Does Plot Matter?

Christians battle Muslims in Russian ballet! (Anybody notice?); Eliot in drag downtown!

Raymonda may be the only story ballet without much story. Criticism of its slight scenario was bruited about St. Petersburg even before Marius Petipa's lavish spectacle appeared onstage in 1898. Yet because of Alexander Glazounov's beautiful, danceable music, the 80-year-old Petipa's undimmed genius, and the juicy roles, the ballet has been remounted over and over. American Ballet Theatre's new two-act version, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes and conceived and directed by Holmes and ABT's artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, subtracts mime and processions but preserves much of Petipa's cornucopia of choreography—notably the great last—act "Grand Pas Hongrois" and "Grand Pas Classique." Bright new dances show off ABT's fine contingent of men, such as David Hallberg and Gennadi Saveliev. (In 1898, a critic was thunderstruck that Russia's Imperial Ballet had four male dancers who could negotiate double air turns!)

The Holmes-McKenzie version, however, doesn't resolve Raymonda's lack of meaty fantasy-drama. The heroine is torn between her crusader fiancé de Brienne and a Saracen knight, Abderakhman, who crashes her sweet-16 party and strenuously woos her. The White Lady, Raymonda's family's puzzling guardian spirit, guides her into a dream ballet full of lovely variations that usefully contrast De Brienne's chivalry with Abderakhman's innate cruelty. De Brienne may be a wimp, despite his gorgeous brisées and cabrioles, but he's a courteous partner, while the tempting stranger swings her around till she's dizzy, lets her down from a shoulder lift headfirst, and crushes her tutu in his ardor. So that, really, is that. The rivals do square off with a dance competition. Abderakhman's entourage presents a sexy harem duet, a Spanish dance, and an endearing number for eight prancing little boys with finger cymbals; the side of virtue counters with the splendid heel-clicking czardas and the classical variations. The villain's attempt to abduct Raymonda is barely noticeable: With no retinue to speak of, he gets her only a few steps up the stairs. In seconds: rescue, duel, predictable triumph. Petipa did a bit better with the drama; for instance, the White Lady caused the "infidel" to lose the duel, which came before the Grand Pas Classique, allowing the brilliant variations their full celebratory glory.

Raymonda has a number of charming pas that show off her pointe work, including the delicately smoldering "Hungarian" solo in the last act and one with a scarf. The opening night heroine, Irina Dvorovenko, danced sweetly and elegantly, with splendid flying leaps, but without depth of character. As de Brienne, Maxim Beloserkovsky jumped admirably and showed the requisite devotion and jealousy. Marcelo Gomes, predictably, stole the show with Abderakhman's sinuously evil allure, bravura steps, and abandoned-to-passion postures. Other fine performers were Veronica Part and Michele Wiles as Raymonda's girlfriends and Martine van Hamel, herself once a memorable Raymonda, as the heroine's gracious aunt.

Ariane Anthony and Company: Eliotic
photo: Richard Termine
Ariane Anthony and Company: Eliotic

Details

American Ballet Theater
Metropolitan Opera House
Through July 3

Ariane Anthony and Company
Harry DeJur Playhouse
Henry Street Settlement
May 14 through 16

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Nureyev's Freudian 1975 version of the ballet for ABT featured dark, heavy decor. Zack Brown's pastel, vaguely art nouveau, somewhat Disney-esque designs for this production seem about to float away (parts do in one instance). Some of the rhinestone-strewn costumes are medieval—heavy silks with hennins for the ladies—while others are made of drifty materials in spring green and lavender, as pretty and insubstantial as the plot.

To honor George Balanchine's centennial year, ABT is presenting its own Balanchine-Tchaikovsky program across Lincoln Center Plaza from the master's New York City Ballet, with results sometimes stunning, sometimes alarming. Theme and Variations, choreographed in 1947 for ABT and now part of NYCB's Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, and Ballet Imperial (1941), known at NYCB as Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, are both big, grand works that pay homage to Petipa and the Russian tradition that nurtured Balanchine. Ballet Imperial is danced in front of Rouben Ter-Arutunian's blue-draped vista of St. Petersburg's Neva river. The piano (expertly played by Barbara Bilach) forms cascades as brilliant as the female dancers' coronets.

Balanchine creates symmetrical ensembles and parades in the Petipa tradition. In Ballet Imperial, the ensemble, or part of it, is always onstage, framing the dancing of the principals. But both ballets also use the corps in more unusual ways: the two vines of four women who support the ballerina in Theme and Variations; the chains of women that the premier danseur, temporarily bereft of his partner, swings desolately open and closed as if they were gates. And, of course, Balanchine extends the classical lexicon, speeding up steps, twisting them to add new shimmer and depths.

ABT’s ensemble performs both these ballets with clarity and comprehension. The principals I saw in Theme, Gillian Murphy and Hallberg, are both sleek and lustrous dancers with miraculous feet and elegant lines. Strangely, Murphy's port de bras occasionally look almost awkward—as if, said my knowledgeable companion, she were thinking of her shoulders and her hands, but not of what lay between—and she now carries her head in a way that seems mannered. I look foward to seeing Hallberg in increasingly important roles; he's noble, easy, and precise in Balanchine's choreography, although he came a cropper attempting double air turns in the sequence interspersing air turns with pirouettes (steady singles were good enough for Baryshnikov). Leading Ballet Imperial, Paloma Herrera is, as usual, gracious, ample, and rock-solid. As her partner, Saveliev brought off some striking jumps and conveyed the princely problem of "she was here just a moment ago, where can she be now?" with restrained ardency. What looks like his slight unease in dealing with Herrera will undoubtedly disappear.

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