'Raymonda,' A Russian Beauty By Way of Japan

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

It's one thing to watch a ballet long absent from view and to be enthralled by its multifaceted charms. It's another to become acquainted with a fascinating new ballet company, making a remarkably brave international debut at the Kennedy Center.

Over the weekend, audiences were treated to both, as Japan's New National Theatre Ballet performed a surprisingly grand three-act production of "Raymonda" at the Opera House.

Why surprising? For starters, this Tokyo-based company is scarcely a decade old, and the weekend's performances marked its first appearances outside Japan.

Ballet itself is a relatively new import in Japan, arriving through the usual channels of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova's endless international touring and the arrival of Russian emigres. But although those events occurred near the start of the 20th century, it wasn't until many decades later that this distinctly Western art form was taken seriously by Japanese audiences. Maki Asami, artistic director of the New National Theatre Ballet, first trained with her mother, a pupil of one of those early immigrant dancers; Asami then studied with legendary Ballets Russes ballerina Alexandra Danilova in New York.

You can see traces of these old-school Russian origins among the dancers of the New National Theatre Ballet, whose dancing might be best characterized as unpolluted. The line of the leg in arabesque is straight and pure; the arm positions are open and well defined; there is strength through the core of the body. The women's feet, while not especially well developed, are tough as iron; the devilish hops on pointe throughout "Raymonda" posed no difficulty. The corps has an airy unity. With the prevalence in many companies of the more acrobatic elements of ballet -- the hyper-flexible hips and spines that become a show unto themselves -- the New National Theatre's strict discipline and unmannered delicacy were refreshing.

Choosing "Raymonda" as its introduction to the world was a masterstroke. One feels immensely grateful simply for a full-length ballet that is not among those in heavy rotation at the Kennedy Center. But more significant, "Raymonda" had not been seen here in its entirety in some 20 years, a disgrace crying out for correction. Is "Raymonda" a masterpiece? No, but it gets the blood stirring unlike any other in the classical repertoire, and Alexander Glazunov's affectionate folk melodies practically call one to rise up and join the party onstage.

The last ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, on the heels of his "Swan Lake," "Raymonda" takes place in medieval Hungary, where a jealous Saracen threatens the nuptials between the titular heroine and her knight. Love triumphs, of course, allowing the flimsy plot to be blotted out of memory by a wedding celebration full of rousing Hungarian national dances, as well as brilliant classical variations that elegantly echo their emphatic footwork and robust pride.

As capably as the Japanese danced it, however, this production lacked a measure of passion. A sense of reserve and emotional restraint worked against Petipa's choreography, which is full of lively grandeur and sharpness. (Granted, much of this 2004 production is director Asami's invention; parts are more akin to the histrionics of Kenneth MacMillan than to the upright clarity of Petipa.) The steps themselves did not pose problems, but their rhythmic emphasis was muted; the beat and lilt were softened. The legs weren't as quick, the thighs not as forceful.

The small scale of the dancing overall was apparent as well in Terashima Hiromi's Raymonda, who only gradually assumed the dimensions of a true classical heroine. A clean and fearless technician, Hiromi leaped onto her pointes with catlike ease but seemed shy of the audience, never drawing us into Raymonda's heart. She was at her best when dancing with Denys Matviyenko, whose Jean de Brienne, Raymonda's knight, held the ballet together. A native of Kiev and a guest artist with the company, he gave the steps their full measure of nobility, energy and dash, and Hiromi seemed to draw immeasurably from his panache. She was a different dancer by the third act, a column of strength and untouchable majesty, pausing at the top of each balance as if commanding the clock to stop.

Ultimately, more than a show of power or mastery, this production was an embrace of beauty, from the lightness and simplicity of the dancing to the luxuriant sets and costumes by Luisa Spinatelli, with their rich, harmonizing tones of burgundy, lapis and silver. Flair can come later; what's reassuring is that the New National Theatre has an old-fashioned respect for the art of ballet.

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