If you go see the Coliseum in Rome you don’t need to talk about the dust, or the cracks in the walls. It is, of course, a very old building but you don’t think, “Gosh, they should add some new concrete and even out these walls.” Similarly when you see The Mariinsky Ballet’s evening length Raymonda. It’s polished by time. This is classical Russian ballet.
Marius Petipa’s Raymonda premiered in St. Petersburg in 1898. It was his last great creation, authored near the end of an epoch-defining career and after his ballets Don Quixote, Bayadere, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Two years earlier, in the same city, Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull opened. Chekhov’s work is a marker of modern theater, presaging Eugene O’Neill and even August Wilson. Dis-similarly, Petipa’s Raymonda is an ending, the last of its kind.
It’s easy to catch slimmed-down one-act versions of Raymonda but The Mariinsky is one of the few companies that still regularly performs the entire three acts of Glazunov’s score. The score at these performances is capably played by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Gavriel Heine. It wasn’t until the second act that it seemed dancers and musicians were able to really forget that they were separate.
This is the 14th consecutive season for The Mariinsky at the Kennedy Center, and audiences return year after year not for any one star but because of qualities of the company as a whole. It’s hard to say whether or not the principals Tuesday evening – Oxana Skorik as Raymonda, Timur Askerov as Jean de Brienne and Konstantin Zverev as the Saracen Abderakhman – were at the top of their game, but the numerous and diverse extended group dances illuminated The Mariinsky’s fundamental unity. Nearly all of the dancers were trained in the associated Ballet Academy and there is a functional stylistic harmony that’s pleasurable to watch — especially if you’re a ballet “fan”.
The story of Raymonda is simple, which is great because it means viewers can really enjoy the dancing. You’re not sitting there trying to figure out what’s going on, or being forced to refer to a playbill for an explanation of the action between each act. Our heroine gets betrothed, has an unsettling dream, is nearly abducted, and marries a nice young man. That’s about it.
The near-abduction is carried out by a non-white Saracen (Arab), and there are “White man good, Arab man bad” overtones that you don’t have to be Edward Said to notice, and disapprove of. 1898 was the year the US annexed the Hawaiian islands, and the year Britain signed a 99 year lease on Hong Kong with China (engaging Britain’s protection of the territory following the first Sino-Japanese war.) Even as a historical artifact it’s hard to fully endorse everything about the story.
This staging of Raymonda is less like the Roman Coliseum than the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete. That 3,500 year-old site was excavated by the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans who is now infamous for not only excavating but “restoring” the palace. Evans’s re-constructions turned that ruin into a sort of hybrid. Shortly after Raymonda’s premiere, Petipa retired from the ballet, and in the succeeding score of years the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 ended the Russian empire, eventually leading to the rise of the Soviet Union. Of course, Ballet as a public product was remade during the Communist Soviet Union era and this staging of Petipa’s work acknowledges inclusion of newer choreographic fragments by Fyodor Lopukhov within a still-newer version of the choreography authored by Konstantin Sergeyev. While Glazunov’s score remains, this Coliseum has seen some restoration.
Particularly in the second and third act The Mariinsky’s Raymonda offers viewers time to enjoy intricate footwork and shifting patterns on stage. There were moments when it felt like the dancers were cramped, as is perhaps common when you have a group of athletic twenty-year olds bounding and weaving about, but overall the company was in fine form Tuesday evening. The Mariinsky Ballet possesses an admirable moderation as a modern performing troupe, and this production also stars several of the company’s Principal Character Actors, older dancers with strong mimetic capacity and polished musicality.
The term “eleve” in ballet refers to the action of lifting the heels, but it can be usefully mis-applied to the loft of the body, or even the handling of choreographic material. Does an individual, or a company, elevate particular material? In this case: absolutely they do. If you love classical ballet, or just want to see what all the fuss is about, The Mariinsky’s Raymonda is not to be missed.
The Mariinsky Ballet’s Raymonda, under the direction of Artistic Director Valery Gergiev, will be at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday, and some tickets remain.
This article was published here on DCTheatreScene.