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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Wes Brown is sent-off
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower