by Kate Snedeker
October 18, 2008 -- River Run Centre, Guelph, Ontario
On Saturday evening, Ballet Jörgen inaugurated the River Run Centre’s new Guelph Infiniti Classical Arts Series with a charming performance of Bengt Jörgen’s “Anastasia”. Originally premiered in 2007, the ballet is an entirely fictional depiction of the final years of Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. In Jörgen’s production, Anastasia falls in love with Dimitry, the son of a palace kitchen maid. Whilst Anastasia grows into her role as Grand Duchess, Dimitry becomes a revolutionary. In the end, he saves Anastasia’s life by helping her escape to a convent. Grand Duchess Anastasia’s death having been recently confirmed by DNA testing, Jörgen’s fairytale storyline is shaky, but saved by clever sets and passionate dancing.
The ballet begins with the young Anastasia roughhousing with Dimitry. Historic accounts suggest that the real Anastasia was a lively, mischievous child, and Tara Butler captured this perfectly in her energetic dancing. She skittered across the stage, her blond locks, sparkling smile and giddy nature making her entirely believable as a vivacious teenager. It was Butler’s effortless, secure dancing combined with mature acting that enabled the smooth transformation from young girl to budding woman. When Anastasia returns to the stage in the second scene as a young woman, the transition is obvious not only in the change in costumes, but in the way Butler presented herself. There was a palpable increase in her bearing, a new erectness, as well a deeper maturity in the dancing. Her lines were longer, steps given more shape and weight as girlish giddiness was replaced with young love.
As Dimitry, Preston McBain was a perfect foil for Butler’s Anastasia. Though perhaps just an inch or two shorter than would be ideal, he matched Butler in both emotion and technique. Their charged, intense performances allowed the ballet to overcome the entirely improbable storyline. In the end, they brought humanity to the characters, so the setting was less important than the core message of deep, but doomed love and ultimate sacrifice.
Adding to the pathos was Katherine Garrett’s heart-warming nursemaid. Attired in one of Sue LePage’s most colorful and authentic costumes, Garrett transformed herself into Anastasia’s doting, middle-aged nursemaid. And she stayed in character through the entire two hours, a feat that evades many more experienced dancers in much shorter ballets. Hampus Gauffin also stood out in a series of roles. Bengt Jörgen made several cameos, including that of the Tsar. Though a solid partner, he seemed stiff through his back and oddly emotionally disconnected.
Jörgen’s choreography is pleasant, if occasionally derivative, and he makes the most of the company’s limited manpower. The choreography is enhanced by LePage’s ingenious sets, which revolve around three large ornate lampposts/pillars and several doorframes. Re-arranged and simply decorated in each scene, these set pieces transform the setting from palace courtyard to St. Petersburg neighborhood, to Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg to a dark Russian forest. LePage also designed the costumes, which were at their best in the swirl of red hues during the ballroom scene that concluded the first act.
The ballroom, witness to the final moments of the royal family’s freedom, is also the site of one of the choreographic highlights. Despite only having six or seve couples, Jörgen fills the stage by keeping his couples in constant motion, the women perpetually shifting from partner to partner. The frequent partnering changes made for some dramatic size mismatches, but the dancers powered through with minimal fuss. Some of the younger male dancers clearly lack in partnering experience, but there were no major glitches or lapses in character. The centerpiece of the scene is a pas de cinq for Anastasia and four partners. Though very reminiscent of the Rose Adagio, the choreography goes beyond the purely derivative and highlights the talents of Jörgen’s dancers.
The ballet concludes with Dimitry spiriting Anastasia away to a convent, the lovers parting forever after a tender pas de deux. The scene is perfectly captured by Bonnie Beecher’s moody lighting that just barely catches the sparkle of the ‘leaves’ decorating the three large lampposts. It is the glitter of Anastasia’s past life and love shining one last time before being forever extinguished. After this poignant farewell, it seems to shatter the illusion to have the ballet end with an adult Anastasia showing a photo album and her tiny royal crown to a young girl. Whilst this matches the scene of Anastasia and the girl at the beginning, these bookends seem forced given the obvious implausibility of storyline. The proof of the real Anastasia’s death came after the ballet’s debut, so Jörgen would not have known his storyline would be totally implausible when setting the ballet. However, given current knowledge, his ballet would be stronger with the bookends removed, leaving the core love story – which is touching no matter whether based on a real person or not – to stand on its own.