For decades, Raymonda was the best kept secret of the nineteenth-century Russian repertory. A grand three-act ballet, it premiered at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theatre in 1898. Yet, unlike Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda never sank roots in the West, although it had music by Alexander Glazunov and choreography by Marius Petipa. The Diaghilev company offered fleeting glimpses of the ballet in the 1910s and 1920s. London saw it whole in 1935, courtesy of the National Ballet of Lithuania, but the production made little impression. In 1946 George Balanchine staged a two-act version for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but Americans found even this abbreviated Raymonda too long, and it quietly died. But the Glazunov score lingered in the ear of the choreographer, who returned to it not once but three times.
Happily, American tastes have changed since the 1940s. Today, audiences crave the story ballets they once disdained, the older the better. Hence, the excitement surrounding American Ballet Theatre's new Raymonda. As conceived and directed by Anna-Marie Holmes and ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, with choreography by Holmes after Petipa and new scenery and costumes by Zack Brown, the company's newest full-evening entertainment comes with a Kirov pedigree that goes back to the Maryinsky original.
Holmes fell in love with Raymonda as a teenager, and the first ballet she danced professionally was Balanchine's Pas de Dix, a reworking of Raymonda's Grand Pas Classique, which she later staged for the Boston Ballet. For the ABT project, a co-production with the Finnish National Ballet, she had the help of her former teacher, the Kirov ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya, a great Raymonda of the 1940s and 1950s.
Holmes and McKenzie have condensed the original three acts into two, simplifying the plot to heighten the dramatic clash that lies at the heart of the ballet. In the old version Raymonda spent the first two acts waiting for her fiancé, Jean de Brienne, to return from the Crusades and evading the unwelcome attentions of the Saracen knight, Abderakhman. Now, the handsome Jean is among the revelers at the ballet's opening fête, a suitor rather than her intended, who must vie with Abderakhman for her hand. Before, her heart belonged to the Crusader. Now she toys with the alluring Saracen, but decides in favor of his rival. Stung, Abderakhman challenges de Brienne to a duel. The Saracen loses, and a grand divertissement celebrates the happy couple's union.
Raymonda premiered eight years after The Sleeping Beauty and employs many of the same devices. We meet Raymonda, like Aurora, at a birthday fête that marks her coming of age as a woman; we follow the twists and turns of her fortune until she weds her proper mate. The White Lady who guides Raymonda to her meeting with Jean de Brienne in the dream scene, then rescues her from Abderakhman's embraces, plays an intermediary role similar to that of the Lilac Fairy of Beauty. For Raymonda's Act I entrance the way is strewn with flowers, while Aurora tests her suitors in the Rose Adagio. And both heroines meet their dream lovers in the isolated surroundings of nature.
Still, there are important differences between the ballets. In Raymonda the dreamer is the heroine, and the beloved an expression of her desire. Raymonda's dream betrays her complicated feelings toward Abderakhman, acknowledging his sexual magnetism even as she repels his caresses. There are political overtones in the clash of the two knights. Where Jean de Brienne embodies Christian idealism, Abderakhman represents the Eurasian other: rivals in love, they contend for the heroine's Western heart and domain. In Raymonda the threat of dynastic instability arises not from the presence of moral evil but from a political and sexual outsider.
With its colorful setting and richly melodic score, Raymonda abounds in dances. In Act II Abderakhman woos Raymonda with swashbuckling Saracen dances and a Spanish-style panaderos or "Bakers' Dance." A rousing Hungarian czardas opens Act III. Petipa was eighty years old when he choreographed Raymonda, yet his zest for dance-making was undiminished. The title role was a gift for the Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani, Petipa's first Odette-Odile. Demanding stamina, a bravura technique, and emotional expressiveness, it remains a supreme test for the ballerina. In Act III, with her beloved, she leads the Grand Pas Classique, a fantasy of solos, ensemble dances, and a proudly sensuous pas de deux that brings the ballet to an exhilarating close.
Petipa choreographed other ballets after Raymonda, but none has survived. Glowing with love and classical idealism, Raymonda was the swansong of his maturity, the closing act of the century that his ballets did so much to define. And now, this pearl of the old repertory, newly polished and reset, promises to beguile theatergoers of the twenty-first century with its magic.