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Raymonda Trilogy - The Kirov Ballet in "Raymonda"

Part 1

by Catherine Pawlick

January 27, 2007 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

It is every critic’s pleasure to attend a production never before seen, for both paper and stage are immediately transformed into lovely blank slates – for the dancers, upon which to tell their tale through movement and emotion, and for the writer, upon which to pen his impressions.

Thus it was with eager anticipation that, along with other guests, this audience member crossed the streets of freshly fallen snow – the first of any significance in this strangely warm winter of ours –  to enter the halls of the Mariinsky Theatre for Uliana Lopatkina’s performance of “Raymonda”, with Danila Korsuntsev.

This libretto, based on an old Provençal legend, is a strange one. Set in Medieval times, a rich countess, Raymonda de Doris, is celebrating her birthday within the castle. Foreign guests arrive to take part in the celebrations. Rene de Brienne, a Hungarian knight, arrives and asks for the hand of the beautiful Raymonda on behalf of his son, the Crusader Jean de Brienne, gifting her a large tapestry with Jean’s image in the process. The tapestry is quickly hung up in the ballroom. Suddenly, Sheikh Abderakhman appears in the hall, unable to take his eyes off of the beautiful Raymonda. He pleads for her hand but she appears puzzled at his barbaric manner and loud, foreign gestures. That is the close of the first scene.

The Kirov sets do justice to the timeframe of this libretto. When the curtain rises, we are shown a tableau of the inner chambers of a medieval castle. The characters, various members of the court, at first immobile, begin to move as the music plays, talking, dancing, interacting amongst themselves.

From her very first entrance, Lopatkina appears the image of youth in a sparkling pink tutu. Her first downstage diagonale of consequence displayed her tasteful 90-degree arabesque, through a plie in 4th to pick up each rose at her feet, and it was simply exquisite. These steps require not only strength but unbelievable amounts of grace to make them appear smooth and effortless. Of course the same can be said of the art of ballet in general, but I would venture that this ballet is more extreme in lack of choreographic intuitiveness than many others. Few realize the difficulty in Petipa’s choreography, and in fact this may be justification for the rare performances of “Raymonda” on world stages. Here he has filled the steps with crossing motifs: second and third arabesque, and plenty of crossed attitudes, both derrière and devant.

Lopatkina’s acting matched her physical grace from the first scene. No sooner was Jean de Brienne’s tapestry hung than Abderakhman, danced with supremely effective barbarism by Dmitry Pikhachev, came bursting onstage. Lopatkina was visibly shaken by his unrefined manners. Here was the perfect juxtaposition of all that Lopatkina epitomizes as a ballerina contained within her character, and all of her opposing traits collected in the character of her secondary suitor. Lopatkina’s dancing in this scene also included hops en pointe, which drew warm applause, and plenty of buttery bourrées, symbolic of her delicate yet elevated position within the castle.

Pointing to the difficulty and quaintness of the choreography, the corps de ballet performs a dance with garlands, again in this same scene. The changes of direction for the dancers with varying levels of garlands throughout made for a few moments of awkwardness. One girl’s garland kept snagging on the edge of her tutu, but everyone kept time to the music and looked lovely in pastel colored tutus. One had the idea that the intended effect of this sequence was more like the Grand Waltz in “The Sleeping Beauty”, but the actual result was not as impressive. Here the dancers did their best; these step sequences are just challenging.

After Abderakhman’s arrival, Raymonda ducks away from the festivities with several friends, and plays the harp. Here, Maxim Zuizin with Ksenia Ostreikovskaya and Alexander Sergeev with Ekaterina Osmolkina were her company, beginning to dance as Raymonda fell into a reverie to the sound of her own music. Then Lopatkina rose to dance the famous scarf variation, which demands not only technical aptitude but cooperation from the fabric so that it does not end up in one’s face. Lopatkina completed the short interlude with finesse. So apparently effortless was she at every moment that, aided by the white scarf, one had the sense she was floating through her role in an almost ephemeral way.

Following the variation, Raymonda returns to her downstage chair and falls asleep. In this second scene, Raymonda’s dream, a reverie à la “Spectre de la Rose” ensues, whereupon she awakens to see Jean de Brienne come to life from his portrait. The couple dances together, and here several soloists appear, dancing equally challenging variations.

Daria Sukhoroukova and Yulia Kasenkova did the honors of the two “Dream” variations. Sukhoroukova danced first, her approach light and careful, and the delivery smooth until an unexpected stumble near the close. Compared to the stout powerhouse of Kasenkova, however, Sukhoroukova was the preferable one watch. Kasenkova was accurate, but her muddled lines and open-hipped arabesques distracted.

It must be noted as well that during their turns in the tutu-designated variations, both Osetreikovskaya and Osmolkina both impressed with clarity and bravura technique. Osmolkina performed a series of beaten sissones derrière in her variation, a difficult and rarely performed step. Ostreikovskaya mastered the slow piqué fouettés seamlessly. Both displayed deliciously turned out attitudes in their promenades en place with the help of their suitor-partners. The clean cut positioning in their interludes elevated the level of the choreography significantly.

As dreams may shift without warning to nightmares, so is the case for Raymonda in the third scene. After her pas de deux with Jean, she suddenly finds herself in Abderakhman’s quarters, unable to flee. She faints and wakes up, realizing that recent events were, in fact, just a dream.

In Act II, we are once again inside the castle. Raymonda is impatiently awaiting her fiancé, but Abderakhman repeatedly tries to woo her with passionate displays of love. He offers her everything, but she appears coolly defiant. At last, while he tries to abduct her with his men, Jean de Brienne arrives and slays Abderakhman. Raymonda welcomes her fiancé, and they prepare for the wedding celebration.

In comparison with the first and third acts, Act II is shorter, but key to the libretto. The actual death scene of Abderakhman reminds one of the swords used by Father Montague and Father Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet” – gigantic, heavy swords that are not easily maneuvered or lifted by the fighters. In this performance, Korsuntsev arrived on the scene just in time, and moments later felled Abderakhman’s sword. The action here is swift and quickly over. Love has conquered evil, and now it is time to celebrate.

The Act III wedding celebrations glittered with displays of Hungarian paprika from the national dances, and crisp sequences by the soloists before Raymonda’s grand pas.

The four courtiers – Anton Pimenov, Alexei Nedvega, Maxim Krebtov and Maxim Eremeev – performed the cannon of double tours with precision that would rival the male corps de ballet of any other ballet company. After an interlude with eight partnered couples, Valeria Martinouk performed her spitfire “relief” variation, all glorious smiles and quick feet. If she could have offered more turnout in the entrechat quatre and other footwork (she has natural, 200-degree turnout when she chooses to employ it), her pliant upper back and quick port de bras were almost compensation.

I refer to this as the “relief” variation, because it is the only solo variation before the grand pas, and the transition into it is awkward choreographically. As the eight couples finish, they walk forward, each lady with her supporting gentleman behind her, to bow. However, Martinouk, second from stage left, did not bow, and ran behind the line offstage right. Obviously, her choreography demanded a stage right entrance, but one wondered why she could not have taken her bows with the others, or left immediately with her suitor to avoid the hole in the line. A small but noticeable detail.

In her Grand Pas variation, the famous variation that challenges every great ballerina’s mastery of nuance, Lopatkina’s first entrance began with a light brush of her hands to mimic the clap that sometimes occurs. But her hands did not touch, and she wasn’t smiling. This was an ode to tradition, and she treated it as such, with reverence, her eternal neck held high with dignity and poise. Her tempo was legato, but the movements endless. The audience watched in such silence that one could have heard a pin drop. As this variation is full of embellishment, personal touches here are not required. What is required is shading, emphasis, timing, and emotion. Lopatkina lacked none of these, appearing every bit the regal French countess.

Danila Korsuntsev impressed more tonight than he has in any other performance the past three years. Perhaps it is due to his recent experiences abroad, or perhaps it was simply a good evening, but he portrayed more breath in his movements, and more electricity in his delivery than this reviewer has ever seen. He seemed more attentive in his partnering, and more attentive to the libretto and choreography. He seemed, simply, more present. This was the Korsuntsev that the Kirov Ballet hired years ago, full of bravura and strength – it was a pleasure to behold.

The celebratory dances in the final act also offered tastes of European and Eastern style. Islam Baimuradov with Polina Rassadina were by far the edgiest of the national dances in the Hungarian Dance. Before them, Elena Bazhenova accompanied Fedor Lupokhov in a quick Mazurka. Among the soloists decorating Lopatkina’s entourage, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Daria Vasnetsova, Yulia Bolshakova and Elena Androsova displayed long lines. The finale, danced ensemble was equally spicy, and as the music finished, the sense of having watched a piece of history imbibed with life, breath and beauty floated in the theatre’s air.

Alexander Polyanenko conducted.

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