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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 23 DECEMBER 2008 - Rudolf Nureyev's staging of Raymonda is everything that a lavish super-production for the holiday festivities should be. How easy to see how the Czars of Russia must have welcomed this grandiose and brilliant divertissement , a tribute to classical dance!

Nureyev transformed a complicated and clumsy scenario into over two and a half hours of sublime dancing.

The decors and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, aided and abetted by Nureyev himself, are sumptuous. The corps de ballet, despite the youthfulness of many who were not even born when the work was premiered at the Palais Garnier, was magnificent, while many of the smaller roles were divinely danced. The jewel in the crown was Agnès Letestu as Raymonda, a prima ballerina assoluta in all but name, who gave a glorious performance, pushing her art to new heights. She was the kind of heroine of which dreams are made.

Practically unheard of in Western Europe before the arrival of Nureyev in 1961, Raymonda, created in 1898, one of the most refined and innovative of Petipa's choreographies, is set to a colourful, nostalgic score by Glazounov.

Agnès Letestu and Stéphane Bullion in Raymonda
Photo: Julien Benhamou

It was the first of the great 19th century works to be staged by the Russian star, who first mounted extracts which he danced in galas soon after his defection from Russia. Over the years, he staged several versions before his arrival in Paris in 1983 as director of the French company when the ballet we know today which he considered his best and definitive version, inaugurated his opening season.

"Everything he changed was an improvement to the original ballet which he reconstructed from memory", Charles Jude, creator of the role of Jean de Brienne, told me." He replaced all the mimed scenes by dance, creating all the choreography for Abderam, whose sensual solo, a spectacular and successful mix of classical dance and oriental folk dances from the Urals, is one of the highlights of the work. It's a role I would very much liked to have danced myself, but he gave it to Jean Guixerix! However, Jean de Brienne's role was enlarged, and I was given several spectacular variations in a production Nureyev freed from all psychological complications."

The ballet opens upon Raymonda's birthday party. She is waiting for the return of her fiancé, the crusader, Jean de Brienne, but the Saracen chief, Abderam, burning with desire for her, covers her with presents before carrying her off to his tent. Jean de Brienne arrives in the nick of time, fights and kills his rival, and the seal is set for the wedding celebrations.

Nicolas Le Riche in Raymonda
Photo: Julien Benhamou

But while the story, a mishmash of oriental and medieval motifs seen through Russian eyes at the end of the 19th century, isn't up to much, it more than makes up for it with the lyrical pas de deux, the dramatic combat scenes, and the picturesque and exquisitely varied Spanish, Hungarian, and Oriental folk-dancing, the whole set harmoniously in a series of imposing and spectacular decors. Nureyev transformed a complicated and clumsy scenario into over two and a half hours of sublime dancing.

A slender and virile Karl Paquette, a young dancer who has made a lot of progress this last year, gave an impassioned performance as Abderam, the seductive, sensual chief. Stephane Bullion, the very spirit of courtly love, interpreted the polite, well-brought up crusader. He was indeed a noble partner for Letestu, who, light as air, was a Raymonda full of grace and womanly charm. The role showed off her beautiful line and flawless technique to perfection.

Only the foursome of Henriette, Clémence, Béranger and Bernard was undercast. Company members such as Julien Meyzindi and Aurelia Bellet are not at all equipped for the roles of étoiles for whom these characters were destined. They were harmoniously matched and had been well-rehearsed, and while there was nothing exactly wrong with any of them, they lacked sparkle, polish, and a sense of who they were and why they were there. Other castings saw interpreters of the quality of Emmanuel Thibault, Simon Valastro and Josua Hoffalt, while they were partnered by étoiles Emilie Cozette, Dorothée Gilbert and Myriam Ould-Braham (an étoile in all but name).

However, scattered throughout the ballet there were outstanding performances from many of the younger dancers. Mathilde Froustey not only danced divinely in the corps de ballet, but was an exquisite Spanish dancer. Likewise, the luminous Sara Kora Dayanova, admirable as the Dame Blanche in the dream scene, is quickly spotted in the swirling masses. She possesses a rare warmth and contact with the public. Lower down in the company, it is hard not to follow the expressive figure of Marc Moreau, the quadrille who so distinguished himself in Benjamin Millepied's Triad, and lower still, the powerful presence of Takeru Coste, fresh from the school.

The Orchestre Colonne was conducted by Kevin Rhodes.

Paris Opera Ballet

Through 30 December 2008
Palais Garnier
Place de l'Opéra
75001 Paris
Tel: (33) 0 892 89 90 90

Please click here for a Tribute to Maurice Béjart

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