The full-length "Raymonda" the Bolshoi Ballet unveiled at the Kennedy Center Opera House Thursday night proved to be more of the same -- that is to say more virtuosic and glamorous dancing with more tawdriness of style and substance.
The company has brought us three distinct programs -- the opening "The Golden Age," an entirely original creation by Bolshoi Artistic Director Yuri Grigorovich to an historic Shostakovich score; a "highlights" program consisting of repertory excerpts and showpieces, earlier this week; and now "Raymonda," a revamped classic.
In retrospect, it's clear that every Bolshoi program is a "highlights" program. They all work their way toward a maximum of explosive histrionic peaks, at the highest levels of physical bravado and musical volume. It's clear too from a consistent pattern of responses that this is what most excites Bolshoi audiences -- stunts, the bigger and more outlandish the better. This isn't to say there aren't other elements in a Bolshoi evening, ranging from lyrical and plastic expressiveness to dramatic development and emotional catharsis. But pretty much everything takes a back seat to bravura climaxes within the company's scale of priorities.
Sensationalism of effect is the name of the Bolshoi game. It's why we love the Bolshoi, or why we're aghast at it, or -- for many of us -- both at the same time.
"Raymonda" almost seems historically fated to be despoiled in this way. The original was choreographed by the legendary Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet (now the Kirov Ballet) at St. Petersburg in 1898, to music by Alexander Glazunov that constituted his first ballet score. It has remained a favorite in Russian repertory ever since.
But in the West, it has never succeeded as an integral, full-evening production. Everyone professed to love the warm, lilting, melodious and exceptionally danceable music, but no one seemed able to make the drama viable. George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova staged an abbreviated version in this country for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1946, and Balanchine so adored the score that he later produced several assortments of dances based on "Raymonda" excerpts.
Rudolf Nureyev tried to reinstate the full-length format for a number of western troupes including American Ballet Theatre in 1975 -- a production that served as a vehicle for some highly memorable casts, such as Gelsey Kirkland in the title role partnered by Nureyev and Erik Bruhn as the contrasting male leads. But this version also failed to last. The fact is that the still-extant Balanchine compressions, as well as ABT's current "Raymonda Divertissements" as handsomely staged by Mikhail Baryshnikov, all represent a "highlights" approach to the ballet.
In the abstract, it's not easy to see why the plot of "Raymonda" wouldn't work as well as any other in the traditional repertory of full-lengths. In essence, it's the story of a woman torn between two men -- one noble, heroic and vaguely puritanical; the other exotic, erotic and vaguely evil. From a psychological standpoint, a more primal narrative archetype would be hard to imagine, and this is the stuff on which most conventional ballet thrives. Nureyev, it always seemed to me, had made the story even more acceptable by contemporary standards by making the heroine's dilemma a matter of pure fantasy -- the exotic rival existed only in her imagination.
Be this as it may, "Raymonda" is obviously fair game for a "highlights" treatment, and Grigorovich more or less eats his cake and has it too -- his production retains the full story but makes nonsense out of it, using the narrative as the flimsiest of pretexts for a series of blockbuster virtuosic displays.
Grigorovich does reproduce, with a Bolshoi flourish or two here and there, a goodly portion of the traditional Petipa choreography as we've come to know it from other Russian sources. Hence there's a fair amount of dancing that actually looks "classical," as western ballet enthusiasts have come to understand that term. But the license that "Raymonda" affords a ballet master to invoke dances of a national or folk character, along with the academic passages, is used by Grigorovich to blur the borderlines. The result is rather a stylistic mishmash, but this is perhaps par for the Bolshoi course.
Thursday's cast -- the first of four -- had Lyudmila Semenyaka as Raymonda; Aleksei Fadeyechev as her betrothed, the knight Jean de Brienne; and Aleksandr Vetrov as Abderakhaman, his Saracen rival. Semenyaka, milking audience reaction with a fixed smile and overextended curtain calls, danced brilliantly but also rather brittlely, like a trapeze artist going through well-worn tricks. Fadeyechev, his beefy thighs and stubby build giving him the look of an earlier era of Russian danseurs, displayed his hefty technique to advantage, as well as a dramatic sincerity that's more the exception than the Bolshoi rule.
Vetrov captured the audience's fancy with his wonderfully burlesqued cardboard villainy -- if he had started twirling his mustachios no one would have been surprised. Given the nature of the choreography for Abderakhaman, he also got the lion's share of supercharged aerial acrobatics, and he made the most of them. Specially notable too were Maria Bilova and Yuri Posokhov as friends of Raymonda, and Nina Semizorova and Nina Ananiashvili (substituted without notice for the "First Variant" in the printed program) as soloists in the first-act dream scene