Audiences have had to wait a very long time to see Tamara Rojo’s debut work as a choreographer for English National Ballet and no doubt the company were equally frustrated with all the postponements which have amounted to almost two years worth of interrupted work on the project. Her new Raymonda, the full-length version (not just Act III) is the first of its kind in the UK and while the choreography is ‘after Petipa’, his familiar steps are mainly confined to the solos and the Pas Classique Hongrois of the third act. To Alexander Glazunov’s ravishing score, adapted and edited by Gavin Sutherland and Lars Payne, she has reset the time period moving it from the religious Crusades (1095 – 1291) to the Crimean War (1853 – 1856). The titular character is no longer a French countess but an English woman with a vocational calling to become a nurse (inspired by Florence Nightingale). Her fiancé, English army officer, John de Bryan, is sent to serve with his regiment alongside allies of France and the Ottoman Empire against invading Russians in Crimea. Raymonda duly follows to care for wounded soldiers in a hospital camp outside Sevastopol.
Excellent video designs by Alexander Gunnarsson, including newspaper cuttings, chart this journey so we are up to speed with events. There are references to the reporting of the war in the guise of Giorgio Garrett’s photographer and once we arrive at the camp, the company embark on a marathon of exceedingly challenging dance sequences that fill the overly long first act beginning to end. The relentless large ensemble numbers serve the company well, showcasing the breadth and depth of talent. In fine fettle and meticulously rehearsed, there is not a head or a foot out of line. Once in the camp, the stage is populated with soldiers and women. At the sides lie a couple of wounded soldiers tended by nurses. Field Marshall Belasyse (Fabian Reimair – he drew the short straw!) steps out of a tent with a woman in tow, looking as if they have been intimate with each other. Similarly clad women who dance with the other soldiers imply that these are locals offering their services to the men about to go to war, though it’s not clear. Isaac Hernández as John de Bryan and Shiori Kase as Raymonda dance with tremendous panache and crisp, clean technique. Beranger (Aitor Arrieta) and Bernard (Fernando Carratála Coloma), friends of de Bryan, provide excellent support, delivering first rate dancing. Friends of Raymonda, Henriette (Julia Conway) and Sister Clemence (a beautifully lyrical Precious Adams) are introduced though quite how Henriette fits into a war/hospital camp is a mystery. A little later Abdur Rahman (Jeffrey Cirio), John’s friend, a Prince and Agha from the Ottoman army, arrives at the camp. He’s distinctly more exotic than de Bryan which does not go unnoticed by Raymonda. But here’s the thing: any war is shrouded in tragedy, death and disease. It is traumatic for all involved, but in this, the stage is filled with continuous partying and celebrating. Much the same as our current government – while the medics fight to save lives, the parties (unless they’re considered to be work events?) feature heavily in all three acts. The war effort is barely in evidence.
Toward the end of the act, Raymonda gets ready for bed, falling asleep at her desk and has a dream (a nod to Onegin?). In the dream she sees nurses dancing with fallen soldiers; a series of men doing arabesques down a ramp plucked straight from the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère is elegant if unoriginal. This is a swirling, soft focus moment as the ladies with lanterns flood the stage. Apart from some jarringly, clompy pointe shoes during a particularly quiet moment in the score – this is a memorable and visually pleasing scene.
Act II presents the second romp of the evening at Abdur Rahman’s tent. In this scene Abdur makes it clear that he is interested in Raymonda. The entertainment is boisterous and exuberant. Emily Suzuki and Daniel McCormick are vivacious and engaging in the Ratchuli. Spanish dancers Rebecca Blenkinsop, Isabelle Brouwers, Henry Dowdon and Victor Prigent give a winning account of their dance. Cirio is undeniably dazzling and charismatic, no matter what he’s doing, throughout the entire evening.
Act III is set on the day of Raymonda’s wedding to John. In spite of her obvious attraction to Abdur it looks set to go ahead. The act includes another large ensemble piece, this time the distinctively Hungarian tone of the music means that the dancing is transported to England’s green and pleasant land in the guise of Hungarian farmworkers on Raymonda’s estate. The character dances in this production have been choreographed by Vadim Sirotin and they are among the highlights and thoroughly entertaining. As the dancers hurl themselves vigorously through their routines, their irrepressible rambunctiousness is infectious. Led by Suzuki and Dowden, it was a rousing spectacle. The central Grand Pas classique is commendably danced by all but with a slightly disappointing outcome for Raymonda’s famous third act solo. In this, her emotive yearnings and indecision over her feelings for the two men in her life means that she is robbed of the ultimate grandeur and excitement of her final solo. This did not diminish the elegant dancing offered by Kase on opening night. She is technically accomplished with a delicate demeanour and allows the audience to connect with her, even if dramatically she is not given much solid material to work with. Hernández, as John, is given even less drama to get his teeth into. He is a splendid, virtuoso dancer who never fails to ‘pull it off’ and wow the audience and in this, he has ample opportunity to show off his skills. He is handsome and charming too but what do we learn about John de Bryan as a man, as a character? Not a lot. In these stakes, he comes across as rather bland, pitted against his far more alluring friend. Indeed, in Raymonda’s shoes I think Abdur/Cirio is infinitely more persuasive.
Overall, this enormous undertaking has many positive aspects – the most obvious being that the company collectively dance their hearts out and legs off. Rojo presents them in the best possible light – achieving the highest standards in what is evidently fiendishly complicated and difficult choreography. It’s a handsome looking production too, bright colours (designs are by Antony McDonald) and warmly lit by Mark Henderson, but the heavy, Victorian skirts are not necessarily conducive to enhancing the Petipa style of choreography. Some of the shapes and definition are lost in the swirl of the material. English National Ballet Philharmonic under Gavin Sutherland give the score a richness and texture that doesn’t leave the listener until long after the curtain comes down. Even so, at times, the choreography seemed to engulf the music rather than echo it. Too many steps packed into too few phrases can be draining.
Rojo’s first attempt at a full-length is bound to attract fervent scrutiny, particularly as she heads off to San Francisco Ballet later this year (as Artistic Director). She’s proved she can handle a huge cast and her long standing research and collaborations have been beneficial. However, her strengths lie in direction rather than choreography and if one is going to revise and revitalise an established narrative ballet, it’s necessary to give the drama more weight, not less, otherwise the characterisations look insipid. If it’s superlative dancing, spectacle and wonderful music you’re after, this is the ballet for you, but the abundance of great dancing effectively swamps the dramatic thread, the wartime atmosphere and even any real passion.