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by on 19 January 2022

Lyricism by Lamplight


by Tamara Rojo after Marius Petipa, music by Alexander Glazunov

English National Ballet at the London Coliseum until 23rd January,

World Premiere production. 

Review by Mark Aspen

The Crimean War in the mid-1850s is now best known for the charge of the Light Brigade.  By why should it be known for an act of heroism that proved futile?  Probably because this war first saw both honest open reporting and the advent of war photography, with the appointment of Roger Fenton as the first official war photographer. 

Fenton’s photographs are one of many inspirations for Tamara Rojo’s new honest and open choreography for Raymonda and the setting for its sublime World Premiere production.  Indeed designer Antony McDonald’s set is a series of tilted photo frames and the colour palette variations on the sepia of early photographs, muted and richly mellow.  All is atmospherically enhanced by Mark Henderson’s lighting designs.  Moreover, we have an on-stage photographer of the period (Giorgio Garrett) who re-dances the last move as his shutter clicks.  This works surprisingly well, since, as with all ballets, there are episodes and set-pieces, and these shout to be captured on photographic plates.  Somehow this makes the narrative more immediate, real and impelling.

The choreography of Raymonda has undergone a number of Twentieth Century reworkings including by Konstantin Sergeyev and latterly Rudolf Nureyev, but Tamara Rojo has stripped this all out and gone back to Marius Petipa’s original 1898 choreography; quite literally, by retrieving his production notation of the choreography, now held in Harvard University.  However there is an imp in the works, in that Petipa and his associates had set their narrative in the Crusades, currently a culturally delicate area.  (It is incidentally the same problem that Glyndebourne neatly side-stepped in its 2019 production of Handel’s opera Rinaldo.)  The history and politics of the mid- 19th Century Crimean conflict offer a more nuanced presentation of cultural differences, whilst not losing the British stiff-upper lip of the period.  This period, though, starts a century-long shift in the role of women in society, and in war.   In the Crimea, women could follow the army, not merely as vivandières, but as wives, as observers, and as nurses, the later importantly taking part.  Florence Nightingale immediately springs to mind, and she is another inspiration for the setting.

Shiori Kase as Raymonda.   

We first see he eponymous Raymonda with the ladies of her well-to-do middle-class Victorian family.  While they sew warm clothes for the soldiers, she frets about the news and clearly wants to do more.  When a close family friend, the young John de Bryan leaves for the battlefield, Raymonda decides to go with him.  Her rebellious streak is clear, but she is held in check by the mores of society.  She goes on to become engaged to de Bryan, but finds herself attracted to another officer of an allied army.  Raymonda’s fate becomes a poignant story of what might have been. 

Shiori Kase is superb in the role, dancing with delicate precision, accurately characterising the personality of Raymonda.   When she retires to her field tent to write her evening’s entry into her diary, we can palpably feel the conflicted emotions that wrack her.  In the final scene, when an unexpected guest arrives on her wedding day, her solo passage bursts with expressiveness.  In a moment of silent stillness, orchestra quiet, movement held, Kase distils Raymonda’s balance of regret and doubt against elation, suspended in time.

The setting in the Crimean War gives a wonderful opportunity to foreground the skills of the male dancers.  Ranks of well-drilled soldiers are ideal stuff for representing in powerful dancing.   Cue plenty of tours en l’air, grand jetés and entrechats in solos or various groupings, right up unusually to a dozen strong male corps de ballet.  Visually, it is thrilling and impressive.

Isaac Hernández as John de Ryan

Lead principals, Isaac Hernández and Jeffery Cirio are both particularly imposing as John de Ryan and as Prince Abdur Rahman, an Ottoman military agha respectively.  The two officers in the allied armies are old friends.  When Raymonda is introduced as de Ryan’s fiancé, she is immediately attracted to Abdur.  The assumption of an engagement had been endorsed by Filed Marshall Belasyse (Fabian Reimar), who is well into his cups when we first see him, early in the morning at the British encampment outside Sevastopol.

Jeffery Cirio as Abdur Rahman

The classical choreography for the vigorous interpretation of Hernández characterises de Ryan as an honourable, quite buttoned-up Englishman, who is a little too possessive for Raymonda’s liking.  Abdur is equally honourable, but more expressive than de Ryan, expressed in a more unconventional choreography.  Abdur’s opening solo to an oriental theme is percussive yet sinuous, which Cirio attacks with aplomb.  If the impression is of a snake charmer, Abdur is no snake, but he is a charmer.

Precious Adams as Sister Clemence

The ballet has many atmospheric scenes.  After writing her diary, Raymonda is visited by her friends, fellow nurses Henriette, danced with graceful fluidity by Julia Conway, and the nun, Sister Clemence, an ephemeral yet supportive presence in Precious Adams’ interpretation.  Clemence represents Raymonda’s conscience, keeping her to the straight and narrow, while Henriette symbolises the rebellious and playful side of her nature.  Then Raymonda falls asleep.  The music for the dream sequence is sublime, and translucent lanterns carried by nurses in the corps de ballet, hinting of course at Florence Nightingale, creates pure lyricism by lamplight.  Violas introduce a pas de deux with de Ryan, then the cellos with Abdur up the passion and a final pas de trois pushes the ambience almost, but not quite, towards the erotic.   

Julia Conway as Henriette

We move to the exotic in the second act and a party in Abdur’s magnificence tent.  Cymbals set the scene of exuberant orientalism.  There are Turkish carpets and even Turkish delight being offered, for this is quite a wide military coalition.  Castanets introduce Spanish dancers and a flamenco-like style.  When Abdur dances it is verging on the Russian ballet style.  Circo wows as the use of his heels moves it towards rustic folkdance.  When he dances a pas de deux with Raymonda, Clemence and even Henriette have withdrawn, and it begins to look like a seduction.   However, the sudden return of de Bryan from the battlefield, dishevelled and crestfallen brings a sense of shame.  An attack (the Light Brigade?) has proved disastrous.

Back in the English countryside, in the garden of Raymonda’s home for her wedding feast, is an opportunity for virtuoso dancing.  In fact this final act is the only part of the ballet usually performed.  It includes the divertissement, the Pas Classique Hongrois and, indeed, the army has brought back an Hungarian contingent.  Rojo’s interpretation is a magnificent and intricate spectacle, filling the stage with a whirling mass of the two corps de ballet, the ballerinas and the male dancers.  It finishes with Raymonda’s expressive and emotional solo.  Some of the musicians are brought on the stage in character for this wedding scene, including unusually a hurdy-gurdy and the rarely seen cimbalom with its own solos, played by Rob Millet, while orchestra leader Martin Scrivener plays the on-stage violin solo.

It seems a pity that Alexander Glazunov is so underrepresented as a composer.  His score for Raymonda is superb, ranging from the serene to the triumphant.   It has a lilting lyricism and marvellous melodies.  Even Tchaikovsky deferred to him as a composer of ballets and George Balanchine said of Raymonda that itwas “some of the finest ballet music we have”.   For Rojo’s version, there has been a detailed study of the original score by ENB’s Music Director, Gavin Sutherland and its Music Librarian Les Payne.  Keeping the best of the score, and pruning many of the many variations and interpolations, which would have added another hour to an already length ballet, they have made an outstanding adaptation.   As conductor, Sutherland gets every ounce out of English National Ballet Philharmonic, who are in top form.  He clearly enjoys the experience.

Raymonda is the culmination of Tamara Rojo’s decade as Artistic Director of the English National Ballet before she moves on in the autumn of 2022 to become the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet.  Her outstanding career as Lead Principal Dancer is now topped by this her debut in directing and choreographing, and it is a triumph.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Mark Aspen, January 2022

Photography by Johan Persson

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