Fine pictures and outstanding dance, but where is the drama? English National Ballet’s new Raymonda

London Coliseum
January 19, 2022

If looks were everything, Tamara Rojo’s new Raymonda for English National Ballet would be a soaraway success. Visually, it’s full of pictures any designer would be proud of. Although war photographs were taken during the United States’ war with Mexico in 1846-8, the Crimean War (where the ballet takes place) was the first to be so covered widely, notably by Roger Fenton. His presence is alluded to both in a photographer character who appears throughout, and in designer Antony McDonald’s gorgeous set of slightly tilted photo frames. McDonald’s costumes are largely wonderful too: smart uniforms for the men, beautiful dresses and full skirts for the women. The only blooper is Raymonda’s wedding dress.

Raymonda is a good choice for a reimagining. Although audiences will be familiar with Act III, the whole of Petipa’s original ballet has never previously been produced by a British company. His story of a maid, Jean de Brienne, a noble knight of the Crusades, and Saracen Abderakhman (who comes with all the now offensive cultural stereotypes of the time) is only sketchily known, if at all.

As Rojo shifts the action, the story becomes one of a love triangle between a young Englishwoman who follows her soldier fiancé, now called John de Bryan, to the battlefield as a nurse and a strutting, and John’s friend, the full of himself Abdur Rahman, a prince of the Ottoman Empire (British allies in the war).

Daniel McCormick in Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda
Photo Johan Persson

On this second night, the dancing too was fabulous. Erina Takahashi gave us a delicate Raymonda, a woman until the end full of doubts and uncertainties. Joseph Caley’s John de Bryan was a typically upright British officer. His dancing was fine indeed, but there’s little character to get his teeth into. Daniel McCormick danced Abdur with great panache and verve. It was easy to see why he might turn a young girl’s head, but that of the strong, thinking woman we are led to believe Raymonda is?

The choreography is eminently pleasing too, although it is in many ways an old-fashioned ballet in that most of the dance is incidental to the story rather than integral to it. Perhaps that’s partly a consequence of the score, as chopped around as it is, but it does feel like there are a lot of ensemble dances, at the start of Act I especially.

The very long Act I opens with some superb animations of newspapers of the time and a brilliant comic map of Europe of the time that depicts the nations as animals. What follows could do with some judicious editing but it does have much of the best choreography, including not only a magical if slightly predictable dream scene for Raymonda, who falls asleep at her desk (à la Tatiana in Onegin). There’s a clear nod to Florence Nightingale as she first carries a lantern, before the stage is filled with ghostly dancers in white, each with their own lamps. There’s also an overt reference to La Bayadère as a group of male soldiers slowly descend a slope, the choreography echoing that of that ballet’s Shades, albeit with a nod to pain and suffering.

English National Ballet in Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda
Photo Johan Persson

In fact, it’s the men who get the best choreography generally, despite the ballet being built around a woman. Earlier on in Act I, an ensemble dance for the soldiers is thrilling and full of super leaps and turns. Even better is a long duet for John’s friends Bernard and Beranger that’s full of fast, difficult batterie and changes of direction. Erik Woolhouse and Victor Prigent were quite simply magnificent.

And yet, dig beneath the admittedly gorgeous veneer and you will be hard pushed to find much human drama. It may be set in the Crimea, but the war seems a million miles away. True, at a camp outside Sevastopol, a few soldiers sit around being tended, but most of the time everyone looks like they’re ready for a glamourous ball rather than in the middle of conflict. Of blood and mud there is none.

There really is a party in Act II, hosted by Abdur as he tries to win Raymonda’s affection. The Turkish and most of the other dances sit comfortably in the setting. Quite why there should be a Spanish number is unclear, though.

English National Ballet in Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda
Photo Johan Persson

As a character, there are moments when Raymonda is drawn in detail. Rojo does show us her uncertainty about her betrothal to John, although that rather begs the question why she gives up a life of happy domesticity to follow him to the Crimea (or does she pitch up at the same camp coincidentally?). We also see her being pulled between him and Abdur, the latter eloquently shown in a pas de trois, but it’s hardly intense with little sense of the internal conflict you might expect her to be going through.

Therein lies perhaps the ballet’s biggest problem. For all the fabulous dancing and designs, it is hard to feel much for the lead characters. There is expression in the choreography and the motifs Rojo employs, but it’s rarely realistic. The ballet, the story, should be full of powerful drama, you want it to be full of powerful drama, but all too often feels superficial.

Away from the leads, Raymonda’s friends, fellow nurse Henriette (Katja Khaniukova) and nun, Sister Clemence (Natascha Mair) are a reassuring, supportive presence but make little impact.

Back in England, the Act III wedding is all flowers and bunting. It is quite a spectacle as Rojo fills the stage with dancers, although I’m not at all convinced by what I assume is supposed to be English folk or social dance. The prowling Abdur casts a shadow (is John really that blind to what his friend has been up to?), but a surprise comes when, out of the blue, Raymonda apparently gives up on her new husband and Abdur and walks off to continue her nursing vocation. There’s no goodbye and barely a glance. Here is our heroine finally making a decision for herself. And yet, again, where is the feeling. If it’s the culmination of something building up inside her, we haven’t seen it. It all seems rather incongruous. Still, it does make you wonder what happened next.

This autumn, Rojo moves on to take over the artistic directorship of San Francisco Ballet. Whether her Raymonda will be the enduring triumph the company needs and an enduring legacy for her, I’m not sure but it does have popularist appeal, it looks look a peach, and there is a great deal of dancing. That counts for a lot.

English National Ballet’s Raymonda is at the London Coliseum to January 23, 2022.