sun 03/07/2022

Raymonda, English National Ballet, Coliseum review - a creaky old standard, lavishly restored to health | reviews, news & interviews

Raymonda, English National Ballet, Coliseum review - a creaky old standard, lavishly restored to health

Raymonda, English National Ballet, Coliseum review - a creaky old standard, lavishly restored to health

Tamara Rojo gives an ailing veteran a shot in the arm

Ladies of the lamp: the dancers of English National Ballet in Tamara Rojo's revised 'Raymonda'photo: Johan Persson

Neglected classics, whether books, plays or ballets, are usually neglected for a reason, and so it is with the three-act ballet Raymonda. A hit in 1898 for the Imperial ballet in St Petersburg but unperformed in this country since the 1960s, its ineffectual heroine, fuzzy sense of geography and offensively silly plot have made it impossible to stage in full – at least in Britain.

In Russia, whose ballet culture has a higher tolerance of such things, the work remains central to the repertoire, complete with foiled kidnap by a muslim villain but minus more than half the original choreography, which rather misses the point. The great Marius Petipa, aged 80 when he crafted the steps, was on a creative roll following the success of The Sleeping Beauty and channeled half a century’s experience into the final work of his career, leaving us some of his most exquisite dances. Composer Alexander Glazunov seems to have raised his game to match.

Enter Tamara Rojo, an artistic director hungry for a big new project and willing to put in the academic spadework needed to restore that bowdlerised ballet text. Ditching the original story set at the time of the Crusades, her new staging of Raymonda for English National Ballet moves the action on 600 years to the Crimean war. The titular character is no longer a young woman whose marriage to a knight is decided for her, but a Victorian of good breeding and frustrated ambition who offers her services at the front as a nurse. Her original knightly suitor Jean de Brienne becomes home-counties scion John de Bryan, who takes off with his regiment for Sevastapol. His love-rival undergoes a more subtle change. No longer a bearded infidel bent on abducting our heroine, he is now a suave Ottoman diplomat, an old chum of de Bryan, fiendish only in so far as he is a devil on the ballroom floor, and gallant with it. You soon see where this story is going. There’s a double dilemma: not only which man to choose as a husband, but whether to marry at all, given that nursing vocation.

Isaac Hernandez as John de Bryan and Shiori Kase as RaymondaOK, so it's hardly a nail-biter for the audience, but at least the heroine has been invested with some agency. In setting the action a few years before Emmeline Pankhurst was so much as a twinkle in her father’s eye, Rojo – making her directoral debut – cannot call on feminist sentiment to supply grit to Raymonda’s character. What she can do and does, by means of astute direction, is make quiet determination look almost heroic, given the strictures on women’s lives in the 1850s. Shiori Kase, the opening night’s Raymonda (pictured above with Isaac Hernandez), makes a strong case for a turbulent inner life while maintaining perfect crinoline decorum.

A bigger challenge to this production is the mis-match of Glazunov’s music to the new war-zone setting. Orchestral oom-pah that was composed to accompany Raymonda’s coming-of-age party, which takes up most of the original Act I, now has to serve a gathering outside a Crimean field hospital where Raymonda is tending the wounded. Before a sombre backdrop of the Black Sea swathed in cannon smoke, Raymonda’s flighty friend Henriette (a fearsome Julia Conway) tosses off round after round of giggly virtuoso steps, landing the amorous attention of not one but two dashing officers. Nurses in mufti – taking time out from tending gangrenous limbs – launch into a merry pas de six. Of course this isn’t a documentary, but it stretches credulity even so.

Shiori Kase as Raymonda with Jeffrey Cirio as AbdulElsewhere Rojo softens the disjunct by inserting choreography of her own. Particularly strong is an extended sequence for de Bryan and his regiment showing off their horsemanship (one hand on an imaginary bridle suffices) and general derring-do. Isaac Hernandez, whip smart in his braided uniform, tears up the stage with fabulous virtuosity and the brass section of the ENB Philharmonic have a field day. Rojo also inserts a couple of unusual solos for nursing nun Sister Clemence, whose plot-function is to be to be Raymonda’s conscience. Precious Adams, serene and clear in every step and gesture, makes a star turn from what might otherwise be a glumly saintly cameo.

The most extended challenge for Rojo as a debutante choreographer is a dream sequence, a full-blown fantasia swirling from the mind of Raymonda as she sleeps in her tent. Costumed in white, this makes an ambitious nod to the White Acts of late 19th-century ballet as teams of nurses leap through lines of fallen soldiers, or mass together holding their lamps aloft (pictured top). There are hints of the Kingdom of the Shades scene from Bayadère in a single motif repeated or reflected multiple times. There is also an element of Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria in the dream-interaction between young soldiers and the girls they long to hold in a better life. If Rojo is to choreograph more – and on the evidence of this she must – her lived experience of so many great ballets will prove a rich storehouse for her imagination. That’s not to say she hasn’t things to learn, but the ease with which she shifts the dance-action between her own choreographic invention and Petipa’s original numbers – such as the famous scarf dance – is already impressive.

Of course, the majority of the audience for Raymonda won’t give a fig for who did the steps for which bit of the ballet. What matters is the dancing and the music, and this production sends you home with your head bursting with the exuberance of both. While my vote for hottest-to-trot would have to go to Jeffrey Cirio’s slinky, heat-seeking torpedo of a suitor, the entire company ups its game. The Hungarian czardas at Raymonda’s wedding almost blows the roof off the Coli, with conductor Gavin Sutherland whipping up a storm from his players, a handful of whom appear on stage with Hungarian folk instruments. Antony McDonald’s costumes and sets provide exactly what's wanted: smart tailoring, some dazzle, a spot of cultural information. A projection of newspaper front pages heralds the ballet, showing fuzzy monochrome photographs of Crimea. Surely there were no war photographers in 1854? It turns out there was one, the very first, an Englishman called Roger Fenton. And he has a walk-on role in this production.

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