Tag Archives: yuri grigorovich

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:

My First Swan Lake

12 Nov

And so it begins…welcome, to Swan Lake Month!  In case you weren’t aware of the historical background, until today, I had never watched a full production of Swan Lake (long story).  Of course I’ve seen many a Black Swan pas de deux but like my lack of understanding of the context in which it is set went from gust of wind to hurricane.  It seemed like everywhere I turned (well, on Twitter anyway) people would talk Swan Lake and it became increasingly evident that I wouldn’t be a fully fledged balletomane until I earned my Swan Lake badge.  However (and foolishly I might add), rather than try to pick one of the many productions and pluck away one by one at the others some day in the future, the impulsive Aries in me wanted to go all in and watch quite a few of them in a short period of time.  I’m only one DVD in and already I’m feeling like I should have given this more thought before embarking on this endeavor…but alas, it is much to late and I am a creature of my word.

The first DVD I decided to go with was the Bolshoi, starring Natalia Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile, Alexander Bogatyrev as Prince Siegfried and Boris Akimov as Von Rothbart.  Why Bolshoi?  Despite the fact that the Bolshoi version is actually a relatively new staging with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, culturally speaking, Swan Lake is kind of the Russian “thing.”  It debuted in Russia, had a Russian composter in Tchaikovsky and depending on whom you talk to, is based on Russian folklore.  I associate a certain sense of tradition with a Russian Swan Lake,  and it’s by virtue of that pride I think the Russians set the standard.

Since I obviously don’t know that much about Swan Lakes, I couldn’t tell you what makes Grigorovich’s staging unique…for that I shall turn to Clement Crisp and Mary Clarke (how many times do I have to sing the praises of their The Ballet Goer’s Guide?).  In it, they point out that Grigorovich chose to tell the story from Siegfried’s point of view, a post-war trend also exercised in Swan Lake choreography by Nureyev and Erik Bruhn.  Grigorovich’s Swan Lake is a venture of sorts into Siegfried’s psychology, made more apparent by some of the more abstract set designs (something I noticed on my own I might add…anytime you can arrive at the same conclusion as Mr. Crisp, consider yourself brushed by genius!) as well as his relationship to Von Rothbart.  Rather than an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart is this sinister eidolon, often shadowing Siegfried’s movements and skirting the lines between reality and a figment of his imagination…it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where a man on an airplane is driven nuttercrackers by a gremlin the plane that apparently, only he can see.

I should also note that Mr. Crisp and I agree on another thing…we despise jesters in ballet.  In this Swan Lake it was a pretty meaty, acrobatic dancing role, but they bother me and I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one.  You may recall my aversion to jesters in my post about Romeo and Juliet; let’s just say nothing has changed since.  It’s incredibly worthwhile to post Mr. Crisp and Ms. Clarke’s comments on the matter:

In passing we must note the Jester—a detestable figure in all ballets—was first introduced into Swan Lake as a positive character by Alexander Gorsky, thus initiating the distracting capers of a completely unnecessary intruder into the ballet’s action.

I actually laughed out loud when I read that, because it’s so perfect I couldn’t imagine it worded any other way.

Anyway, overall I was into it…I had my concerns about divertissements going in, but I think the story moves along fairly well.  In Act I there’s a long procession of the court with lots of dancing (I think I even spotted Nina Ananiashvili in the pas de quatre), and while it was longer than I would prefer, it wasn’t as contrived as some classical ballets are.  I think this is where Swan Lake succeeds and other Petipa (or after Petipa) classical works don’t—the flow and movement of the story aren’t inhibited by extraneous choreography.  Also, (and this is going to sound really stupid) it helped that the longest assortment of divertissements were at the beginning, when as an audience member I still have that excitement to get me through it…having them at the end is a major dead weight.  Even in Act III (according to Crisp/Clarke, Act II remains largely the same as Ivanov-Gorsky), the set of national dances make sense as Siegfried is to choose one of those maidens to be his bride, although at that point he had just come back from his date with Odette and had fallen in love with her.  My only gripe with the logicality of the story was that I wasn’t clear as to why Von Rothbart wanted to trick Siegfried into declaring his love for Odile…from what I’ve read about other versions, they make sense because Von Rothbart is the key to breaking the spell on Odette that turns her into a swan and through this, Von Rothbart can torture Siegfried, while in the Grigorovich version Von Rothbart’s life or death is largely inconsequential…it makes his taunting of Siegfried almost trivial instead of malicious.  This is definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind as I watch other versions.

This version also lacked the iconic scene where Siegfried aims a crossbow at Odette…largely due to the fact that this is an exploit of Siegfried’s mind but I found it a little ironic that in a Swan Lake that seeks to glorify the male dancer, that such an image which would develop his character would be omitted.  When Siegfried almost kills Odette with an arrow but then doesn’t, he has to change from a brute to a remorseful, lovesick young man.  It’s a fantastic opportunity to display a range of his character, but now that I think about it, I can see why Grigorovich forsook it—it’s perhaps too romantic for his interpretation of Siegfried.  Other Siegfrieds must seek Odette’s forgiveness and the audience begins to see him as a hero as he transforms from hunter to pursuer, but perhaps Grigorovich wanted his Siegfried to be less heroic and more human.

I have to say that Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile turned in a particularly exceptional performance.  Nothing was overcooked and she tempered it with just the right amount of subtleties.  One thing I found fascinating was the way in which she first appeared as Odile, she almost seemed skeptical, as if her and Von Rothbart’s fraudulent ploy wouldn’t work, but clearly she overestimated the dopey Siegfried and when it came time for her moment, the famous Black Swan grand pas de deux, her confidence in herself as an imposter had fully fleshed out.  The performance was perhaps a bit dated (from 1989), but it was interesting to see how things have changed with the Bolshoi—the bodies, the technique—Bessmertnova didn’t have a six o’clock penchée but the very fact that she didn’t revealed something more interesting…Siegfried’s FACE.  There’s a whole new dimension added when we can actually see the male partner’s face as he’s supporting his danseuse and this art of shading is becoming a rarity in ballet as a whole.

As for the whole “feminine mystique” business, I want to draw my conclusions after I’ve watched them all, but my initial thoughts are that Swan Lake is about the pursuit…there’s something about the way in which women want to be approached (not chased, mind you) and probably something in there about being loved and adored but not merely because of sex appeal (the lustful side being Odile).  Overall, I think this has been a good first viewing of Swan Lake and the film is grainy, spotted but I love older films and think those things give it character.  Besides a few grumbles here and there, the only major downside of the DVD is that there’s no audience track, so you don’t hear applause or even the wonderful muted thuds of pointe shoes hitting the floor.  So, I give the Bolshoi Swan Lake four stars out of three squares, because I have nothing else to compare it to.  Anyway, it’s pretty.

And because you know it was going to be on YouTube, the Black Swan Pas de Deux (check out how Bogatyrev lands his double tours in the male variation…in perfect, upright arabesques! Crazy!)

(Random, but why does Von Rothbart take a seat next to the Queen?)