Oh! What an (oddly) lovely war! Raymonda gets its first full UK performance thanks to Tamara Rojo’s ENB

United KingdomUnited Kingdom English National Ballet’s Raymonda: Dancers of English National Ballet, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Gavin Sutherland (conductor). 18.1.2022. (JPr)

Shiori Kase (Raymonda) and  Isaac Hernández (John de Bryan) (c) Johan Persson

I have been full of praise for Tamara Rojo’s leadership of English National Ballet since she began in 2012 but I am sorry to say that she begins her long goodbye – she is off soon to San Francisco Ballet – with a rare misstep. Of course, I appreciate her desire (as spelt out in the programme) ‘to reinvigorate the classical ballet repertoire, making it relevant to today’s audiences.’ In addition to this it has always been my view – not always shared by other ballet lovers – that their stories are important, whether it is Swan Lake or Raymonda, and it is not just a matter of stitching together a series of individual dance numbers. For Rojo the problem with Marius Petipa’s 1898 ‘original’ Raymonda ‘is its setting and its narrative. It is set in the Crusades, with all that implies: the leading man is a French knight, and the villain a Muslim warrior. The symbolism is very problematic and at times offensive.’

Considerable research (for good or ill) has gone into this new Raymonda, but what seems to have been ignored is how in Soviet Russia ballet was used for indoctrination and as political propaganda: in the 1939 Laurencia there was a peasant revolution ostensibly to protect the honour of a young girl and later in 1956, Spartacus showed how the gladiators challenged the power of imperial Rome. However Islamophobic Raymonda may seem now, the story – in light of late-twentieth century Russia-Ottoman Empire conflicts – about defeating a villainous Saracen and saving the virtuous young Raymonda may have more meaning to it and so is not, as Rojo suggests, simply ‘quite slim’.

It has been long trailed for publicity purposes how Rojo brings the story forward from the Crusades to Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War (1853-56) and her Raymonda is inspired by Florence Nightingale and ‘Other characters in the ballet, such as Henriette, Clemence and John de Bryan were inspired by real friends of Nightingale too.’ It also could be regarded too as a homage to the heroics of the men and women of the NHS in helping the country negotiate the minefield of the current pandemic (another type of war entirely). Unfortunately, you will read much more about the Crimean War (and Nightingale) in the programme than you will ever get from Rojo’s Raymonda. (Oddly in fact, if you want to deepen your knowledge about the war, I suggest you watch on BBC iPlayer War of the Sontarans, a recent Dr Who episode, where you will learn about Mary Seacole – a heroic Black woman in Crimea – who we see in part celebrated onstage by Precious Adams as Sister Clemence. Though more research suggests this character could be based on Mother Mary Clare Moore; however while Seacole is mentioned in the programme essays, she isn’t.)

Rojo’s Raymonda is stifled by her typical Victorian upbringing and the implication is that she will be expected to marry John de Bryan, the son of a local family, who has enlisted and is off to the front. While Raymonda’s sister, mother and aunt are sewing, she has been reading reports about the war and leaves for Crimea to provide what help she can. It is good that there has been some introductory use of video (from Alexander Gunnarsson) to show us some contemporary newspaper headlines – as well as an animation of Raymonda’s long journey – as for the rest of the ballet the Crimean War is totally marginalised and we are just watching the evolution of a love triangle between Raymonda, John and a charismatic Prince and Agha from the Ottoman army, Abdur Rahman, another of John’s friends. There is further evidence that Raymonda is already promised to John because he asks her to marry him on his return from the fighting.

Jeffrey Cirio (Abdur Rahman) (c) Johan Persson

We have been introduced to Raymonda’s two friends perhaps reflecting the two sides of her personality: Henriette is more of a free-spirit and Sister Clemence is devoted to caring for others and has a strong sense of duty. Rojo now embellishes the original visions scene and creates her version of the Kingdom of Shades from La Bayadère (an earlier ballet of Petipa’s) complete with a slope onto the stage at the back. Supposedly we see ‘nurses and fallen soldiers dance together’ though by now we seem to have left Crimea far behind and there was little sense that these soldiers were shades. In her (overlong) dream, Raymonda also encounters Abdur and John and is unable to choose between them. On awaking she is invited to a party Abdur is hosting ‘to raise soldiers’ morale’ and that is the end of an act (at 60 minutes) that outstays its welcome and perhaps the first interval should come before this scene and go straight on to the party. There Raymonda dances with Abdur and falls for his charms despite Clemence’s protestations.

Of course their romance – as in all stories of this ilk – is cut short by John’s return. As the ballet now races to its end we are back in England for the final act and the wedding of Raymonda and John; though Abdur is lurking around and if you are looking in the wrong direction you might miss him. We see Rojo restage the Grand Pas Classique hongrois from the third act that I saw Nureyev dance during the 1980s (and more recently reviewed here). After a deeply affecting celesta accompanied solo where Raymonda reveals her aching heart, who will she choose (spoiler alert!) will it be John or Abdur; in fact it is neither as she takes up her lamp again and returns to her vocation. We are still seeing the celebration in the background so is this what she would want to do rather than does?

The problem is that everything is so sanitised and there is not a drop of blood or a battle scar to be seen; the last we see of the Crimean War is a little after midway through Act I with its one tent and the odd wounded soldier and some roistering between the allies. All the rest of this Raymonda is simply a series of divertissements involving solos, duets, trios and other groupings. By music adapter and conductor Gavin Sutherland’s own admission we get two hours of highlights of Alexander Glazunov’s three-and-a-half-hour score and even if we do ‘get all the relevant dances’ there has been too much of a concentration on ‘great dramatic pace’ and ‘thumping good tunes’. I say here and now that I have never heard the English National Philharmonic play better yet – despite the odd moment of repose – it all sounded too rumbustious and relentless. That could equally be applied to the dancing despite all the work having gone into recreating Petipa’s 1898 choreography. As well as an ardent John, lovestruck Abdur and a conflicted Raymonda with their familiar moves and gestures, Rojo presents us with lots of smiling soldiers, nurses, and onlookers, who along with jolly Hungarian farmworker families are all happy with their lot in life and move frantically around the stage frequently looking straight out into the audience.

I suspect the thoughts Tamara Rojo first had for this Raymonda five years ago changed dramatically the closer it got to the stage with the realisation that English National Ballet needed another crowd-pleaser in their repertoire. That this certainly is but it is nothing more than a ‘dance spectacle’ and trying to shine a light on Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War suggests something with more hidden depths than are now there. The dancing is superb throughout and everyone looks as if they are so pleased to be back again – after an initial Covid delay – at the London Coliseum. The phalanxes of men and women of the company impress with their stamina and coordination. The character dances were reworked by Vadim Sirotin who given his St Petersburg origins have – perhaps not surprisingly – sometimes more than a touch of Cossack about them. Antony McDonald’s sets are touring-friendly and since there is an almost ever-present photographer (Giorgio Garrett) it as if we are looking at the stage through the bellows of a Victorian camera. McDonald’s costumes are delightfully colourful and the women’s skirts twirl wonderfully.

Precious Adams (Sister Clemence) (c) Johan Persson

The principal first-night cast were on remarkable form with Isaac Hernández bounding and leaping with control, assurance, and considerable brio. There was much the same from Jeffrey Cirio as Abdur with some added sensuality and a pantherine quality to his dancing. The lyrical and eloquent Shiori Kase brings heart and soul to Raymonda who is not as central to what we see unfold as you might expect. Aitor Arrieta and Fernando Carratalá Coloma are jovial and exuberant as John’s friends, Julia Conway is a pert, confident Henriette and as Sister Clemence, the long-limbed Precious Adams’s dancing excelled in its expressiveness – despite wearing a nun’s habit – in what was the longest role I have seen so far from her.

Jim Pritchard

Direction and Choreography (after Marius Petipa) – Tamara Rojo CBE
Composer – Alexander Glazunov
Music adaptation – Gavin Sutherland and Lars Payne
Set and Costumes designer – Antony McDonald
Lighting designer – Mark Henderson
Choreographic assistant – Renato Paroni de Castro
Character dances – Vadim Sirotin
Dramaturg – Lucinda Coxon
Choreographic Research and Stepanov notation – Doug Fullington
Video designer – Alexander Gunnarsson

Cast included:
Raymonda – Shiori Kase
John de Bryan – Isaac Hernández
Abdur Rahman – Jeffrey Cirio
Sister Clemence – Precious Adams
Henriette – Julia Conway
Bernard and Beranger (John’s friends) – Aitor Arrieta and Fernando Carratalá Coloma

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