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Bolshoi Ballet - 'Raymonda'

Working the art

by Toba Singer

November 6, 2004 --Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California

"Raymonda" is a story ballet set in a Magyar palace, with divertissements and pas de deux and quatres, and pavanes and minuets-- that's the Bolshoi framework. The content consists of studio choreography-- piqué turns, arabesques en dehors, jetés, grand jetés and tour jetés, with a couple of assemblés thrown in, en l'aire ronds de jambes, and changements en pointe, where no heels touch the wood floor, except for the occasional échappé. The shoes are so hard that it if you close your eyes and untrain your ears, it might sound like tappers doing time steps, albeit slowed to the deliberate Vaganova tempo that casts any shoe ambiguity to the four winds.

The ballet was staged by Yuri Grigorovich. He has polished the work to a brilliantine gloss. Costumes are extravagantly built for ease of handling, fluidity, and richness, with the colors perfectly engineered to mark the music, and enhance the character work.

In Act I, which opens as all the others do -- with a palace pageant -- we meet Raymonda, danced in the Fonteyn tradition, by Nadezhda Gracheva. She's exquisite to watch, with those perfect Russian arms and those athletic Russian runs, but she has trouble when she's lifted, and tends to land on her knight's shoulder like a beanbag, or fall out of a fish dive like a slippery eel. Her energy and enthusiasm for being the Countess' niece is unflagging, and though a more plebian type like myself might have easily fallen for the Saracen, danced juicily by Yuri Klevtsov, she keeps her regal eyes on that prize, the knight, Jean de Brienne, danced by Ruslan Svortsov. While he may strike you as a bit of a Ken Doll at first, he can jump really high from sixth position, or a very open third.

But who cares whether these dancers turn out or take their passé two inches above their ankles and four inches below their knees? They manage to turn anyway, and their elevation has them bounding across real estate that must seem miniscule to them compared with other stages they've left behind in clouds of rosin that make those knocking shoes squeal in agony. At times it sounds like a hotrod is doing anachronistic wheelies in the driveway just outside the enchanting garden's wall, where so much of the plot twists and so many of the corps members turn, with their lily pad-like tutus fanning the enchantment.

Each of the 40-odd dancers onstage at the same time manages to dance in his or her "box" without body slamming the dancer next door, a feat I've rarely seen accomplished so successfully in this venue. Klevtsov does what I'm told is a "540," named for the number of degrees it describes in a turn that is alternatively called a "kasyul" [phonetic spelling]. The tassels on his costume shadow him, as he ballonés into a barrel turn and those bedeviled tassels appear to complete the turn before he does, in a trompe d'oeil that puts the Berkeley audience in a state of delirium, presidential election results notwithstanding.

Outstanding solos and duets are performed by Maria Alexandrova and Ekaterina Sipulina, as Raymonda's friends, and by Nelli Kobakhidze and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Raymonda's Dream." These are lithesome young dancers, who spirit the company out of the doldrums of last year's "Swan Lake" (remember those chandeliers that hung over the lake like aging principals hovering over their favorite roles?).

The character dancing in Spanish, Mazurka and Hungarian shows training that every dancer schooled outside of Russia (and Cuba) could benefit from. The costumes -- especially in Spanish -- were works of art, and, hopefully, someday, there will be exhibitions of them that travel with the production. The interlude, "Six," showcases the dancers in a more intimate, classical display of talent and technique, and the men's battu was so squeaky clean that the slightest flaw was, by contrast, all the more noticeable. Overall, there is much to look forward to, as these dancers reach full artistic maturity.

There's lots to love here, if we leave our training manuals and sectarian notions outside the door, and allow the mostly high production values, élan of the new young dancers, stamina of the older ones, inspired staging and masterpiece costumes to awaken this "Raymonda" from her beauty sleep.

Edited by Jeff.

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