Choreography Tamara Rojo after Marius Petipa, music Alexander Glazunov adapted and edited by Gavin Sutherland and Lars Payne
English National Ballet
First things first: the dancing, especially of the male cohort, is out of this world. All are on best form. The women are perfection, but the men take off with their bravura leaps and mighty turns and heroic soubresauts as if their lives depended on them. Petipa’s choreography, shifted and adjusted slightly for the context, is impressive. He knew how to delight his Imperial Russian audience, but imagine if he’d had an athletic modern dancer to command. It’s another world now. Glazunov’s music is rich and full of eastern promise.
Tamara Rojo has invested much into reviving an old classic little performed in full in the West. We mostly know the third act of Raymonda (ENB, ROH and the Trocks). Five years research has gone into delving into every aspect of the original. Rojo has worked with Doug Fullerton on choreographic research and Sergeyev notation, with Vadim Sirotin on the character dances, with dramaturg Lucinda Coxon, video designer Alexander Gunnarsson. Antony McDonald’s set and costume design is highly detailed, Mark Henderson’s lighting enhancing it all.
So, it’s a big deal to have this full-length Russian ballet in ENB’s repertoire. I have only ever seen the full version streamed from the Bolshoi. Rojo’s concept transposes it from the Crusades to the Crimean War—different enemies and allies. And women maybe seeking more agency, like Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and so on.
Newspapers and headlines of the period projected on the back wall set the war scene with witty caricatures and cartoons of the antagonists, the Russian bear, the turkey cock and the British soldier. And there’s a photographer character recording it all—one thinks of Roger Fenton of course—I saw an exhibition of his work from the royal collection in the Queens Gallery in 2017 and think I recognise the backcloth in the first sepia Sevastopol act.
The second act party in leader of the Ottoman army Abdur Rahman’s tent brings the eastern colour much missed in the sensible first act of women ministering to soldiers. Three women friends of different character—Raymonda (Shiori Kase exquisite, precise, but very serious, very self-controlled), Henriette (Julia Conway out for a good time amongst the soldiers—to me she looks like a young queen Victoria) and Sister Clemence (Precious Adams the religious conscience of the trio)—have gone to the Crimea to tend, dally, and help with the soldiers.
Act three is the wedding of Raymonda to faithful John de Bryan (from the original Jean de Brienne), after much dithering over the two men—one British, reliable, the other dazzling in his foreignness. And Jeffrey Cirio is dazzling, though Isaac Hernandez no less so. How can she decide... in her first act dream she dances with both, wonderful pas de deux.
The only blip for me, and I suspect for the dramaturg, is how to explain those Hungarian dances at the wedding in England at the de Bryan’s home. Ah, according to the synopsis, they are seasonal workers from Hungary come to help with the harvest. And to perform in national costumes at the wedding... Raymonda seems not entirely sure about matrimony, as she still hankers after the other chap. There is no happy ever after. An independent woman she leaves to seek her own path in life.
The original Raymonda was very much in the nineteenth century Russian Imperial Ballet’s taste at the time in eastern exoticism, in La Bayadère mode—and we do see elements of that here in the new version (eighteen nurses and nine soldiers file across the stage). But Rojo has chosen to make the context more suitable for modern times, remove the offensive characterisation—from medieval Crusaders and dastardly Saracens. The evil Arab trying to abduct Raymonda is now an ally of Britain and a friend of her betrothed John de Bryan. How times and loyalties shift. But in love there are no boundaries, even if convention dictates otherwise.
The whole company, over 65 dancers and actors, is on show, the stage filled with massed ensembles, ladies with the lamps and dashing young men (reminds me at times of ENB’s Lest We Forget tribute to WWI). Daniel McCormick stands out, as do Aitor Arrieta, Fernando Carratalá Coloma, Henry Dowden, and in the corps de ballet I can’t take my eyes of Rhys Antoni Yeomans. They will tour to Southampton 30 November to 3 December 2022. I wonder if this nearly three-hour ballet will have evolved along the way.
The English National Ballet Philharmonic is conducted as usual by Gavin Sutherland, with musicians on violin, clarinet, the cimbalom and hurdy-gurdy on stage in the final act.
This is Rojo’s debut and swansong: a first attempt at re-imaging / restoring an old classic and her final gift to the company she has served so illustriously for ten years. She does nothing by halves. She will be missed when she decamps to San Francisco at the end of the year.
Reviewer: Vera Liber