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English National Ballet’s Raymonda

Posted on January 26, 2022

Isaac Hernandez and Shiori Kase in Tamara Rojos Raymonda by English National Ballet © Johan Persson 3

Pictured: Isaac Hernández and Shiori Kase in Raymonda. Photograph by Johan Persson.

Tamara Rojo has made an enormous effort to stage a full-evening production of Raymonda for English National Ballet (ENB). It is her first attempt at choreography and the first such production by a company from the UK, if you don’t count Rudolf Nureyev’s initial version, commissioned by the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto and danced there in 1964 by The Royal Ballet’s former Touring Company.

There have been several complete stagings of the ballet in Russia – by Alexander Gorsky, Agrippina Vaganova, Konstantin Sergeyev and Yuri Grigorovich. George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova made one for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1946, and Nureyev revised his for American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opéra Ballet. None of them has lasted, and this one may not either, because meticulous research and lofty intentions don’t always sustain a creation.

Rojo set herself enough challenges to fill several ballets. Having “looked for a context with a connection to British history,” she transferred the slim romantic story from the Crusades to the Crimean War. “Of course, the most prominent and influential woman in the Crimean War was Florence Nightingale,” she has said, so, for relevance, she converted the countess heroine into a brave field nurse, a Victorian feminist with a mind of her own.

To include as much of Marius Petipa’s original choreography as possible, Rojo asked Doug Fullington, an eminent dance researcher, to mine the Stepanov notations for details of the action and mime. To endow the character dances with veracity, she enlisted Vadim Sirotin, a specialist in the subject who teaches ballet and choreographic disciplines at the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg.

The rest she made up herself, including a dream ballet of nurses bearing lanterns – Nightingale was known as The Lady with the Lamp – and plenty of work for the company’s men, who become British, Turkish and Hungarian by turn. ENB’s excellent conductor, Gavin Sutherland, even puts musicians on stage for the wedding scene, heightening its folkloric authenticity with a cimbalom and a hurdy gurdy.

You could learn all that and more by reading the programme but not by watching the ballet, which resembles a polished array of dances, both classical and character, loosely connected by a wispy narrative about two men wooing the same girl. Aside from the military uniforms, I found few signs of warfare, and only one woman, costumed in white, brought nursing to mind; largely unattended, several wounded soldiers huddled in the shadows, and the dream nurses might have been ghosts.

Photographs: 1 – English National Ballet in Raymonda. 2 – Shiori Kase and English National Ballet. 3 – Jeffrey Cirio as Abdur Rahman. Photographs by Johan Persson.

Yet you could easily enjoy the performance without knowing which bits of Petipa’s original Fullington had restored or how Sutherland had rearranged Glazunov’s score. Now that the company’s men dance so well, Rojo has taken every opportunity to show off their confidence and skill. On opening night, Jeffrey Cirio’s dashing Abdur Rahman won every heart except Raymonda’s; in a dazzling duet, Aitor Arrieta and Fernando Carratalá Coloma stole the long first act; and the male ensemble jumped and beat tirelessly, with real panache and evident pleasure.

The women fared less well, assigned more modest choreography than the men and supporting it with little in the way of characterisation. Sutherland’s painfully slow tempi drained many variations of energy and continuity, and Shiori Kase delivered Raymonda’s final solo, minus the commanding handclaps, as if she were afraid of her own shadow.

Academics could have a field day, and balletomanes will notice echoes of La Bayadère in the nurses’ unearthly ensemble and of John Cranko’s Onegin in Raymonda’s dream sequence. Offered lots of dancing and nothing to confuse them, everyone else will just have a good night out. Maybe next time Rojo will adopt Jerome Robbins’ advice: “above all,” he wrote to a young choreographer, “always keep it clear to the audience what the dance is about, and why everything or anything is happening.”

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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