Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Bronislav Martinu / Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Opinion on Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography and on “Anastasia” in particular, varies significantly. Lauded by some as an innovative maverick, MacMillan is dismissed by others critical of what they deem to be his overly-theatrical ballets that fall short of true success. In “Angels,” Homans claims that MacMillan’s tenure at the Royal Ballet of “heralded a sharp decline in aesthetic and technical standards, but above all in the sustained commitment to high art that had underpinned” the company.”
The controversial MacMillan sought to redefine ballet, from a charming, escapist art form to a medium for taking on serious, often violent, subjects. Not surprisingly, he met with some resistance. Ballet companies, wishing to attract conservative, opera-loving audiences in the early 1960s, objected to MacMillan’s heavy-hitting real-life subjects, which included the Holocaust.
Homans is harshly critical of MacMillan’s “one way forward: down into the depths of his own damaged personality and dark obsessions…he sacrificed his talent to an obsessive desire to make ballet something it was not…brutal and realistic.”
It was in 1967, during his tenure at the Berlin Ballet, that MacMillan first created “Anastasia” as a one-act ballet. Based on the story of Anna Anderson, who proclaimed herself the Romanov princess Anastasia and sole survivor of the Bolshevik’s assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the ballet is indicative of MacMillan’s interest in real-life, as well as psychological, subjects. MacMillan re-staged “Anastasia” for the Royal Ballet a few years later, extending it into a three-act performance. The ballet recalls the princess’s early life when her family remained in power and then depicts Anderson in a Berlin asylum, suffering from dementia and tortured by recollections of her so-called past.
In her review of American Ballet Theatre’s 1985 production for The New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff writes, “In 1967, when he directed the Berlin Ballet, [MacMillan] was experimenting with expressionist forms that he has since made more complex. Obviously the choreographer himself felt the need to develop his material further…The full-length ”Anastasia” worked primarily as spectacle. The one-act version of the same title is a distilled dance-drama that does not distill enough. Nonetheless, it too has an undisputed theatricality.”
Kisselgoff summarizes the core of the ballet: “…the action is a phantasmagoria of scenes related to the Romanovs. Flashbacks or projections of a mind that fantasizes? Sir Kenneth claims not to sympathize with Russia’s royal household, the Romanovs, but with a woman who suffers, believing she is a Romanov.”
Despite its intriguing subject matter and praise for some choreographic moments, the ballet is often described as dance-theatre, in which even the greatest performances (Lynn Seymour originated the role; Cynthia Gregory reprieved it with success) cannot overcome its “problems.” Since a 1994 DNA test revealed that Anderson was not, in fact, the late Tsar’s daughter, according to reviewer Jenny Gilbert for The Independent, the ballet has ceased to be relevant. “It’s a problem ballet, and that’s not going to change…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.”
At the time of publication of “101” in 1989, the mystery of Anastasia had not yet been solved and many entertained a fascinated belief that Anderson was, indeed, the princess who somehow survived her family’s murder. It’s a wonder if the authors would still have included “Anastasia” in their list of great ballets, had the truth then been known. Would Balanchine still find value in a true-events ballet, despite the facts of the story having been disproved?
I would venture to guess not. Anyone endeavoring to document the great works of our time, I believe, would use criteria that stood the test of time – and even of truth. In fact, Balanchine concludes his section on “Anastasia” with this quote from The New Yorker’s Arlene Croce, who praises MacMillan’s ballet, “not so much because of what it achieves but because of what it attempts…[MacMillan] produced a personal fantasy about a global cataclysm entirely from nothing…[his] taste, musical instinct and technical skill place him first among those British and European choreographers whose careers began in the fifties.”