The Mariinsky’s Colossal Raymonda Shines at the Kennedy Center

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.

Mariinsky Ballet Raymonda at The Kennedy Center (Photo: Natasha Razina )

Mariinsky Ballet’s Raymonda at The Kennedy Center (Photo: Natasha Razina )

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”.

Raymonda Oxana Skorik with Andrei Ermakov in Mariinsky Ballet Raymonda at The Kennedy Center (Photo: Valentin Baranovsky)

Raymonda Oxana Skorik with Andrei Ermakov in Mariinsky Ballet’s Raymonda at The Kennedy Center (Photo: Valentin Baranovsky)

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.

Yuri Smekalov as Adberakhman in Mariinsky Ballet Raymonda at The Kennedy Center (Photo: Natasha Razina)

Yuri Smekalov as Adberakhman in Mariinsky Ballet’s Raymonda at The Kennedy Center (Photo: Natasha Razina)

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.

With Webre’s Exit Washington Ballet Faces Challenges

Washington was abuzz this past weekend with the announcement Friday afternoon that The Washington Ballet’s longtime Artistic Director, Septime Webre, is leaving his post at the end of his current contract.

When asked to respond to the news, Webre’s former Board Chair and one-time Executive Director, Kay Kendall, wrote, “He put The Washington Ballet on the map, not only as a major player in the world of dance, but also as a household name in the world of performing arts entities in our town. One of his many gifts was introducing young people to the world of dance and that has been of immeasurable value. He will be greatly missed.”

Septime Webre (Photo: Dean Alexander)

Kay Kendall’s sentiment was echoed by Arthur Espinoza, recently Managing Director of The Washington Ballet and now Executive Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Mr. Espinoza wrote, “Septime Webre was a longtime colleague of mine at The Washington Ballet, and The Washington Ballet has been a long-standing grantee of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

During his tenure, the Ballet saw a significant level of growth, contributing greatly to the artistic landscape of the District and to the careers of many artists. I wish the best of future successes for both Septime and the Ballet.”

Sarah Kauffman writing on Monday in the Washington Post about what the Ballet should look for in its next artistic director, wrote, “The ballet doesn’t need a radical change, but a firm hand to fine-tune, streamline, and aim for high points not yet reached.”

It’s hard to not agree with her, and the Ballet’s Board of Directors should also look back and consider the challenges Septime Webre faced, as some of the conditions a new Artistic Director will have to address may remain beyond his or her control.

For instance, in 2005 Washington went from being a “one ballet” town to a “two-ballet” town with the Kennedy Center’s underwriting of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Balanchine repertoire, which had been a strong part of The Washington Ballet’s offerings, nearly disappeared from their concerts in response as suddenly The Washington Ballet had to contend not only with the Ballet companies presented by the major local arts Center, but a Ballet company sponsored by the major local arts center.

The early 2000’s saw a building boom in dance academies competing for students with The Washington Ballet, most notably with the opening of the southern home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the City Dance Center at Strathmore in Rockville. The Strathmore dance center was able to lure away one of the leaders of The Washington Ballet’s dance academy, and suddenly parents in upper northwest and Bethesda had a choice about where to send their children for high quality weekend and after-school classes. In addition to the Strathmore center, the dance academy at the American Dance Institute in Rockville (under the direction of retired Washington Ballet star Runqiao Du), and new dance centers in Arlington and Capitol Hill help explain why one studio (Maryland Youth Ballet) had to briefly close its doors before stabilizing in a large new suite of studios in downtown Silver Spring.

The Washington Ballet’s company and education facility on Wisconsin Ave in upper Northwest D.C. has been far from competitive for some time, and plans for a major upgrade and addition have languished for a decade. While Shakespeare Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Arena Stage completed major new buildings, the Washington Ballet remains on an under-sized parcel in Tenleytown, and renting performance space. The school has acquired surrounding parcels but it will require policymaker facilitation (and some zoning exemptions) to get the ballet into the kind of facility able to attract the dancers appropriate for a touring company.

Septime was hired to run The Washington Ballet in part because he had taken a struggling little-known New Jersey-based dance company (the American Repertory Ballet) and turned it into a thriving institution. Taking over from Mary Day in D.C., Septime immediately faced intense competition from closer-in neighbors in an overall smaller market, and yet has done the same thing here. While Washington National Opera was absorbed by the Kennedy Center five years ago, there continues to be active competition between the Washington Ballet and the Kennedy Center. Can a Washington Ballet really thrive without a strong partnership at the largest local arts center?

Congratulations are due to Septime Webre not only for shepherding hundreds of beautiful performances, and educational opportunities, but for the creation of ballets for the Company by modern legends including Trey McIntyre, Christopher Wheeldon, and Edward Liang. It’s interesting to note that following multiple commissions from The Washington Ballet both McIntyre and Wheeldon launched full time touring and performing companies, neither of which made it to a fifth anniversary.

This article was published here on DCTheaterScene.

UpClose with the Stars of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale

The National Ballet of Canada returns to Washington D.C. with the U.S. premiere of The Winter’s Tale from January 19-24, 2016 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, the production is co-produced with The Royal Ballet and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.

A story of jealousy, tragedy, comedy, and redemption, the action begins when King Leontes wrongfully accuses his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione, and his best friend, King Polixenes, of an affair and decrees that Hermione’s child be abandoned in the wild.

I spoke recently with two of the ballet’s stars — Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer — about The Winter’s Tale and their roles in it. Born in Poland, Piotr Stanczyk (Principal) was trained at the State Ballet School of Poznan before joining The National Ballet of Canada where he’s performed principal roles in scores of ballets and premiered roles by John Neumeier, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmanksy, Wayne McGregor and Kevin O’Day. Hannah Fischer (Second Soloist) was born in New York City and trained at Canada’s National Ballet School before joining company in 2012.


Robert Bettman: The Winter’s Tale choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, is an acknowledged genius. Last year he won a Tony Award for his American in Paris, and his choreography is in repertoire at most every major Ballet company – including The Washington Ballet. This isn’t the first time either of you have had the opportunity to premiere roles for him. Can you share with us a little bit about the process with Wheeldon, and what we as viewers should look for in this new Wheeldon ballet?

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.)

Hannah Fischer:  This ballet tells such a strong story, which is very Wheeldon-like. His style is big, dynamic, and intensely musical. And it always serves a purpose to bring the story to life. That’s what audiences are going to see I think, and be taken with.

Piotr Stanczyk:  Christopher is exceptionally professional, demanding, and he’s very particular with his ballets, the ways he wants to show it, to speak to the audience. He has a very generous approach that’s all about the audience. It’s a different way of working. As a dancer you have to be really concentrated in projecting what Christopher wants. This ballet, because it’s a story ballet, as performers we project the drama and jealousy of our characters… one of the challenges is telling the story, not just the steps, but the acting.

RB: Would you tell us a little bit about your characters?

HF: I play Queen Hermione. And she’s fantastic… innocent and kind, and in love with her husband and children even after she’s wrongfully accused of adultery. She maintains throughout a sense of dignity. She is the queen, and not matter what she will remain dignified and true, and that just shines.  She loves her husband and can’t understand why he’s accused her.

PS: Leontes is King of Sicily, and going through his story, he’s raised with his friends and they’re very close friends. And like us all as we go through life, he gets completely consumed with jealousy. And then the tragedy that he creates for himself from that. And many of us can relate to that at times in our own lives. We create stories. And Leontes doesn’t know if they are true or not but he cannot see through the rage and the jealousy and through that creates for himself a greater tragedy. The first act especially is very dark, and it’s about these very negative human emotions.

RB: Do you have a favorite part of this ballet that viewers can look out for?

HF: There are moments I’ve never experienced before in a ballet. For instance, dancing so closely and so personally with a child. And that’s magical. He’s such a sweet young boy, young in nature, and looking. After the nursery pas de deux, where Hermione is so initially confused by what her husband is accusing her of, and he calls the guards and she’s thrown about and eventually thrown to the floor clutching her child. And that would hurt! Being pregnant and being thrown around. And she stands up and looks at him but she doesn’t lower her head or give in. And she understands what must happen, what will happen, that she’ll be put on trial and will probably be found guilty. But nothing will break her and she’ll be queen forever. That moment shines for me.

PS: There are four solos in Act One through which you can see the progression of the man Leontes. And these show a very wide range of emotions, from being consumed with jealousy, to rage, and then doubt, and ending in complete depression and despair.

RB: For this production, your performances will be accompanied live by the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra.  How long have you been preparing in DC, and are there any moments we should look for with the dance and music together?

PS: We’ve done the ballet five weeks ago, and we started preparation in Washington last week. That’s not much time. But when it comes to the music I find it’s a very good floor, good ground. The first act is mostly bass and follows the character progression – pretty dark. And then in the second act it moves toward a folky theme, lots of dancing, brighter. In addition to the orchestra we have a band onstage, which is great and very unique. There’s a very wide range of music, and the conclusion is very different, very unusual.

HF:  The music really is fantastic, and it brings the location to life. It’s exotic and interesting, and as Piotr said, there’s live music on stage and hearing it – the second act is off the charts for me. Christopher Wheeldon is so musical too. The music and dance really go hand in hand together. They bring you down, they bring you up. Dance wouldn’t be much without the two. I would say it’s a very uplifting score.

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