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Russe Limbo

How do you solve a problem like Raymonda? An attempt to return to the ballet’s grand roots has mixed results. Plus, Peter Martins’s latest.

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Nina Ananiashvili in Raymonda.  

The cumbersome Russian spectacular Raymonda is something of an ugly duckling among the classics, rarely successful in the West even though it came from the same nineteenth-century hit factory as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty and boasts choreography by Marius Petipa. The ballet’s ornate narrative pits a good Crusader against a bad Saracen for the hand of the radiant but indecisive heroine—and at considerable length. Most artistic directors who take it on for the sake of the much-loved music by Alexander Glazounov try to ignore Petipa’s dense storytelling and simply showcase the bravura dancing. Now comes American Ballet Theatre, long a crusader in the cause of cumbersome Russian spectaculars, with an ambitious Raymonda that aims to re-create the original’s grandeur. Anna-Marie Holmes has masterminded the reconstruction, with the help of artistic director Kevin McKenzie, and they’ve worked mightily to cut the sprawl while retaining the old-fashioned splendor.

“The master plan here seems to have been the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera.

To their credit, the ballet is now a relatively speedy two acts; and this company certainly has the dance power to pull off Petipa’s technical demands. The night I went, Nina Ananiashvili and Jose Manuel Carreño led a cast that glittered right down to the last tiny slave. But the production is still pretty incoherent: It’s stuffed silly with processions and palaces and garland dances and moody reveries, yet nothing in Holmes’s bland choreography creates relationships among the characters or makes us care about them. There’s also a significant problem with traffic patterns. With so many lavishly costumed dancers piling onstage, Saracens and Spaniards and Hungarians, plus the usual nobility and their loyal retainers, hordes of them squashed amid the scenery, the master plan here seems to have been the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera.


Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms—six Hebrew Psalms set for chorus and boy soprano—is one of his most beloved works, but choreography does it no favors. Plaintive and ardent, hovering at the brink of sentimentality, this is music that has to stand alone: Dancing just brings out the corn. Or so it appears after a look at Peter Martins’s new Chichester Psalms, one of two pieces he has created this spring for the Balanchine centennial at the New York City Ballet. His choreography is so very plaintive and so very ardent that the music can’t compete: It actually seems to curdle while we’re listening.

This is no fault of the Juilliard Choral Union and soloist Jason Goldberg, who do full honors to the score. In fact, Martins displays the singers as a kind of living altarpiece; they stand on risers framing the performing space, garbed in monklike robes. The dancers are also dressed for piety: the women in flowing white gowns, the men in flowing black skirts. Mostly they dip and swing and bow in sculptural formations. For “Why Do the Nations Rage . . . ,” the men leap demonically to center stage and squabble furiously until the women fly in to restore peace. Little else that’s notable occurs, though from time to time a slow, careful duet by Dena Abergel and Henry Seth breaks out and the other dancers watch, occasionally dropping to their knees. What with the pseudoclassical drapery, the reverent lilting and posing, and the big music, Martins could have been channeling Isadora Duncan.

His second premiere was far more absorbing; and though it wasn’t a hefty, faith-based initiative like the first, it had all the spiritual integrity missing from the grander ballet. Set to Eros Piano, a spare but intense concerto by John Adams (the soloist was Richard Moredock), this meditative trio, performed by Nikolaj Hübbe, Alexandra Ansanelli, and Ashley Laracey, has an aura of genuine purity about it. The lines of the choreography are clear and clean, and a sense of quiet searching marks Hübbe’s partnering of each woman in turn. These aren’t combative duets, like the raging-insect bouts that Martins often creates. They’re more like conversations, and the generous space between the partners allows each one to move with dignity and self-possession. It’s another perspective on intimacy entirely. The performances are stellar, and Hübbe’s in particular is so musical it’s as if he has the score written right on his body.


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