Mint imperial

The Royal Ballet's revival of Kenneth MacMillan's 'Anastasia' calls on the Russian imperial archives for its magical costumes. By Joanna Wood. Photographs by Sue Adler
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The headdresses are domed, like St Basil's cathedral in Moscow; they are made in the shape of fans and mitres, shimmering with gold lace and pearls. They evoke a world of icons and fairy tales; as, indeed, do the luminous dresses which accompany them. "I wanted the essence of Russia,'' confirms Bob Crowley, the designer. "I had to portray the richest court in the world."

He is discussing the corps de ballet costumes which adorn the second, ballroom act of The Royal Ballet's new production of Anastasia, Sir Kenneth MacMillan's choreographic tale of Tsar Nicholas II's youngest daughter (the role will be danced on the opening night by Viviana Durante), which hasn't been performed since 1978. Set, primarily, in the three years leading up to the Russian Revolution, it is the first classical ballet designed by Crowley, who is best known for his theatre work, in particular his collaboration with MacMillan on Carousel, for which he won a Tony Award in 1993.

About 250 costumes have been made up, for three sets of dancers. Crowley's inspiration came from black-and-white archive photographs of the imperial court - stark, compelling, full-length portraits of doll-like grand-duchesses, draped in heavy, wide-sleeved robes for a costume ball at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1903.

But his reinterpretation is altogether lighter and more illusory. "I felt it was important to convey the sense that this is a world which is about to disappear for ever. So, for the headdresses, we printed designs on to gossamer-like fabric and then worked on top of that, which means they've got a very brittle, broken-butterfly-wing feeling to them.''

A touch of Merchant/Ivory surfaces in the pale, diaphanous cream dresses of the ballet's first act - Crowley prefers to describe this as "very lyrical, Felliniesque''. They, too, are based on old photographs: family album shots of four attractive, wistful girls and their parents, the Tsar and Tsarina - he in a military jacket of some sort, she clothed in her daughters' ghostly laces .

Crowley's designs represent flashback images in the mind of a woman in a mental asylum - something the audience is only fully aware of in the final act, when we see Anastasia (or a woman called Anna Anderson, who believes she is Anastasia), devoid of all grandeur, clothed in dismal grey, sitting on a hospital bed.

"Everything is seen from the perspective of someone whose memory is completely fractured,'' says Crowley. "Even though we are dealing with real events, nothing is totally realistic. It's a child's idea of the past. Ultimately, the function of design is not to entertain the audience - although it must do that - it's to provide a metaphor for the work. And that's what I've tried to do''