February 5, 2014 6:04 pm

Anastasia/Shadow, Saarländisches Staatstheater, Saarbrücken, Germany – review

These two ballets by Kenneth MacMillan and Marguerite Donlon explore questions of identity
Laura Halm in 'Anastasia'©Bettina Stoess

Laura Halm in 'Anastasia'

A duo of ballets about psychosis and the quest for identity makes for a challenging evening at Saarbrücken’s State Theatre. Performances of works from Kenneth MacMillan’s extraordinary repertoire other than his moneymaking Romeo and Juliet and Manon are now sadly rare, so three cheers for outgoing director Marguerite Donlon for staging his Anastasia in its original one-act version. Premiered in Berlin in 1967, it remains a demanding work: radical in concept, an exploration of identity through the story of Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter, sole survivor of the massacre in 1918 of Russia’s imperial family.

The setting is a mental institution, here given in Bob Crowley’s spare, grey 1996 revival designs, the music Bohuslav Martinů’s sixth symphony (played with urgent intensity by the State Orchestra) and a disturbing electronic score. The movement is mainly expressionist, as real, remembered and imagined characters crowd Anastasia’s ward and mind in a broken narrative from which she finally emerges, convinced of her own identity, defiantly atop a moving hospital bed.

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The staging is sure and true and the company rises to the work’s manifold interpretative challenges, not least Laura Halm’s charged Anastasia who grew both in confidence and in the physical and artistic abandon that is required of a role created by the great Lynn Seymour. Anastasia is no balletic cipher and one could see Halm discover more in the character as the work unfolded. Alas, Donlon’s imminent departure leaves the future of the ballet with this company at best uncertain.

Donlon’s Shadow, an expanded version of her 2006 Schatten, suffers in comparison with MacMillan’s coherent concept. Inspired principally by the late playwright Sarah Kane and exploring her “dark, poetic universe”, it is at its best at its opening and close, where three dancers evoke the self-destroyers Kane, Kurt Cobain and Virginia Woolf. Where Anastasia progresses from attempted suicide to belief in who she is, Donlon’s characters explore their inner torment only to conclude with their own annihilation, here evoked by a cascade of red petals and each entering perspex boxes as their black-costumed “shadows” dance on. It is the over-long middle section for the whole company as “shadows” that is weak, a jumble of over-emphatic abstract movement conveying little; however, Donlon’s strong sense of theatre ultimately carries the day.


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