Treading on dangerous ground

Kenneth MacMillan thought nothing too serious to dance about. But the critics turned on Anastasia, his tale of Tsarist imposture. His widow tells Louise Levene why, 25 years on, it had to return
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You name it, ballet can handle it. Or so Sir Kenneth MacMillan believed. Once upon a time tales from the ballet were confined to the doings of princes, princesses and flower fairies, fun for all the family. There was no such thing as a PG ballet. This charmed world was eventually dragged bourreeing and screaming into the 20th century with choreographers turning for inspiration to the psychiatrist's couch and the history books - or both in MacMillan's case. The Royal Ballet choreographer's three- act works hinged on the real-life doings of seriously deranged but remarkably athletic individuals.

MacMillan simply refused to countenance the idea that any subject could be taboo for the artist, a view shared by his widow: "You should be able to tell any story - you've just got to find a metaphor for it. He was always very surprised when people said, 'You can't do this and you can't do that'." Surprised and defiant: gang rape, oral rape, suicide, murder and madness all featured with dogged regularity in MacMillan's ballets. History, biography and politics, though less sensational, are equally difficult subjects and have not usually been seen (in the West, at least) as obvious pas de deux material, yet in ballets like Anastasia, Mayerling and Isadora, MacMillan tackled them all. The first of these, Anastasia, is revived by the Royal Ballet tonight after an 18-year rest.

Anastasia was written backwards. It began life in 1967 when MacMillan created a short work featuring the enigmatic pretender to the Romanov name, revealed in 1994 as an impostor. Anna Anderson is discovered in a hospital bed contemplating her life before the revolution, her rescue, her rape and the struggle to prove her identity. The one-act work was a success for the Deutsche Oper Ballet and for Lynn Seymour, who created the leading role. Four years later, when the choreographer was director of his native Royal Ballet, he had the idea of expanding Anastasia into the three-act form so popular with the Covent Garden ballet-goer in order to show off the talents of the whole company. This involved creating two acts of imperial reminiscence, showing the grand duchess's happy childhood and the moment when her coming-out ball, attended by Rasputin, is brought to a premature conclusion as the revolutionary soldiers prance in.

For many in 1971, the idea of ballet as dramatised documentary was laughably inappropriate. For the audience, there was a shortfall between expectations of a three-act ballet (synonymous in the simple mind of the recreational ballet-user with fairy stories) and the more complex ballet of ideas that MacMillan had cooked up for them. For the ballet writers, it wasn't that Anna Anderson's story shouldn't be told, merely that MacMillan hadn't actually told it very well.

"It was savaged by the critics," remembers Deborah MacMillan, who is overseeing the restoration of her late husband's work. The Times had no patience with it: "A short dramatic work preceded by a disproportionate prologue comprising two acts of sheer padding... lacking in choreographic interest." The Guardian found the expansion "little short of disastrous". Lady MacMillan isn't bothered: "I don't care. That's five or six people compared to a whole theatre." She feels that the ordure heaped on Anastasia had little to do with the merits of the piece but was instead a long-awaited opportunity to rubbish MacMillan himself.

Many critics swotted up on their Russian history and had fun pointing out the historical anomalies. Lady MacMillan is amused. "What always astounds me is that everyone always nitpicks about historical detail, then you point out to them that they're all on pointe. It isn't realism." Yet authenticity is a problem in Anastasia: the events of the first two acts did not actually take place. In Act 2, Rasputin does a little dance at Anastasia's coming- out party on the eve of the February revolution in 1917. A) she never had such a party; and B) Rasputin would have been a bit of a loss as a dancing partner as he drowned in the Neva in 1916.

Lady MacMillan may see criticism of such an imaginative scenario as "nit- picking" but accuracy takes on a real (rather than a merely pedantic) significance when telling a story that is itself about questions of authenticity. Anna Anderson's ability to prove her identity rested on her capacity to remember tiny details correctly. If the fabricated events of the ballet's first two acts are Anna Anderson's "memories", then she was indeed an impostor.

Critics may occasionally have had a problem with MacMillan's scenarios, but no one ever had a bad word to say about Lynn Seymour, Antoinette Sibley or David Wall. Whatever the ultimate merits of MacMillan's three-act narrative works, they have always provided sensational opportunities for dancers to show their full technical and dramatic range. The kindest words in 1971 were for the performances, not for the ballet they inhabited, and it was sometimes felt that MacMillan was over-reliant on incandescent dancers that blinded audiences to the weaknesses within the ballets themselves.

The three dancers sharing the role of Anastasia in the current revival are being coached by Seymour herself. Although film exists of her Seventies performance, it is not of a very high quality. Deborah MacMillan is glad of this, as it makes a close copy impossible "It's no bad thing, because it was such a powerful performance." Seymour's successors were already being pondered by the MacMillans in 1992. Viviana Durante and Leanne Benjamin had shared the leading role in his last ballet, The Judas Tree, and his celebrated eye for promising young ballerinas had already earmarked Sarah Wildor for higher things, even though she was only 20 in 1992.

The new generation will take on the role in a completely fresh setting. Barry Kay's admired 1971 designs were relished by another less discriminating audience when they were consumed by the rats that inhabit Covent Garden's 138-year-old waterlogged basement. Lady MacMillan, board member, speaks up : "This place is a nightmare - it's unlikely we're going to get our Health and Safety certificate."

The new sets are by designer-of-the-hour Bob Crowley, whose excellent track record (Carousel, The Prince's Play, La Traviata) should guarantee a little critical warmth. There will be other differences, too. MacMillan himself had always yearned to make changes. "Just before he died, Anthony [Dowell, the company director] asked him to revive it and he was very excited. He was very attached to it as a piece. The change-over into the second act needed work. This often happens with large productions, but there are no previews in this place. It's bang on the stage." With these alterations, Crowley's new designs, and a contemporary audience's certainty that Anastasia's mental landscape is definitely fantasy rather than memory, the ballet will have a very different impact 25 years after those first savage reviews.

Supposing they like it this time? Would that be because MacMillan the executrix had somehow succeeded where MacMillan the choreographer had failed? Deborah MacMillan's loyalty is absolute: "Good God, no!" she laughs. For his widow, a warmer reception from a Nineties audience would simply prove that her husband had been way ahead of his time. She insists that her input would be irrelevant to any posthumous success, although she confesses quietly, "I'd be sad that he hadn't seen it."

n 7.30pm tonight, with Viviana Durante, Royal Opera House, London WC2 (0171-304 4000) and in rep to 17 May

OK. A little test. Which of the following subjects have been given the ballet treatment: Red China? The Kennedys? The Elephant Man? A tricky one, as 20th-century dance has had a crack at the most unlikely subjects. The Chinese Revolution may seem a bit of a tall order for a ballet company but The Red Poppy was a popular favourite at the Bolshoi. Meanwhile in Peking, audiences were lapping up The Red Detachment of Women.

The Diary of Anne Frank has been tackled several times: MacMillan handled it with allusive restraint in The Burrow, but Maurizio Wainrot risked a more Springtime for Hitler approach with his chorus of marching Nazis. This is not to say that unspeakable crimes cannot be choreographed. In their eagerness to prove that dance can tell any story, choreographers have been keen to embrace the most horrific of stories. Lizzie Borden's alleged slaughter of her father and stepmother formed the substance for Agnes de Mille's classic Fall River Legend.

Even serial killers can dance, as demonstrated by DV8's masterpiece, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, inspired by the crimes of Dennis Nielsen. The private lives of the famous were meat and drink to MacMillan in Anastasia, Mayerling and Isadora. He never got round to Edward and Mrs Simpson or indeed to the Kennedy clan, whose catalogue of woes requires an opera cycle. The figure of the outsider was a frequent theme of his but, sadly, John Merrick, the Elephant Man, has yet to be seen in tights.