Continuing its run of historic ballet firsts, the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, CA opened its 30th season on Thursday night with the U.S. premiere of the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra’s production of the rare three-act classical ballet “Raymonda” (1898), one of Marius Petipa’s final works, and arguably the most sublime unveiling yet.
Unlike other revivals to play recently – like Mikhail Messerer’s version of the early Soviet ballet “Flames of Paris” for Mikhailovsky Ballet, or the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” by American Ballet Theater – this is not a scrubbed restoration that elucidates a process of discovery and identification by a sensitive modern choreographer and dancers.
The Mariinsky’s “Raymonda,” originally created for the St. Petersburg company in 1898, restaged in 1948 with additions from Konstantin Sergeyev and Fyodor Lopukhov, is pure vintage ballet — shuttered for decades at a time, rarely toured in its entirety to Western audiences, unchanged in design for 60-plus years now. Yet thanks to outstanding performances by the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra, it transcends anachronisms to surge forward on the Slavic physicality of Alexander Glazunov’s score and Petipa’s brisk choreography so as to reveal a singular ballet heroine who definitely deserves prime time.
The plot is a thin, slowly realized coming-of-age drama, similar to “The Nutcracker” (interrupted celebrations, a dream, a short duel, a string of “exotic” divertissements), though spread over three acts here, even though there are fewer complications and characters. There is an authentic awkwardness to the story and design of this “Raymonda” that is sometimes charming, sometimes discomfiting.
In the cool, cloaked chambers of a Medieval Hungarian castle, Simon Virsaladze’s costumes unabashedly mix heavy court gowns with exotic Arab, Spanish and Hungarian costumes as well as baby-pink pie-plate tutus. Slow scenic transitions and artistically posed tableaux are accompanied by musical passages, offering a welcome, uncommon chance to digest the crowded stage scenes of story ballet, but opening night featured a number of backstage noises and one lengthy, underwhelming projection of reddened clouds that was marred by a pointer arrow left to display on the scrim.
At this moment in world history, the xenophobic plotline reverberated somewhat sourly. The ballet’s central conflict is the arrival a frightening “other,” Abderakhman (Konstantin Zverev), a Saracen (read: Arab) chief at the court of Raymonda’s aunt, the Countess Sybil de Daurice, а French noblewoman. The Saracen’s slave-dancers, revealed in Act II, cower before him on their knees, then dance frenetically and spastically, using speed and tricks to compensate for lack of comportment and education. Though he is painted as alluringly dangerous to Raymonda at first, Abderakhman’s lascivious pawing during their duets eventually strips him of his dignity as a partner.
Yet while the plot draws some ungraceful lines, Petipa’s choreographic nuance and challenges for Raymonda (Viktoria Tereshkina) – and the bustling court dances that she seems to ignite – paint a moving and fierce physical portrait of youthful vacillation. Paired with the exquisite Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Gavriel Heine, Tereshkina embodied the waves of security and fragility that pulse with Raymonda’s changing moods.
So too, must her betrothed Jean de Brienne (Vladimir Shklyarov) grow up: as she waits for the crusader knight to return safely from battle, he sends no letter, just a tapestry of himself (a medieval selfie?) By the time the duo are reunited in the famous Grand Pas Classique Hongrois from Act III, the question of decisiveness and readiness has been so well examined – the theme of quivering pulses and darting glances weaves continuously over three acts – that the audience cheers their union whole-heartedly. And both principals seem to swell to new sizes and proportion with the wonderful distinctions of the choreography . In particular, the folk-style port de bras flourish that crowns the phrases in this section — an in-turned, hand-to-head arm gesture that has floated through the storyline — gains an almost delicious arrogance as it reaches its conclusion here.
That the Raymonda heroine — at the height of her powers — also incorporates a playful Hungarian head jiggle from the folk interludes into her final classical variation is Tereshkina’s crowning moment in a role she owns completely. She’s Mona Lisa come to life – enigmatic, alive, and so singular. Thus it’s fitting that the standing ovation was somewhat quiet. It had been over three hours, for sure, but a still reverence feels more apt when standing before a museum masterpiece.
[A version of this piece originally ran in the Orange County Register.]