The story of Anastasia and her presumed flight from the slaughtering of the Tsar family is a modern fairy-tale that has stayed with me since childhood. I grew up on the hope she made it out of the revolution alive. Like a Disney-fantasy I imagined all sorts of adventures the remaining member of the Romanov family would have gone through. And then of course science just had to go ahead and use DNA to prove that she was in fact buried in the ground on that night of shots and my childhood dream was utterly destroyed.

Accepting that Anastasia wasn’t the survivor I dressed up as at birthday parties, I then wondered how anyone could believe they actually were the lost princess of Russia. Exploring the case of Anna Anderson, the woman rigorously claiming to be Anastasia till the day she died, the Royal Ballet shows us a window into the memories and hallucinations of the fake Anastasia. Anastasia shows us the pomp and prestige of the Romanov family at their height just before the downfall, and behind the golden smiles and rubies, we follow the coming of age of a young woman unaware of what’s in store for her and her family. Revolution kicks in and suddenly we are in the depths of Anna Anderson’s case, in the mental hospital where illusions of her presumed family and past encounters run wild.

Choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan this piece was created in 1967 when the world still believed Anderson’s story. Fast forward to today and the recent discoveries (again, thanks a lot science) we have the bitter awareness that Anderson’s life was in fact false. The ballet suddenly becomes something much darker – rather than a romantic vision of Anastasia’s escape, it shows an unknown woman driven to such distress she imagines her life to be someone else’s. Did Anderson do immaculate research to play the part of Anastasia and convince the family? Or did she get these memories through dreams? Big questions are unanswered. This certainly is the darker version of my childhood fairy-tale being explored at the Royal Opera House.

Macmillan’s choreography is elegant and classical as we encounter the Tsar family. It’s light, playful though slightly dull at times, filling out a lot of space with lightness, indicating that the lives of the Romanov’s were all smiles and entertainment on the surface. Both on the Tsar’s yacht and in the grand palace we get a sense of staging and of dances for the show of it, and though it depicts the glorified lives of the family and their wealth beautifully, it’s missing a darker parallel from the growing revolution. We briefly see the peasants starting their uproar but it never peaks, and even when they burn down the palace and shoot the aristocrats, the choreography is perfectly fluid; without the passion and rawness I felt these scenes deserved. The final act in Anderson’s room, however, is mesmerising and is a masterpiece in itself. Anderson merges with Anastasia and her family appear through various visions as well as the constant looming figure of Rasputin.

Laura Morera (who shares the role with 2 others) is phenomenal as Anastasia/Anna; youthful and bubbly as the young Anastasia and harrowingly disturbed as Anna moving with such impulse and abstractness it becomes painful to watch. This style is much more twisted, urban and distorted and brings a depth and realism to the aftermaths of the revolution that’s chilling to watch. The relationship between Rasputin and the Tsarina has a simmering passion which is beautifully illustrated with him shadowing her every movement, and his later animalistic hunt of Anastasia/Anna brings an unnerving shadow to the production. The mix of sound-worlds by Tchaikovsky and Bohuslav Martinu manages to reflect the merge of the past and future, of the conflicted mind of Anderson trying to find her identity. Supported by Bob Crowley’s design, almost too rich in the beginning and clinically sparse at the end, Anastasia is a brilliant window into one of history’s most fascinating families. A little slow and light on the surface in the beginning, but really picks up in the last act and hits home.

Anastasia is playing at the Royal Opera House until 12 November. For more information and tickets, see 

Photo: Tristram Kenton