Register Friday | September 21 | 2018

Everybody Loves <i>Raymonda</i>?

"The role of Raymonda is a jewel in the crown of any ballerina."

After seeing a successful production of Raymonda in the 1960s, dance critic Richard Buckle decided--much to his surprise--that the old gal might still have it. No such happy fate awaited Montreal audiences who attended the Bavarian State Ballet’s performance of Raymonda this April. Despite a facelift and an updated wardrobe, this gal was definitely showing her age. It seems she likes it that way, though. Raymonda, the last great ballet of legendary choreographer Marius Petipa, has proven resistant not only to faithful reconstruction, but also to fresh and inventive revisions--unlike Petipa’s masterpieces The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. There have been a few successful full-length revivals of Raymonda, most notably Rudolf Nureyev’s restagings for the Australian Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. Unfortunately, Ray Barra’s revival for the Bavarian State Ballet does not fall among them. 

Most audiences are familiar only with Raymonda’s third act, the justly famous wedding celebration: the grand pas classique hongrois is one of Petipa’s most perfect blends of classical ballet and folk dance. The ballet, though, boasts many attractions. The role of Raymonda is a jewel in the crown of any ballerina, as the part’s taxing variations require classical technique and style of the highest order. Accompanying the dancers are the lush melodies of Alexander Glazunov, who was greatly influenced by the granddaddy of classical ballet music (and Petipa’s old collaborator) Peter Tchaikovsky. So what’s not to love?

Well, for one thing, while musically there is much to enjoy in the ballet, Glazunov is no Tchaikovsky. The day after I saw Raymonda, I listened to Swan Lake and was immediately reminded why it’s still in the repertoire of many ballet companies, along with Tchaikovsky’s other ballets. The blame does not rest entirely on Glazunov, though. His score is paired with a libretto that may have satisfied nineteenth-century tastes, but is now creakier than any of the other old classical warhorses. Even worse, the plot of Raymonda plays up clichés of the West and the East (virtuous Christians versus thieving infidels) that in today’s climate can’t help but make audience members squirm in their seats.

The traditional story of the ballet goes something like this. In medieval times in the south of France, Raymonda’s court is celebrating their lady’s name day. Our heroine’s betrothed, the Count Jean de Brienne, arrives to say goodbye before heading off on a crusade with the king of Hungary. After his departure, a downhearted Raymonda falls into a dream. At first she sees her beloved, but later has a vision of an exotic prince whose erotic power is so enticing that, upon awaking, she falls to her knees and prays to the White Lady (a chivalric stand-in for the Virgin Mary) for guidance. In Act II, the Saracen prince Abderakhman enters the court with his retainers and tries to abduct Raymonda. Fortunately, Jean shows up in the nick of time and slays his rival. In Act III, the hero and heroine celebrate their marriage along with the court in grand Petipa style, whooping it up with some Hungarian dances for good measure.

Ray Barra’s revival of Raymonda for the Bavarian State Ballet follows the traditional story quite closely and retains much of the surviving Petipa choreography. Barra’s original choreography, though, proved a disappointment. For Raymonda’s dream sequence, I found his take on a Petipa-style deployment of a large corps de ballet to be stale and flat, in contrast to Nureyev’s or Yuri Grigorovich’s choreography for this same scene (or even Balanchine’s various Petipa homages). The patterns felt simplistic and lacked the intricacy that one expects.

Also disappointing was Barra’s choreography for Abderakhman. This was a real missed opportunity, as Petipa did not choreograph much for this role. At least Barra toned down the anti-Eastern sentiment, omitting the abduction attempt and allowing the tension between Abderakhman, Raymonda and Jean to consist simply of conflicting passion. However, Abderakhman’s floor show drew embarrassed laughter from the audience members surrounding me--its swivelling hips and shoulder rolls were so unlike Nureyev’s wonderful modern-dance, Paul Taylor-like inflections, which in the midst of a classical ballet manage to suggest exoticism without caricature.

Perhaps the biggest blunder, though, was Barra’s expanded role and additional choreography for the White Lady, who really should have remained more of an iconic figure (as she is in most productions). During the dream sequence, she frequently darted on and off the stage, with a couple of male attendants inexplicably in tow. Both during this scene and throughout the ballet, the White Lady’s presence distracted attention from Raymonda. And Raymonda deserves full attention when Lisa-Maree Cullum dances the part. The night I attended, she performed with a luscious technique and the assuredness of a true prima ballerina.

The rest of the Bavarian State Ballet also made a good showing in classical style and technique, especially in the last act’s wonderful wedding celebration--it was a pity that the company did not present just the wedding alone on a mixed program. While Barra cut the ballet down from three to two acts, the brilliant last scene still arrived only after what felt like an eternity, and ultimately the boredom outweighed the pleasure in watching the dancers’ fine technique. It’s too bad, really, because in Montreal the chances of seeing a purely classical, full-length work besides The Nutcracker are rare enough as it is.