Kirov Ballet, Mariinsky Theatre
St. Petersburg, Russia
By Catherine Pawlick
14 April 2005
Long a staple of the Bolshoi Ballet's repertoire, which toured with Grigorovich's version last fall to the States, and a new addition, "revised" of course, to American Ballet Theatre's repertoire, "Raymonda" remains a historical full-length ballet danced only by a handful of companies worldwide. The Kirov Ballet is the first on that list, retaining its production from Petipa's 1898 original, with only minor updates to the libretto (1938) and the choreography (1948). That year, Konstantin Sergeev edited the ballet's composition, unifying the choreography to enhance the plot's action and the male roles, and this version remains in the Kirov repertoire.
And yet for these editions and its more than 100-year history, the ballet is rarely danced on the stage where it was born. Glazunov's gorgeous score is enough to draw in any listener or viewer, ballet lover or otherwise, but perhaps a few of the oddities of this production prevent it from being performed more frequently. Thankfully someone in the Mariinsky administration had the good sense to dust off the costumes and put this ballet back onstage, and the first "Raymonda" at the Kirov since May 2004 (and perhaps for months before that) was danced last night to the St. Petersburg audience's delight.
The Kirov dancers are at home in this historical commentary on love and honor in the age of knights in shining armor. In this story, the young Raymonda, niece of the Countess Sybille de Doris and Hungarian Tsar Rene de Brienne, is awaiting the arrival of her fiancé, Jeanne de Brienne, on her birthday. The sanctity of pending matrimony is challenged with the arrival of an aggressive Arabian (Saracen) suitor, Sheik Abderakhman, who attempts to conquer Raymonda as if she too were a piece of land or another jewel. The quiet, blue-blooded Raymonda softly resists his advances, Jeanne returns from a crusade in time to kill Abderakhman, and the two betrothed wed.
Depending on the version of the libretto one reads, Raymonda lands at various places on the scale of refusal towards Abderakhman's advances. Some versions suggest she is tempted by his charms and, in the absence of her fiancé, longs for him, but finally acquiesces to marry her fiancé after the sheik is dead. Others suggest her absolute disgust at the prospect, and the Kirov version holds to the latter interpretation.
The role of Raymonda was danced with refined taste and utter professionalism by Viktoria Tereshkina alongside Vladimir Shishov as Jeanne, and talented Ilya Kuznetsov as the evil Abderakhman. The general consensus among audience members and critics alike confirms that Tereshkina's crown is long overdue. This first soloist joined the company just 4 years ago but dances with a polish and maturity well beyond her years. The whacked out acrobatics of Somova, Vostrotina or other young dilettantes are thankfully absent here. Instead we have a ballerina at the core, with just as much flexibility and technique as her slightly younger counterparts, but radiant and controlled, never sacrificing femininity for the sake of majesty or strength. She is like a slowly developing flower, and having taken four years to reach her current position, she is now clearly ripe for the "principal" harvest, but promises to grow even more if the administration continues to gift her with deserved roles such as this one.
Shishov, the Kirov's cookie-cutter prince, is tall and handsome. When the Kirov casting director, not to be confused with the ballet's overall director, tends to make decisions based on personal preferences rather than objective talent, this is the result. Shishov *looks* great on stage. One expects, then, that his dancing will take one's breath away. He's not there yet. He faltered in a series of lifts with Tereshkina, but to his credit, this was a sequence of three of the most awkward lifts in ballet's vocabulary. The singular lift, repeated three times, is one in which she balances on his shoulder on one knee, her other leg in arabesque behind her, her arms without support from him. He, facing her, walks downstage, his back to the audience. Nonetheless, these were places where Kuznetsov would have been rock solid and steady. In one of the partnered finger turns Tereshkina came off pointe briefly, and there were other minor, but notable, mishaps that were not the ballerina's fault. Shishov managed his variation fine, but the articulation in his feet, arguably a common problem among male dancers, was lacking. There are stronger partners in the corps de ballet; stronger male dancers there as well. Sometimes casting decisions at the Kirov are inexplicable.
It was in great contrast to the cool noble newlyweds, and with all of the smouldering passion of a brutal, hot-tempered sheik, then, that Ilya Kuznetsov debuted in the role of Abdarkahman in this performance, each hand gesture suggesting middle eastern violence, and his love for Raymonda almost visibly escaping his very bones. Kuznetsov, despite his height and strength, is rarely cast in princely roles. His De Grieux in Manon comes close, but is too confining for his stature and emotional range. Nonetheless, despite the lack of challenging choreography, he danced the unlucky sheik with gusto in those passages given him, and never faltered in his partnering sequences with Tereshkina. He may be too lumbering to be cast as a prince, but there are non-character roles that would allow his physical strength more expression as well.
Ksenia Ostreikovskaya, as Henrietta, and Yana Selina, in the corps de ballet, also drew attention, Ostreikovskaya for her classicism and soft grace in the variation as one of Raymonda's friends, and Selina for her supremely erect carriage in the corps de ballet.
Tatiana Tchachenko danced with lightness and joy in her Dream variation, sharp but not harsh in allegro, strong, as always, of technique. Unfortunately her counterpart Irina Zhelonkina, despite her petite size, seemed weighed down and sluggish this evening. Her hands were tense, not mannered; she looked like she needed a vacation.
A flaw, if there is one in this ballet, is the mixture of classical and period dance, along with space allotments onstage. Following the duel between the two suitors and Abderakhman's death comes the lavish wedding reception, unfortunately made choreographically heavy by the various lengthy ethnic dances. That we have a series of character dances here, preceded and followed by extremely classical dance is odd; that the additional dancers onstage are dressed in medieval costume or metal helmets is equally strange. And that similar levels of dress – from long dresses to tutus and everything in between-- exist in "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty" somehow doesn’t make this seem habitual, perhaps because it is so rarely performed. Nonetheless, the dances themselves were well done. The Saracenic dance was delivered with fire and brimstone by Nikolai Zubkovsky and Polina Rassadina; Elena Bazhenova stood out in both the second act Panaderos Spanish dance with Karen Johannisyen and in the Mazurka with Artyem Yazhmennikov. This last is a talented young dancer who might be as suited to classical roles but who, like Kuznetsov, seems unrecognized as such. Polina Rassadina returned with Islam Baimuradov to dance the Hungarian dance with attitude and polish, lending strength to the ballet's Hungarian theme.
Despite the corps de ballet's best efforts, traffic patterns in the garland scene were obscured by the overwhelming sets. For perhaps the first time, the Mariinsky's giant stage seemed too small for so many people standing, sitting and dancing on the stage. Stranger still, since this is the stage on which the original choreography (read: spacing) was set.
"Raymonda"'s choreography is not as intuitive as the classical ballets with which we are most familiar. The step combinations, lifts and arms have Hungarian themes at times, and demand high levels of technical virtuosity throughout, to say nothing of artistic expression for the leading roles. This is ballet is a legacy in the Kirov repertoire, and the test of any ballerina's strength. Tereshkina rose to the occasion. An American company would struggle with "Raymonda"'s flavor, and have a hard time matching the grandness of its processions and sets, but these are innate to Kirovians. One hopes that the ballet won't endure another long absence from the stage.
<small>[ 15 April 2005, 06:37 AM: Message edited by: Catherine Pawlick ]</small>
Author, "Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition" (available on amazon.com)