quick and, though not for lack of trying, remain unmatched by Lamb, who, for all her technical grandeur and jaw-dropping feet, fails to convince as the seductive ex-lover of Tsar Nicholas II (Gary Avis).

Steven McRae makes a short appearance in Act II as Kschessinska’s partner – dancing a pas de deux and variation admirably while fitted into a less-than-appealing black and white costume.

Photo by Alastair Muir || Steven McRae and Lauren Cuthbertson in Connectome (2015)

Among Anastasia’s sisters, newly-promoted First Soloist Claire Calvert shines.  There may be several ways to describe her dancing, but the first that comes to mind is ‘full’.  When Calvert and Cuthbertson dance together, they do so with refined English finesse.

Production wise, the ballet’s sets are otherworldly – the tilted chandeliers of Act II adding to the element of fantasy and the grand, golden ship funnel in Act I was simple yet effective.  However, the costumes of the ball guests in Act II are too long – what’s the point in having footwork when the dancers’ feet can’t be seen?

And, as a memorable mention, it would be a shame not to pick out Valentino Zucchetti from the four sailors in Act I – his stage presence and technique miles above his companions.

While Anastasia may not hold MacMillan’s drama throughout, his choreography is still grasping and daring.  It is a must-watch, but not a must-love.

Anastasia is in rep from 26 October – 12 November.  Natalia Osipova, Lauren Cuthbertson and Laura Morera make their débuts in the titular role. For tickets, casting and further details please visit the website of the Royal Opera House.

Photo by Alastair Muir || Laura Morera as Gypsy Girl in The Two Pigeons (2015)

Anastasia At A Glance

Anastasia’s first two acts follow the real Anastasia, the Grand Duchess, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia.  It drips classical ballet stylishly complimented by MacMillan’s flair.

The third jumps, unexplained, to Anna Anderson – a mental patient who believes herself to be the Grand Duchess – and oozes MacMillan drama.  The final act also came across as being choreographed for a European company – which it indeed was – and was far more experimental, in my opinion – featuring recordings, film and a rather loud scream by Anna during its first minutes.

The ballet also feels less consistent than most of MacMillan’s other works – the story seems chopped into what is, by and large, two parts. But truly, this may simply be put down to the nature of the piece.

The ballet dates back to 1967, when MacMillan choreographed Act III as a one-act ballet on the Deutsche Oper Ballet.  The ballet’s extension to the three-act that returns to the Royal Opera House following a 12-year absence, came in 1971, following his appointment as the Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director, whereby he choreographed and added the first two acts.

Anastasia, Tchaikovsky and Martinů

The ballet’s contrast between Acts I and II and Act III are clear in its choreography and sets, but more so in its music.

Acts I and II are set to Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies No.1 and 3 respectively – the former is full of vibrato with heavy undertones. The latter is one audiences will hear again this season in Diamonds, the third act of George Balanchine’s Jewels.

Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 ends the ballet.  Here, a closer bond between the tone of the music, rather than the music itself, and MacMillan’s choreography lends itself to some of Anastasia’s best choreography.

Keep A Close Eye

I found myself reminiscing about MacMillan’s Manon several times throughout Anastasia.  In reality though, Manon would have stolen this choreography, so to speak, having its premiere three years after Anastasia, in 1974.

During Act II, ballet aficionados may catch a glimpse of a particularly seductive Manon-esque arabesque during Mathilde Kschessinska’s variation (portrayed in turn by Marianela Nuñez, Sarah Lamb and Akane Takada).

Act III  features many of Manon’s most picture-perfect moments with slight differences as seen in the photographs below.

All photos by Alastair Muir || Right Column: Natalia Osipova and Thiago Soares in Anastasia (2016) – Left: Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin in Manon (2011)

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