Oh Raymonda…

24 Jun

For some reason it completely escaped me that the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Raymonda streamed live today and luckily, I was able to attend with fellow balletomanes Catherine and Ryan. Though I’ve seen some ballet in cinema it was never live so this was something of a new experience for me. To be honest I’ve become somewhat disillusioned to Russian ballet over the past couple of years as my preference for the English style has grown, but deep down I knew I had to give it another chance. After falling in love with true story ballets my problem with the imperial Russian full-lengths was that the narratives were simply too weak to hold my attention—which hasn’t changed. However, even I must admit that I haven’t always been open minded in my assessments and resigned myself to at least enjoying the beauty and sheer opulence of a Bolshoi production. Dancing in the Bolshoi theatre has got to make a dancer feel like a million bucks! Such confidence may even inspire one to don a Pikachu costume backstage…

Now having seen it, I can’t say Raymonda is a masterpiece, and being his last ballet it almost felt like a formulaic retrospective of some of his successes rather than a ballet that stands on its own. With a wedding like Sleeping Beauty, national dances like Swan Lake, exoticism like La Bayadère, and possibly more that I’m obviously not aware of, Raymonda is a Petipa pot pie, with a filling derivative of his own work. This current Bolshoi production has choreography that follows a lineage from Petipa through Alexander Gorsky, and now Yuri Grigorovich who staged this production in 2003. Alexander Glazunov composed the score with specifications from Petipa himself, and the result is everything you can expect from classical Russian ballet—ceremonious and LONG. There is a great deal of beautiful dancing, and if there’s one thing I definitely give the Russians credit for is how they can mechanize a flawlessly synchronized corps de ballet. However, conventional issues with classical ballet aside, I cannot in good conscience, overlook the excessive racism in this production of Raymonda.

The story goes (and this won’t make any sense) is that Raymonda is betrothed to the knight Jean de Brienne, who sets off on a quest. In his absence, Raymonda has a dream about him, but also a mysterious figure that later appears at her birthday party. That would be Abherakhman, a Saracen knight (Saracen being another term for Arab), who oddly enough was invited by the Countess Sybil de Daurice who is throwing the party for her niece, Raymonda. Abherakhman falls in love with Raymonda upon first sight, tries to win her over, she rejects him, and he tries to abduct her. At that precise moment, Jean de Brienne returns, duels with Abherakhman and kills him, thus saving her. Then there’s a wedding, the end. As if that wasn’t bad enough Abherakhman has the most horrendous makeup, painted with exaggerated features and ghoulishly ashen skin that make him look certifiably insane. He also has an entourage with him, all dressed in fairly stereotypical Middle Eastern garb, including a pair in…purpleface? The other dancers were clearly bronzed beyond recognition as well, but there was in fact a couple painted in purple. The “lively character dances” they did were just as superficial and the overall effect is as horrifying as it sounds. Yes, we are far more politically correct now than when Raymonda debuted in 1898, which is precisely why care should be taken to revise a ballet to fit a more appropriate cultural context. Perhaps certain liberties would be too drastic a deviation from the libretto, but “purpleface”?! Really?! And why must Abherakhman be portrayed like he’s maniacal? The character dances are horrendous, and make no attempt to hide the contrast between that and the classical steps as performed by the French royalty (and the fact that during that scene both Jean de Brienne and Raymonda are dressed in pure white doesn’t exactly help the cause). Though plot is already irrelevant anyway, the idea that as soon as Jean de Brienne arrives, the first thing he and his unit of knights do is attack Abherakhman and his people also disturbed me. It’s difficult to imagine that even almost ten years ago, anyone thought this was a good idea, and that nobody has had the good sense to suggest some editing!

However, it’s not just the blatant racism that incites the “facepalm”—many of the costumes are quite awful throughout, with some lowlights being the helmets of the French knights (oddly reminiscent of the tinfoil variety donned by characters from M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’), the shattered glass patterns on the costumes of the Hungarian dancers, and the decrepit blue tutu Raymonda wears to her own wedding (yes, a blue tutu). Now we’ve moved from “facepalm” to “facepalmheaddesk” territory. Could it get worse? A bit. Though most of the choreography is stock, Abherakhman does a number of aerial somersaults during many of his dances in Act II. The complaints that ballet has become too acrobatic and gymnastic are obviously valid!

Though there was much to my dismay, I did in fact enjoy a few things. Number one: Maria Alexandrova is marvelous. I love her strength and energy, which give her a certain vitality you don’t always see in Russian dancers who are often so lyrical. Her regality radiates throughout, and I enjoyed her well-rounded performance. Ruslan Skvortsov was alright as Jean de Brienne I suppose, though I fear the knight is a character that just won’t resonate with me. Pavel Dmitrichenko danced Abderakhman and…did what he was supposed to do? Then there’s the rest of the huge cast, which has a number of variations that highlight the depth of the Bolshoi, though it was difficult to keep up with the names of who’s who unless you already had some familiarity with the company. It almost doesn’t matter a great deal anyway because there’s no character that you can relate to or empathize with—not even Raymonda, who in many ways doesn’t seem to realize that she’s a woman who can do more than…well, absolutely nothing, except for run in front of Jean de Brienne and Abderakhman as they swordfight, which distracts the latter.

While Raymonda wasn’t my favorite use of three hours, I’m glad I went and I think simply accepting that the Russian tradition is what it is will help me enjoy future performances. However, something I did realize is that if the Bolshoi, for example, were to tour to a city near enough to me, I’d make the effort to see them for sure—but not multiple casts. After chatting about the issue for a bit with Catherine, I postulate that the diversity in companies such as ABT or the Royal Ballet is what makes seeing multiple casts so exciting, while some of the Russian companies and even the Paris Opera are less so, because physical standards are so much stricter for young dancers who enter their schools. Of course people still do it, and principals and soloists will always offer their own interpretations of featured roles, but perhaps the price of that clockwork corps de ballet is room for greater individuality. I shall think about that and report back, but for now, you can enjoy the entire broadcast of Raymonda here:

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4 Responses to “Oh Raymonda…”

  1. jenniferc June 25, 2012 at 5:34 am #

    Ugh, purpleface sounds horrendous, it would probably ruin the production for me too. Ballets can be updated.. I saw “Anything Goes” on Broadway, and there were “Chinese’ cast members in the show, but thankfully they didn’t have horrendous accents & the cultural stereotypes were tamped down. They tap danced quite nimbly! Pretty funny.

    • youdancefunny June 25, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

      Yeah, it really did ruin what was already a dodgy ballet. Glad you enjoyed ‘Anything Goes’ by the way!

  2. j. san (@Fleegull) June 25, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Russians be politically correct? This is the country that had ice dancers in blackface AT THE OLYMPICS! When the Bolshoi came to NYC in 2005, the entire audience was shocked when dancers came out in blackface as monkeys in The Pharoah’s Daughter. It’s wrong but they are a country with almost no history of black citizenry, it’s tough to change those attitudes if it doesn’t come from within. Believe me I wish it was different.

    • youdancefunny June 25, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

      Well luckily for us, they’re broadcasting ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’ next season!

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