Tag Archives: maria alexandrova

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:

The Bolshoi Ballet! But WWNOD? (What Would Natalia Osipova Do?)

20 Jun

I went with my friend Hilary to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform Le Corsaire.  Now before I continue, we both feel cheated (and rightfully so) because we were slated to see Natalia Osipova perform when we purchased our tickets, however (and I’ve mentioned this before) that they changed the principal casting after we bought our tickets.  Yes, I know it’s a fact of life and they always write “casting subject to change,” but indulge me and allow me to be a little bitter about it.  In the end, it’s still Bolshoi, so you know whoever performs is still going to be glorious, and I was excited to see a famous Russian company put on a production for the very first time anyway.  When you’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio almost your entire life, opportunities to see a Russian ballet company virtually never happen, unless you’re the St. Petersburg Ballet and you perform Swan Lake in New Albany (the middle of nowhere) for ONE night, on a Tuesday of all nights (no joke and obviously I didn’t get to go).

As a complete side note, Hilary and I go way back, to high school, where we partook in such activities as band and orchestra together.  I mentioned a nightmare I once had about trying to hold 8 or so flutes in my lap, and because they kept slipping off and falling to the floor I was panicking from dropping them and the orchestra director started yelling at me, except there was nothing I could do.  Turns out she still has nightmares about playing the oboe too, so I’m not entirely crazy.  Seeing (and hearing, duh) the pit orchestra for the ballet made us nostalgic and yearn for our art.  But I digress.

Medora was danced by Yekaterina Shipulina, who was lovely overall (beautiful pencheé), although I was a little disappointed that in the coda she did regular fouettes instead of throwing in some doubles (or if you’re Katherine Healy, throwing anything from a quadruple up to seven pirouettes) for a little variety.  It made me think, what would Natalia Osipova do?  I’ll tell you what she’d do…she’d do pirouettes a la seconde and throw in some doubles before doing 16 counts of regular fouettes.  Normally pirouettes a la seconde are a bravura move for the men, but I’m sure Natalia does them just to prove she can.  After all, if she can do double tours and leap her heart out into the rafters like the men, there’s no reason not to.  Interestingly enough, youtube videos of her performing the Le Corsaire pas de deux/variation/coda have her doing the Gamzatti variation from Le Bayadere instead of the “true” Medora variation, probably to showcase her leaps (like her beastly huge saut de chat) since the latter (also being what the Bolshoi uses) is mostly a series of turns (including the heinously evil en dedans turns a la seconde).

You can compare Bolshoi principals Nikolay Tsiskaridze and Maria Alexandrova’s coda (which is basically what I saw, except even Maria threw in some doubles!) to excerpts of Natalia Osipova’s variation she performed at a festival for yourself. 

And embedding is disabled for Natalia’s video (which for the record I don’t get in general why people don’t like to have their videos on youtube embedded…but, at least it’s out there for us to enjoy anyway), so you’ll have to put in the extra strenuous amounts of effort to click on this link:

Now that I think about it though, even if I didn’t get to see Natalia, perhaps there’s a chance the Bolshoi wouldn’t have let her do the Gamzatti variation or a la seconde turns anyway, just for artistic purposes or authenticity.  Which for the record, I appreciated the Bolshoi’s integrity in really producing Le Corsaire as a story of Mediterranean pirates, and not all “Pirates of the Caribbean meets Aladdin,” which ABT kind of did.  The Bolshoi actually had Conrad perform the “Slave Ali” variation, meaning no nekkid torso with shiny blue pants that is typically seen in other productions as a pas a trois with Conrad and Medora or as a single variation in ballet competitions.  So thumbs up Bolshoi!  There’s nothing really wrong with having the slave Ali as a separate role with shiny blue pants per se…after all, that’s what Rudolf Nureyev did, but there was a certain integrity to the Bolshoi production that I really enjoyed.

On the topic of that variation, tonight’s Conrad was danced by Alexander Volchkov.  I don’t know if it was an off night for him, but he wasn’t exactly the most gifted turner.  Both times in the variation and coda he kind of zonked out on finishing his turns…the first of which just didn’t quite finish cleanly and the second which was supposed to be an en dehors attitude turn that never really came to fruition (although I sympathize, because en dehors en attitude is pure evil).  He is however, a gifted jumper and got some major airtime.  In all the variations I’ve seen on youtube and the recordings I have on my ipod, I have never heard the orchestra slow down that much, so you know he can fly.  He has good feet too, which isn’t exactly easy to show in character boots.

Some lovely moments with the corps, although Hilary has a thing against them.  Most of the good stuff happens in the first act, and the second (and third if applicable) typically involves a lengthy scene showing the corps, and as she put it “ghosts and/or enchanted forests” (I told her Giselle would probably drive her nuts then).  To her, those corps scenes could be done with less people and in less time.  And the garden scene in Bolshoi’s production was quite long.  At one point there were around fifty people on the stage waving wreaths around and when the melody repeated I too wondered if it was going to ever end.  It was during this scene where disaster almost struck though as Medora danced around a set of four wreaths beneath her, she stepped on them twice in a series of furious turns and the second time was about an inch away from doing a pique right onto the wreath which could have sent her spiraling to her doom.  There were some audible gasps in the audience, but she was unphased.  Hilary joked that if she was a true diva she’d be yelling at the corps members backstage for misplacing the wreaths. Ha! Oh to be a fly man backstage…

All in all, a wonderful performance, with excellent dancing, beautiful sets, ridiculously ornate costumes, and a GREAT venue.  The John F. Kennedy Center in DC is just gorgeous, with these crystallized starry light fixtures that I am somehow going to have to figure out how to get some of my own.  Just outside of the theater some of Suzanne Farrell’s original costumes (I didn’t get to see them up close, but I’m pretty sure one of them was the tutu from “Diamonds” in Jewels) were on display as well.

I have so much more I could say, but tired I be for now.  But what a wonderful feeling to be tired from a day filled with ballet at its finest!

Oh and because this doesn’t fit anywhere else, one of the variations included gargoulliades!  Sha-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh!!!