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A Tsar is murdered, and a star is born

There was elbow-room in the Crush Bar and stretches of red plush were showing in the stalls. It was the kind of modest Opera House turn- out you'd expect for a repertoire staple with a B-grade cast, but not for a major revival. And this was Anastasia, the grandest, most dramatically ambitious, most devastatingly searching of Kenneth MacMillan's three-act ballets, with one of his favourite ballerinas in the title role. The Tube was running, so where was everyone?

My hunch is that half the potential audience thinks that Covent Garden has already upped and left, so familiar by now is the boarded-up building site on Bow Street. In fact, the Royal Ballet has only just announced its plans for the next two and half years - after closure in July, seasons at Labbatt's Apollo in Hammersmith, the South Bank and the Barbican. But the proposed repertoire won't break new ground. It'll be a time to renew acquaintance with the likes of Giselle, Aurore and Coppelia rather than meet challenging 20th-century heroines like Anastasia.

The demise of the Romanovs is MacMillan's theme, yet his first act contains some of the prettiest, most winsome choreography ever devised for the ballet stage. The 13-year-old heroine, the Tsar's youngest daughter, enters on roller skates, a giddy flurry of white pinafore and ribbons, flirting with officers, giggling at boys in swimsuits, engaging her mother and three sisters in chain-dances of exquisite grace that manage to convey, in a few perfumed gestures, generations of ease and privilege. Leanne Benjamin, the Anastasia I saw, is helped in the role by her tiny, girlish stature, but her style is superb. At the peak of her flighty, doe-like jetes, her raised arms appear to hover for one gorgeous, implausible second in mid-air.

Set abroad the Stardust, the Tsar's version of the QE2, this perfect vision of family love, summer sun and twinking sea might be in danger of idealising the reign of the man they called Bloody Nicholas. But designer Bob Crowley half-fills the stage with an enormous brass ship's funnel - polished to within an inch of its life and studded with rivets hammered home in the Volga shipyards - as a potent reminder of Russia's toil, its belching smoke a warning of the Bolshevik fire to come.

When the three-act ballet premiered in 1971, it was held to be long-winded, its narrative too diffuse. Last year it was altered and tightened, according to the late choreographer's intentions, and overall, the refit worked a treat. But the middle act - Anastasia's coming-out play - remains something of a soggy filling in the sandwich, lacking the sparkle of what precedes it, or the harrowing intensity of what follows.

A grand pas de deux performed by the Tsar's favourite ballerina, an old flame, is a choreographic attempt to hark back to the formal glories of Empire while casting an intriguing shadow over the Tsar's conjugal bliss at the same time. But I have yet to see a ballerina deliver these old- style balances and pirouettes with the sort of outsize personality that steals hearts. More interesting is MacMillan's attempt to depict in pure dance mature love between man and wife. Despite the interferences of Rasputin, these are some of the most affecting sequences in the ballet.

The last act charts the memories (false or otherwise) of the woman known as Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia, escaped from the family massacre of 1917. Her flashbacks are brutish, horrific, and brilliantly realised. Columns of flag-waving militiamen sweep across the stage as the soft, white bundles of the Romanov sisters' bodies fall to the ground like doves. Anastasia's madness, her inability to reconcile the gilded happiness of Act I with the grim asylum of Act III, is a madness that in some small measure afflicts us too. These are images that burn in the mind.

ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000): 25 April, and 7, 8 & 12 May.