DanceView Times, New York edition
Up with ABT
American Ballet Theatre’s new Raymonda can be enjoyed once you take no notice of the story and just look at the dancing. The confusion of the stage action goes back to the original production, of which Alexandre Benois wrote, “the fault lies in the absurdity of the subject, of which nobody could ever make head or tail—which is rather awkward as the performance lasts for three whole hours.” ABT’s production, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes and “conceived and directed” by her and Kevin McKenzie, cuts down the running time, partly by making it a two-act rather than a three-act ballet, and tries to make some sort of sense of the story. (To my mind this is as impossible as to try to make Act II of The Nutcracker relate to the original Hoffmann story.)
Raymonda herself has an entrance in the first act reminiscent of Aurora’s in The Sleeping Beauty (with no prologue to delay it), but when do the rivals for her hand come on? The libretto stipulates that it is not Jean de Brienne, the hero, but his squire who enters early in the first act, and Abderakhman, the other guy, isn’t supposed to come on until he appears in Raymonda’s dream. Both Brienne and Abderakhman now enter in the first act so that their rivalry is established from the beginning, which does make it easier for the audience to understand Raymonda’s conflicting emotions. It also means that passages for the two male leads have to be shoehorned into the ensembles, and they sometimes get in the way.
It’s in the second half that things go awry. It’s as if Holmes and McKenzie had shuffled the various incidents and dealt them out more or less arbitrarily, with no regard to the formal logic of a Petipa ballet. Everything is in the wrong order: The csárdás that should begin the Cortège hongrois comes too soon, as a sort of response to the divertissement served up by Abderakhman, and the grand pas classique, instead of being the choreographic climax to the whole ballet, is followed by the duel between the two rivals—and then there is a pas de deux to music from earlier in the ballet, and a sort of half-hearted non-apotheosis.
Although there has been some attempt to suggest the psychosexual overtones of the story hinted at by Lynn Garafola in her program essay (its possible political implications are left untouched, which is just as well), Jean de Brienne is almost as passive a character as Aminta in Sylvia—he keeps going off in a snit just when Raymonda needs him most. The only positive action that the Seneschal, the master of ceremonies (a thankless role for Ethan Brown, who deserves better), takes is to bring Jean back from wherever he has been sulking and mime “Look what’s going on!” Abderakhman, on the other hand, doesn’t get to go off and do some pliés before he has to dance—for some reason he is kept standing at the back during some of the Act II numbers. As for the White Lady—well, I won’t go into that. Suffice it to say that all the people on stage try valiantly to look as if they understand what’s happening, but the audience has to rely on the synopsis. One of my favorite things about the original libretto is that there is a character called King Andrew II of Hungary, who has absolutely nothing to do with the plot but presumably provides the excuse for the final Hungarian divertissement, for which there is no geographic rationale.
Visually, this Raymonda is a festival of kitsch, with some of the most garish costumes since Elite Syncopations. Supposedly, the ballet takes place in Provence at the time of the Crusades (a forbidden word, as even President Bush has learned), which is where Brienne has been. True, the Countess and some of the extra ladies wear medieval headgear, but the architecture suggests no particular period or locale—Act II seems to take place in a hotel lobby with art nouveau decorative touches.
So, as I said at the beginning, you just have to ignore all that and enjoy the dancing, which at ABT can go from the sensational to the sublime. Of course, if it happens to be in a good ballet, like The Dream or the ones in the Balanchine program, so much the better. I shall not soon forget Herman Cornejo’s beautiful dancing in the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, for example, or Gillian Murphy’s in Ballet Imperial. Murphy is something of a phenomenon technically, as was clear from her Raymonda, but this role is of more value in the experience it gives of dancing Petipa’s exquisite variations than of playing a part. The ease with which she tosses off triple pirouettes (in Ballet Imperial when pulling in from a fouetté) is astounding, but it is Balanchine’s ballet that provides a moment when the dancer can communicate passion, in that passage in the first movement when she and her partner circle around each other casting meaningful glances, and Murphy fulfilled that moment. Nina Ananashvili, with her Russian background, knows how to invest the role of Raymonda, and Ballet Imperial too, with ballerina presence.
Angel Corella, whenever he came back on stage, danced his solos magnificently, but he too had difficulty making you believe in his character. Again I find a contrast with Ballet Imperial—dancers like Jose Manuel Carreño and Carlos Molina (I didn’t see Corella in this part) know what it is to be a danseur noble, and so the male role becomes more than a mere cipher. In a way the soloists in Raymonda who are billed as her “Friends” have an easier time than the principals—although they have names, they don't have much to do with the story, and they have some nice bits to dance, which the two quartets I saw (Veronika Part, Michele Wiles, David Hallberg, and Ricardo Torres; and Misty Copeland, Erica Cornejo, her brother Herman, and Danny Tidwell) made the most of. Actually the one role in the ballet whose choreography does illuminate his character is that of Abderakhman: he has some terrific new steps (presumably not devised by Petipa) which both Gennadi Saveliev and Jesus Pastor danced to the hilt, in a way that expressed the character’s sexual magnetism and contempt for his rival. Which rather makes you wonder why Raymonda didn’t choose him—but that, of course, would be another story.
Actually, I had a better time at the first Don Quixote of the season. The ballet can be a crashing bore, of course, but when it is danced as fabulously as it was Monday night, it's irresistible. The company put on a first-class line-up: Ananashvili in her element as Kitri, Correno back on form as Basil, and on through Gomes as Espada, Carmen Corella as Mercedes, Herman Cornejo as the Gypsy Boy, Veronika Part as Queen of the Dryads. What was so infectious was that they all seemed to be having so much fun—and often making fun of themselves. Gomes, for instance, preened outrageously, but after the way he danced his solos, you could hardly blame him. A lot of things in the production were new to me, such as the Prologue, with the Don (Victor Barbee) setting out on his journey with Sancho Panza (Flavio Salazar) after seeing his vision of Dulcinea, instead of being discovered studying his books of chivalry. In general he is more involved in the action than sometimes happens: I almost expected him to dance a variation in the Vision Scene. Guillaume Graffin, as Gamache, had some very funny bits of business of his own. And this production is much better to look at than Raymonda, thanks to Santo Loquasto's elegant designs: I love the 18th century fan that serves as a drop curtain.
Photo: American Ballet Theatre's Don Quixote. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.