Among Kenneth MacMillan’s successes when he was director of the ballet at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper was the one-act Anastasia. Its protagonist was Anna Anderson, diagnosed as schizophrenic, who had tried to persuade those who would listen that she was in reality the Grand Duchess Anastasia, only survivor of the massacre of the Russian Imperial family.

When MacMillan returned to London as director of the Royal Ballet, he decided to make her story the subject of a full-length work. The Berlin Anastasia became the third act of the new ballet premiered at Covent Garden in July 1971. It was not a ballet merely but a manifesto. MacMillan believed that ballet’s future was assured only, if like the other theatre arts, it could speak to its times. In both its style and content Anastasia was a determined engagement with modernity.

Anastasia was also a fascinating exploration of the psychology of identity. For this new work, MacMillan reached back in time to Anastasia’s youth and to the final days of the Romanoff dynasty. The ballet already staged in Berlin became the final act of the work performed at Covent Garden. In the new Acts I and II Anastasia is a real historical figure. Act III is shot through with ambiguity and leaves unresolved the question of whether Anna Anderson was who she claimed. The new ballet is a creation in reverse; an exercise, if Anna is indeed Anastasia, in retrieving memory.

The first act is a childhood idyll: the teenage Anastasia is on a summer picnic in 1914 with the Tsar and his family. A group of naval cadets are there to liven up the afternoon. Lynn Seymour, who created the role of Anastasia, decided that she could best portray her character’s precocity by making her entrance on roller skates, wearing a sailor suit. The picnic ends with the arrival of a messenger. He brings news of the outbreak of war. The cadets assemble and prepare for action.

The second act is set in 1917 against the unrest which grips St Petersburg. At the Imperial Palace there is a coming out party for Anastasia, now 16. Among the entertainments is a virtuoso pas de deux by two dancers from the Mariinsky. The ballerina, the Tsar’s ex-mistress is Mathilde Kchessinska (danced in the 1971 production by Antoinette Sibley, partnered by Anthony Dowell). The celebrations are interrupted by armed revolutionaries and the Tsar and his family are marched away.

In the final act, essentially the one-act Anastasia performed in Berlin in 1967, Anna Anderson (Anna, but now with cropped hair and ravaged face) recreates a confused and half-remembered past; whether this is memory or fantasy MacMillan leaves to the audience’s judgement (only in the mid 1990s did DNA tests finally determine that Anderson was not the Tsar’s daughter). Projected film shows close-ups of a young girl at the Tsar’s side and Anderson rushes towards the screened image. Characters from the first two acts reappear, but in different guises; this, MacMillan told Clement Crisp, was intended to underscore Anna’s confused memories of past and present. At the ballet’s end, Anna is possessed of iron certainty; she is indeed Anastasia and claims the tribute that is hers by right. Anastasia’s problem of identity was not, MacMillan explained, one for herself. “Always, throughout all the mental and physical confusion, she knows she is the Grand Duchess. Her tragedy is in convincing the rest of the world.”

The Martinu score for Act III was apt to MacMillan’s scenario. When he wrote it, Martinu was recovering from a head injury and a serious loss of memory. For the new acts, MacMillan settled on two Tchaikovsky symphonies, intended to evoke the sound world of the events to be depicted. Tchaikovsky’s scores are roughly contemporary with the events depicted, while Martinu’s symphony underscores the ambiguous existence of Anna, the would-be Anastasia, after she recovers consciousness in a Berlin mental hospital.

To its advocates Anastasia was daring in its imaginative reach. “I acclaim the choreographer as dramatist, story-teller and poet”, wrote Richard Buckle in his Sunday Times column. He praised it as “an epic, golden endeavour”. For Andrew Porter of The Financial Times, Anastasia had “the intellectual layers and emotional depth of a considerable work of art.”

But there was vehement dissent from two critics in particular. John Percival of The Times thought Anastasia was “tastelessly Ruritarian in concept .... which hardly augurs well for the future”. “The real sorrow”, complained Clive Barnes in The New York Times “is that its inclusion in the New York repertory has meant the exclusion of works – such as Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée or Ondine – that are basic to New York’s view of the Royal Ballet.”

Back in London most critics, even if they thought Anastasia flawed, were also prepared, like Alexander Bland of The Observer to concede its merits. “MacMillan has brought off several major feats. He has provided an evening packed with classical dancing which is always distinguished in that quiet way which rewards repeated viewings: he has created a bunch of roles which show off the company to great advantage.”

For critics of MacMillan’s directorship, in particular Percival and Barnes, Anastasia became emblematic of their distaste for his artistic choices. However, Arlene Croce of The New Yorker praised MacMillan for the scale of his ambition. “In Anastasia he produced a personal fantasy about a global cataclysm entirely from nothing. I don’t think he was being pretentious, and the insults that were showered on him for missing the mark themselves missed the mark.” And for MacMillan’s advocates, such as Clement Crisp of The Financial Times, Anastasia was eloquent evidence of “how the big ballet can speak of this century’s history in this century’s terms.”

  • First performance: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 22 July 1971

  • Company: The Royal Ballet

  • Cast: Lynn Seymour, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, Derek Rencher, Anthony Dowell, Gerd Larsen,Vergie Derman, Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Marilyn Trounson, David Wall, Michael Coleman, Adrian Grater

  • Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Symphonies Nos. 1 (Winter Dreams) and 3: Bohuslav Martinu, Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No. 6): Electronic score, Fritz Winckel and Rüdiger Rüfer

  • Design: Barry Kay

  • Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1971). Working score for Acts I and II. For Act III see Anastasia (1967)