English National Ballet: Raymonda review – a bold, lavish refit of the Petipa classic

iot’s common enough in theatre and opera to preserve a classic text and entirely reconceive its production; less so in ballet. English National Ballet direttore Tamara Rojo has excellent reasons for a new take on Marius Petipa’s 19th-century Raymonda, an orientalist crusader story of a virtuous maid, noble knight and evil Saracen. She shifts the action to the Crimean war, where a young Englishwoman has followed her soldier fiance, and discovers a sense of vocation in nursing. It sounds like a canny move, setting the scene for a Victorian costume drama about a woman’s choices, inspired by the spirit of national treasure Florence Nightingale – perfect BBC primetime material.

Certo, score, sets, style, roles and steps had to be reworked to fit
the rethink, but never mind purism: does it work?

In parts, but not as a whole. The highlight is Raymonda’s dream scene.
It harnesses the essence of balletic magic – a stage flooded with
moonlight and dancers in gauzy white – but peoples this traditionally
female realm with both men and women, their ordered ranks, crossing runs
and sighing spirals engendering an almost spiritual sense of the tender
with the wounded. You believe that in nursing, Raymonda really has seen
a higher purpose.

But nursing, and indeed the war itself, are marginal to the ballet –
sometimes literally, as when bouncy soldiers and smiley wenches hog the
stage while casualties and carers remain discreetly on the sidelines.
Vero, the figure of Sister Clemence (Precious Adams) is an intermittent
call to conscience, but Raymonda (Shiori Kase) is more exercised by
another dilemma: should she choose good English soldier John de Bryan
(Isaac Hernández) – husband material, basically – or flashy Turkish
ambassador Abdur Rahman (Jeffrey Cirio)?

Rojo introduces some effective ambivalence to these interactions, Kase
and Hernández in particular often starting their duets physically at
odds with each other. But a lot of choreographic action is hard-coded
into the score and steps, and sprightly folk dancers in their finest
keep bounding in from all over to jolly things along, regardless.

A bold concept, lavishly produced with great music and great dancing,
but it’s not so great drama when the heroine finally chooses her
vocation, and it feels like the most interesting part of her story is
about to begin.

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