writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

A Pretty, Light Raymonda

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
May 21, 2004

by Kate Mattingly
copyright © 2004 by Kate Mattingly
published 24 May 2004

American Ballet Theatre’s new production of Raymonda looks like a page from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale: pastel colors, sumptuous sets, lavish costumes, headpieces with chiffon draping down, statues that come to life and a palace interior with teal colored walls and gold designs. The incredible lushness suggests a magical realm—“magical” because there are too many references to figure out exactly where the story is taking place. Then again, it’s Raymonda, a ballet Petipa made in 1898, and one that has always required a certain suspension of disbelief. (The scenario, originally written by Lydia Pashkova, was rejected by Ivan Vsevolozksky, then Director of the Imperial Theatres, who handed it to Petipa.) In one sentence, the ballet tells the story of a girl who chooses the fair and handsome suitor over the mysterious and aggressive one.

Nevertheless, over the past century, choreographers drawn to dramatic flair have re-staged Raymonda: Alexander Gorsky, Yuri Grigorovich, and Rudolf Nureyev, to name a few. ABT’s version, conceived and directed by Anna-Marie Holmes and Kevin McKenzie, with choreography by Holmes, and scenery, costume and set design by Zack Brown, opened on May 21 with Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky in the lead roles, Raymonda and Jean de Brienne (the fair and handsome suitor). Marcel Gomes played the mysterious and aggressive Abderakhman, the Saracen knight enamored with Raymonda. (Brown appropriately dresses him and his entourage in bold colors like red, orange and yellow). All three dancers brought a fine balance of grace and pyrotechnics to the ballet.

Brown’s costumes provide an element of unpredictability. Raymonda begins in a yellow tutu, then in her dream scene, she’s in white. She opens Act 2 wearing a lavender tutu and for the finale, she's again in a white tutu. Jean de Brienne first appears in a stunning light blue vest with a high collar and regal pattern. Several scenes later he’s in a lavender jacket and, for the wedding, a white jacket with sequined designs—perhaps a Christian rose? This may have been a subtle reference to the original version’s emphasis on Jean de Brienne being a Christian crusader and Abderakhman, a Saracen or Muslim.

Playing the role of Countess Sybelle, Raymonda’s aunt, Martine van Hamel wore gowns that, in the second act, had sleeves that touched the floor. Several men also had these long sleeves which, during turns and jumps, were a bit problematic. The White Lady, a role that evokes The Sleeping Beauty’s Lilac Fairy, was performed by Carmen Corella. She represents an ancestor who punishes those unfaithful to the family traditions. Her costume looked like the Queen on a chess set, with drapes of white and a nun-like habit. But if the costumes were excessive and exaggerated, they compensated for steps that were a bit dry. Part fashion show and part technical display, this production was a journey to an imagined yesteryear.

Vibrant, lush and condensed, the production has reduced Petipa's original four acts to two. Holmes places the character dances in the second act: a Sacaren duet and Spanish Dance for six performers that Abderakhman gives Raymonda as a present. The Grand Pas Hongrois features nine couples in white and hunter-green interpretations of Hungarian folk costumes; the Grand Pas Classique, performed by eight couples led by Raymonda and Jean de Brienne, followed these divertissements.

Holmes respects the classic Petipa sections, but her own choreography is a bit bookish, at times looking a lot like combinations in ballet class (tombé relevé arabesque, then tombé relevé passé, eight times...). She relies heavily on repetition and unison movement.

As Raymonda, Irina Dvorovenko, whom I usually find a bit brittle, took my breath way during her dream, when she performed a glistening solo with quiet control and floating balances. Other dancers in this scene appeared leaden. (Although there was a cool special effect when the White Lady morphed into the statue that had appeared in the first scene’s scenery, suggesting that her spirit lives on and watches over her people.)

Dvorovenko has a fantastic grand jeté when her front leg flies higher than her waist, and this ballet gave her plenty of chances to display it. During her solo in Act 2 when Raymonda claps her hands together, Dvorovenko chose a “silent clap” —a gesture that emphasized her noble qualities. When she placed one hand to the nape of her neck and the other hand at her waist, arching her back to the audience, her épaulement was gorgeous.

Gomes played Abderakhman (a mime role in 1898) to the hilt, emphasizing the brash qualities that the Crusaders so feared in their opponents. Feisty and powerful, he threw his head back as he knelt down on one knee. Unfortunately the sword fight between Jean de Brienne and Abderakhman that ended Abderakhman’s pursuit of Raymonda was fleeting and disappointing Abderakhman’s sword was twice the size of Jean’s, but appeared as effective as a toothpick.

Then again, there’s a certain absurdity to their rivalry. Raymonda never appears the least bit attracted to Abderakhman: when he gives her a diamond necklace in the first act, Raymonda quickly passes it off to her girlfriends. Plus Jean de Brienne was played beautifully by Beloserkovsky as the consummate gentleman.

Perhaps it’s Raymonda’s score that consistently redeems the ballet’s many retellings. Eloquent, elegant, and, in some sections, divine, Alexander Glazounov’s music always offers the chance to close one’s eyes and conjure images of passion and loveliness.

I appreciate the glamour of ABT’s production: a turquoise, gold and green curtain hides the stage at the beginning of the ballet. When light passes through, this barrier becomes see-through, and opens as the story unfolds. Throughout the ballet's set changes, designs suggest Tiffany glass or, in the second act, chandeliers and drapes decorate the stage. Perhaps the tremendous expense was covered in part by ABT’s co-production of the ballet with the Finnish National Ballet.

With its collage of colors and fantasy locale, the production capitalizes on Raymonda's virtues. In other story-ballets such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, or La Bayadere, evil forces drive characters to destroy love. Raymonda lacks such a negative presence. Abderakhman longs for Raymonda, and fights Jean de Brienne for her, but eventually accepts that the couple wants to be together and leaves. ABT's retelling does not cater to those who enjoy esoteric plot twists. Rather this is a ballet with a simple story and extravagant trappings.

Photos, all by Marty Sohl:
First:  Irina Dvorovenko as Raymonda, Martine van Hamel as Countess Sybelle
and Maxim Beloserkovsky.
Second:  Marcelo Gomes as Abderakhman and Irina Dvorovenko as Raymonda.
Third:  Maxim Beloserkovsky as Jean de Brienne.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 19
May 24, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Kate Mattingly



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last updated on May 24, 2004