The other night at the Met, I leaned forward to press the button that flashes subtitles on the back of the seat in front of me. And then I realized I was at the ballet, not the opera, and no help was forthcoming that way: The plot of this new version of Petipa’s Raymonda would have to remain a mystery until the lights went up and I could read the program notes. By the time the first act was over, though, I realized that there was no plot, unless you think that a girl trying to decide which of two unappealing men to marry qualifies. Raymonda , as re-choreographed by Anna-Marie Holmes (who also conceived and directed it with Kevin McKenzie), gives us the famous Glazunov score (arranged by Ormsby Wilkins), Disneyish sets and costumes by Zack Brown, and yards of incidental dance that is full of interest in itself but comes across as filler because it has no organic relation to whatever story is being told.
Act I (with credit to the program): Lots of medievaly maidens and troubadours are waltzing around waiting for Raymonda, the birthday girl, to turn up. A nice older lady (she’s the Countess Sybille), wearing one of those medieval conical hats, is chiding the youngsters about something or other that has to do with a huge statue of The White Lady-no way to tell what she’s carrying on about. A noble suitor or fiancé or boyfriend turns up in blue and silver: He’s Good. A Saracen knight, dark-complected with a beard and in flaming red tights, turns up: He’s Bad. Raymonda turns up and everyone gives her presents. Her two pairs of best friends do a lot of dancing, to give her a rest. The two main guys glare at each other, and everyone goes away. Raymonda falls asleep and The White Lady herself bourrées on to introduce an endless vision scene in which the two knights are back vying for the heroine. Sir Goodguy is the noble Jean de Brienne; Sir Badguy is the swashbuckly Abderakhman. Raymonda really likes de Brienne, but the Saracen is a lot sexier and she’s a touch confused. Just as things heat up, The White Lady calls a halt to the vision, and Raymonda wakes from her dream. That’s it.
It all happens again in Act II, except indoors. Abderakhman woos Raymonda by stage-managing a Saracen dance, a Spanish dance and a Grand Pas Hongrois. You’ve seen them all before. Many a cape is flashed, many booted heels are clicked. Raymonda is torn-clearly her tolerance for Hungarian folk dance is greater than mine. There’s an unconvincing brief duel between the hero and antihero, the lusty Saracen is dead, and Raymonda and her beloved perform the famous Grand Pas Classique. No-Raymonda and her beloved perform the famous Grand Pas Classique, there’s an unconvincing duel between the hero and the antihero, and the lusty Saracen is dead. Who can remember in what order things happen? The End.
Petipa created Raymonda in 1898-it was his last major work, and a big success. There was much more of a plot then, but as we remember from A.B.T.’s Nureyev version almost 30 years ago, it was utterly dreary. That was Raymonda heavy; the new version is Raymonda lite. In its desperation to come up with another viable full-evening story ballet with which to fill the Met, A.B.T. has ignored history: Raymonda , despite its felicities, has never worked outside Russia. Balanchine and Danilova staged a partial version for the Ballets Russes in 1946-nobody much cared. Nobody much cared about the several Nureyev versions either, and the big Russian companies haven’t worried us with their versions. Balanchine later cherry-picked the score three separate times: for Pas de Dix , Cortège Hongrois and the wonderful Raymonda Variations , but he had learned his lesson and left the story at home. “Glazunov’s music for Raymonda ,” he says in his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets , “contains some of the finest ballet music we have. And Petipa’s original choreography, which I remember from student appearances at the Maryinsky Theatre, was superb. But his story was nonsense, difficult to follow, and in the words of an old Russian balletomane Prince Lieven, ‘it has everything but meaning.'”
At least when A.B.T. staged the Nureyev version, its first cast included Nureyev himself, Cynthia Gregory and Erik Bruhn. This time round we had Irina Dvorovenko and her husband, Maxim Beloserkovsky, with Marcelo Gomes as the Saracen. Beloserkovsky is so big and handsome, and he tries so hard, and he’s so happy to be supporting his ballerina wife, that you can’t really fault him for not being very interesting. Gomes is interesting, but he’s been given nothing interesting to do here, although he was appropriately brutal and swaggering in his advances to the virginal Raymonda. (We all prefer Rhett Butler to Ashley Wilkes.) Dvorovenko, with her pretty face and unpretty body, goes her determined way, flashing charm all over the place, plenty of polish and no substance, unmusical but grimly capable. A lot of people in the A.B.T. audience seem to like her, and I am happy for them. The two pairs of friends were oddly cast: Michele Wiles (all snappy attack) and ex-Kirov Veronika Part (all studied languor) barely seem to be in the same ballet. David Hallberg was his usual grand self-he’ll be having a shot at de Brienne later in the season. Gennadi Saveliev was his usual virtuoso self-but a damp squib the second night as the Saracen.
On the other hand, the second night gave us Nina Ananiashvili as the ballerina, and she is a ballerina, with refined phrasing and charm from within, not plastered on. But she couldn’t save this Raymonda . Nothing could, because Raymonda is a no-win situation: The story is so stupid and empty that it forces choreographers and “conceivers” to down-pedal it in favor of long stretches of pure dance. But because these sequences are so disconnected, even when they’re Petipa at his greatest they seem irrelevant-too much of a good thing. As for Holmes’ contributions, they’re entirely generic and are not flattered by the contrast with the original.
Where does A.B.T. go for its next injection of Petipa? The Sleeping Beauty is always waiting in the wings, daunting in its demands. La Bayadère is fairly exhausted, despite its great “Kingdom of the Shades” act. Le Corsaire is a barrel of fun, and you can’t complain about lack of plot, but it’s hardly consequential. Don Quixote is colorful if one-dimensional, and every once in a while, if you’re in the mood, you can have a good time. Anyone for The Pharaoh’s Daughter ?