The full-length Raymonda, at the Coliseum for three performances only, is a rarity in Britain, though we are familiar here with Nureyevís version of the third act, in the repertory of the Royal, and revived again last autumn. The version the Bolshoi have brought is Grigorovichís, made in 1984, incorporating some material from Petipa and from Gorky, though sadly the programme gives no precise details of what has survived from earlier versions. Itís a shame that the Coliseum was so poorly attended last night: a combination of the fearsome ticket prices, the relative unfamiliarity of the name, and mixed reviews of some earlier works in the run may be to blame. But there were a number of delights and surprises in store for the audience in dance terms, even if as a narrative the work is unsatisfactory.
Nothing about the story of Raymonda explains why it should have survived so long in the repertory. The plot is fairly trivial, if convoluted, and is dispensed with in the first two acts, leaving the third clear for some delightful wedding divertissments. Raymonda bids farewell to her betrothed, who goes to fight in the Crusades: she dreams of him (a typical 19th century vision scene: interesting that it is the woman dreaming of the man this time, rather than the other way round), but her dreams are interrupted by a Saracen warrior who is attracted to her. In the second act, the portent is fulfilled: the Saracen appears, to pay her court, which she naturally refuses, to be rescued from abduction by the convenient return of the hero, who kills Abderakhman the Saracen in single combat. All this is set in a fantasy middle ages setting, in a mad mixture of medieval gowns and tutus. Thereís nothing to speak of in terms of development of character - the hero is merely required to look noble throughout - but all of this nonsense does serve as the basis for some quite delightful dancing, set pieces in which the Bolshoi can show off soloist after soloist, as well as the principals, propelled by Glazunovís score. Itís not exactly a square meal in choreographic terms, more like sitting down with a box of chocolates.
The surprise of the first act was how elegant and restrained it was. It was hard to believe that this was the same company (and some of the same dancers) who had been stomping across the stage in Spartacus (by the same choreographer) only a few days before. The designs were a delicate white and gold, with the hero and heroine in pure white: the vision scene was accompanied by a beautifully marshalled corps of 24 in grey over white tutus which, in lighting unusually subtle for the Bolshoi (spotlights remorselessly tracking the principals is the norm), seemed to shift through mysterious shades of grey-green.
The choreography and its execution was elegant and refined: Raymondaís friends (Nina Speranskaya, Anna Antonicheva, Ivanov and Skvortsov) had many opportunities to shine, which they took: the women had particularly nice feet. Nina Ananiashviliís Raymonda was deservedly popular: itís quite a taxing leading role, but she had a devoted partner in Filin, who piloted her through balance after balance. She was calm and in control, never forced anything, and didnít feel the need to demonstrate very high extensions: she seemed content to remain very much in the 19th century mood.
Jean de Brienne isnít much of a role, but Filin fulfilled the demands of not looking silly despite wearing one of the most ridiculous plumed helmets ever seen on stage, and seizing the chances that came his way to demonstrate impeccable technique. Itís probably better not to attempt to act in that role: Mark Peretokin as Abderakham decided to Act, and didnít we all know about it. But the choreography for him is rather thin: all stomp and bluster, but not much meat in terms of steps.
Act 2 was a little disappointing after the serenity and poise of Act 1: it was evidently necessary for the Saracen to be accompanied by a vast and varied retinue in eye searing combinations of orange and pink. The corps through themselves into it with huge energy, but there was a touch of vulgarity about it completely absent from the other acts. (I wish I knew how which elements of the production were derived from Petipa, and which were Grigorovichís: I couldnít help but speculate.) Among the dancers were a lead Saracen couple, wearing rather embarrassing amounts of brown body paint. Not as bad as the blacking up in Bayadere, I was assured, but a little tasteless all the same. The confrontation of the Saracen warriors and the returning crusaders was very stylised and schematic, likewise the duel between Jean and the Saracen, which is relatively short and undramatic, though Abderakham takes an inordinate time over dying. Itís certainly a very big production - there can be up to 50 people on stage at any time, but it is tightly disciplined, making full use of the depth of the Coliseum stage, and always avoids looking crowded.
Act 3 returns to more restrained tones of gold over white and black. It contains some glorious set pieces, with yet more soloists brought out to dazzle us. The section for four men and some of Raymondaís variations are recognisable from the RB version, but many details of the individual dances were different. Despite a demanding evening, Ananiashvili still had plenty of verve for her variations, and Filin demonstrated some beautiful jumps. The corps didnít look perhaps quite as uniform or as drilled as they had done earlier in the run in Giselle, but the company looked more relaxed and more confident, as if they had begun to relax here and really enjoy their dancing - they are certainly appreciated by the audiences, if not by all the critics.
Ashton considered creating a full scale production of Raymonda, but abandoned the idea, because of the intractable nature of the story. Pity. Some of the music is delightfully danceable, and sounds just right for an Ashton score, particularly the first act. It has been pleasant to hear the Bolshoi orchestra playing with real commitment, rather than the on sufferance performances we can sometimes get for ballet from orchestras here.