Mariinsky Ballet is at Segerstrom Center for the Arts with a week of performances of “Raymonda”, a relic of late 19th century Russian Imperial ballet that carries a lingering message for the politics of our time. For centuries the Ottoman Empire, camped out on Europe’s Southeast border, threatened Europe’s political order. In that era opera, music, and theater regularly turned to Orientalism for the exotic and ultimately a sense of societal triumphalism in order to convince itself it was winning the culture wars. With its menace of Arab intruders the “Raymonda” story might lead us to draw parallels to current events on modern Europe’s borders, especially in the flux of regional wars and massive waves of chaotic immigration from the Middle East. But the ballet’s old clothes tend to discourage us from acknowledging uncomfortable comparisons. Cloaked in a narrative of bygone fantasy, this ballet seems no more relevant than other storybook dance tales of sleeping princesses, burning temples, and ghost maidens.
What remains is a shimmering example of old fashioned ballet classicism cut adrift as top tier entertainment. While the ballet is usually appreciated as a hundred-year-old time capsule its present condition is something quite different. The dancing dates mostly from mid-20th century choreography with layers reaching back to the original 1898 Marius Petipa production. On the technical side, the dancing has since been injected with modern performance values, but the theatrically is decidedly trivial, with overwrought miming more akin to the age of silent films. It is still more of a hybrid than a dedicated historical survival.
The story revolves around an absent knight, Jean de Brienne, and his betrothed, Raymonda. The bad guys in the ballet’s narrative are the Saracens. They appear as a fearsome, scurrying, hunched-over horde in Act II commanded by a sneering Abderakhaman, a chieftain in red silk pants, a cape, and something that looks like an upside down teapot on his head. They have sought refuge in the castle while Raymonda’s intended is away on a military campaign. He is summarily killed off in Act II demonstrating that there are serious consequences to overstaying your welcome. As a group, they are another era’s bland incarnation of dancing Chetchen separatists, al-Qaeda, ISIL. One pair, a man and a woman, dance together in a frantic duo that makes them look possessed. Their characterizations were broad and crude, a taste of unconscious racism from a bygone age.
It is the women, however, who are the stars of this ballet and hold it together. The lion’s share of the elegant and stylish dancing in both small ensembles and large groups belongs to them, and it is liberally arranged in all three acts. The men are present in much less significant numbers but include include one excellently balanced quartet danced by Konstantin Belyakov, Andrey Soloviev, Vasily Tkachenko, and Filipp Stepin, as well as a male soloist danced with understated bravura and first rate partnering by Vladimir Shklyarov.
The music is by Alexander Glazunov, who, like Petipa, was a long- time Mariinsky ballet collaborator. The score is serviceable, dramatic accompaniment but no more, though it ticks with efficiency all the required boxes for pageantry, the exotic, a dream sequence, and especially Polish and Hungarian flavor as needed. The Hungarian theme in Act III ties the ballet together. Jean de Brienne has chosen to battle in Hungary where there also happens to be some first rate music and folk dance. He returns to claim his love along with an impressive entourage of stately Hungarians. The playing from the Mariinsky Orchestra that welcomes their arrival in the in the final act was robust,
especially for the brass section which played throughout with a rich authority. Also excellent were the atmospheric additions from the orchestra’s harpist. The best music of the evening was coupled with the finest dancing, the opening of the Hungarian dances in which Viktoria Tereshkina in the title role conveyed a deep, gestural sense of movement. Backed by a rolling melody evoking a folk cimbalom and supported with expressive accompaniment, the moment was truly transporting and proved that Tereshkina, even without complex steps, could create an intimate world of riveting interest.
(The reviewed performance took place on Thursday September 24, 2015. Gavriel Heine conducted the orchestra. The Mariinsky Ballet is presented under the management of Ardani Artists.)