It is “Anastasia” come lately.
Back in 1967, Kenneth MacMillan concocted a very dramatic, though not very balletic, one-act ballet on the historic subject of Anna Anderson. The role of the woman who claimed to be Anastasia Nocolaevna, daughter of the last Russian czar, was made to order for Lynn Seymour. The premiere at the West Berlin Opera turned out to be somewhat controversial.
In 1971, MacMillan returned to the Royal Ballet of London, taking Seymour and “Anastasia” with him. On this occasion he expanded the ballet to three sprawling acts, the original installment serving as the finale. Most of London regarded the result as an overambitious, multimedia flop, though the work did find a few staunch defenders.
New York caught up with the complete “Anastasia” in 1972 and came up with a comparably mixed reception.
This season MacMillan--we now can call him Sir Kenneth--has become an associate director of American Ballet Theatre, and he has brought us the original, compact Berlin “Anastasia.” The company premiere took place Tuesday night at Shrine Auditorium with Cynthia Gregory undergoing the agonies of the heroine who may, or may not, have been a royal survivor of the Bolshevik Revolution.
MacMillan’s quest for unabashed theatricality leads him down a number of dissimilar stylistic paths. His ballet fluctuates rather disconcertingly, in 35 busy minutes, from realism to surrealism, from cinematic statements to dance rituals, from modernity to romanticism, from the straightforward to the expressionistic.
“Anastasia” uses a raucous musique concrete score by Fritz Winckel and Ruediger Ruefer for the introductory nightmare episodes. Then it abandons electronic adventure and settles for some easy symphonic ennui by Bohuslav Martinu to reinforce the sentimental narrative. (Compounding the shifts in musical gears, MacMillan turned to Tchaikovsky for the additional London acts.)
MacMillan flashes ancient newsreels on the curves of Barry Kay’s multipurpose set, which combines the antiseptic reality of a Berlin hospital in 1920 with the pervasive symbol of a map of Russia. Anastasia writhes affectingly as she relives her past. Dancerly flashbacks depict the massacre of the czar and his family, Anastasia’s rescue, her marriage, the birth of her child, her husband’s death, her attempted suicide, her rejection by imperial authority, her encounters with Rasputin and the czar’s entourage.
Finally, in what should be a grand coup de theatre , Anastasia’s hospital bed suddenly becomes an almost-comic self-propelled limousine in which the heroine circles the stage--either in triumph or in delusion--as the curtain falls.
The ballet is effective, to be sure, in its rather gimmicky way. But it compresses too many events into too little space. There is no time to discover who Anastasia is, no time to establish crucial sympathies, no time to flesh out the conflicting characters, no time to develop a consistent, poignant dance language.
MacMillan provides massive opportunities for posturing and emoting (he sides, incidentally, with Anastasia against the disbelievers). He creates telling stage pictures and, when the impulse cannot be resisted, gives his principals some compelling, dangerously athletic snatches of pas de deux maneuvers.
For all its dramatic frenzy, however, “Anastasia” remains cool and remote, an ambitious, episodic collection of theatrical devices, nicely executed. One admires the effort. One savors the tricks. One leaves unmoved.
Gregory--who, one of these days, will get the great dramatic challenge she deserves--plays the title role with fine intensity. She sustains dignity even in moments of abject dementia, expresses pain and numbness with equal eloquence, suppresses heroic bravura in favor of histrionic truth.
She is haunted effectively by strong dancers impersonating cliches: Clark Tippet as her rough but sensitive husband, Raymond Serrano as Rasputin, Lisa Sundstrom as the Czarevitch, Jennet Zerbe as Alexandra Feodorovna, David Cuevas as Nicholas II. Paul Connelly presides authoritatively over the raw-sounding pit orchestra.
The mix-and-match bill opened with the tinselly gospel of Petipa’s “Paquita” according to Natalia Makarova ( anno 1983). Cynthia Harvey didn’t exude much class in the ballerina role, but she danced as if she could go on fouette ing forever. Fernando Bujones ignited his customary sparks as her cavalier. Most of the efficient would-be ballerinas in supporting assignments seemed to be executing classroom routines.
A repetition of Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s “Great Galloping Gottschalk,” this time with Marianna Tcherkassky and Johan Renvall in the central roles, closed the program.
The less-than-capacity audience once again made a big noise, much of it appreciative. So, once again, did the ever-clunking chorus of armrests falling from the Shrine’s antique, chronically unrepaired chairs.