Anastasia, Royal Opera House, London<br/>Stephen Petronio, Corn Exchange, Brighton

False history and true life stories
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The Independent Culture

Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia was made in 1967 when interest in its real-life protagonist was at its height. "Real-life", though, is a moot point, opinion being hotly divided at that time as to whether a woman in a Berlin mental hospital was, as she claimed, the youngest daughter of the Tsar, a miracle survivor of the assassination of the entire Romanov family in 1918. In 1994 the issue was settled by a DNA test. "Anastasia" was no Romanov duchess, but a Polish-German munitions worker who'd lost her marbles. For me that knowledge blunts the edge of MacMillan's ballet today, at least in its final act. The disturbing flashbacks of the supposed duchess from her hospital bed, her instant recognition of her childhood image from historic newsreel, her final soul-blasting effort to free her mind from the clutches of Rasputin - have left the realm of the possible and become fiction. It's still the same ballet, with the same dramatic strengths, the same compositional flaws, but the world's position has shifted

Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia was made in 1967 when interest in its real-life protagonist was at its height. "Real-life", though, is a moot point, opinion being hotly divided at that time as to whether a woman in a Berlin mental hospital was, as she claimed, the youngest daughter of the Tsar, a miracle survivor of the assassination of the entire Romanov family in 1918. In 1994 the issue was settled by a DNA test. "Anastasia" was no Romanov duchess, but a Polish-German munitions worker who'd lost her marbles. For me that knowledge blunts the edge of MacMillan's ballet today, at least in its final act. The disturbing flashbacks of the supposed duchess from her hospital bed, her instant recognition of her childhood image from historic newsreel, her final soul-blasting effort to free her mind from the clutches of Rasputin - have left the realm of the possible and become fiction. It's still the same ballet, with the same dramatic strengths, the same compositional flaws, but the world's position has shifted while the work stood still.

Anastasia was always problematic, but for another reason. Many fans of the stark, one-act work of 1967 were dismayed by MacMillan's later addition of a two-act prequel. This fills in Anastasia's early life with rather leisurely, period-pretty scenes depicting family bliss, trouble distantly brewing, and the most delicate hint of "they had it coming to them". Though there are many lovely things - unfettered joy expressed in a fluttering hat ribbon, some gorgeous ensemble dances for the Romanov sisters - no one would claim Acts I and II as MacMillan's best work.

It falls flattest - as it always did - in the middle act, despite some quite sensible new revisions by Deborah MacMillan, the choreographer's widow. As I remember, Act II used to end with a troubled little number for the Tsar, his wife and his former mistress. It now ends with a mixed-up double duet for the Tsar and Tsarina, the ex-mistress and her current man, orchestrated by Rasputin, who had his own reasons for stirring up trouble. The new section has been craftily achieved by switching the original material around a little. As far as it goes, it works, but it still doesn't save the act from sagging.

It's the dancers that save Anastasia, with some inspired new casting that includes Irek Mukhamedov's greasy, leech-like Rasputin. Leanne Benjamin brilliantly reprises her role as the thin-skinned princess, shreds of whose youthful character glimmer dimly in the shorn-headed madwoman of the asylum. But to what end, now the factual connection has been lost? It's a problem ballet, and that's not going to change.

No art is an island, impervious to world events. Manhattan-based Stephen Petronio had begun work on his Gotham Suite before the events of 9/11, but it was completed under a pall of ash and, knowing this, an audience is instantly alert to darker nuances. The crumbling, disjointed figure in Petronio's solo, Broken Man, is obviously broken in spirit by something seen and known. The raven in Lou Reed's accompanying poem becomes a portent, and we hear a planeload of irony in the strangled rendering of "Perfect Day".

Petronio's dances are dense, febrile abstractions of life in lower Manhattan, and his lineup is as hip as they come - soundtracks by Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, sets by the artist Cindy Sherman, costumes by Tara Subkoff of the fashion label Imitation of Christ. But far from coming across like a glossy magazine spread, all three pieces are pithy, engaging and full of virtuosic challenge. I especially like Petronio's opening solo (his first in years), a picture of a body in total meltdown successfully fighting back. His eight dancers are a terrific counterblast: the boys striking spun-glass ballet attitudes, the five girls speedy and tough. Sherman's totem pole of plastic doll faces is sensationally grisly, but its mixed message keeps nagging long after the show. "Don't touch", warned an usher in Brighton, as I gingerly fingered a giant Petronio-headed doll propped beneath the curtain. Some people have apparently wanted to give it a home.

'Anastasia': ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 12 May; Stephen Petronio: The Space, Dundee (01382 834934), Fri & Sat; tour continues

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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