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Documentary film (1999) [83:00]
Choreography and stage direction by Rudolf Nureyev
Music by Alexander Glazunov
Artists of the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
Orchestra of the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris/Alexander Anissimov
Directed by François Roussillon
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107 015 [83:00]


Experience Classicsonline

Why is Glazunov's Raymonda - choreographer Marius Petipa's last great achievement - not better known?

In the first place it is long ... And, for substantial stretches at a time, very little appears to be happening on stage ... And, quite frankly, when something is happening, it can be rather difficult to decide what it signifies. Who or what is the White Lady? Is the Saracen prince Abderahman a real person or is he merely an erotic fantasy figure that Raymonda dreams into life when faced with the prospect of marriage to the unexcitingly vanilla “good guy” Jean de Brienne?

Once you accept the threadbare plot, however, Raymonda has two saving graces that have kept it in the repertory of the world's major ballet companies - Glazunov's lush score and Petipa's choreography.

Although Rudolf Nureyev had produced other stage works for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) before, Raymonda - hardly known at all in France until then - was his first major project with them after becoming their Director in 1983 and this documentary film examines his approach to that production. The new boss had stressed from the outset that he wanted the Paris company to move out of their comfort zone and into new directions, yet he simultaneously believed that classical ballets such as Raymonda should remain at the heart of the repertory.

As the film's interviewees repeatedly make plain, Nureyev was no easy taskmaster. He sidelined several dancers, promoted (and perhaps over-promoted) others, had obvious favourites, was autocratic and difficult and, while meticulously demonstrating his own conception of all the on-stage roles (both male and female) in fine detail, would insist at the same time that the dancers personalise them too.

The Paris Opera Ballet's strength in depth offered him, though, the means he needed to bring to the stage his vision of Raymonda - basically Patipa's but stripped of the inauthentic traditions that had been added on over the years and with a new emphasis on the male roles, especially that of Abderahman. It allowed him, for instance, to cast some of the company's biggest names in what had hitherto been considered secondary roles. POB's extensive material resources also gave him the opportunity to indulge himself with some remarkable sets and costumes - such things were never mere decoration in a Nureyev production. Brief glimpses we are given - of knights jousting from wooden horses pushed by the men of the corps de ballet or of a breathtaking coup de théâtre when, in just a few seconds, a roll of cloth is magically transformed into a stunning oriental tent - certainly make one want to see the production in full.

The quality of the dancing too is exceptional and is - even in very brief extracts which are often cut between various soloists - another reason to watch this film. Sadly, though, the process of interviewing dancer after dancer draws us deeper and deeper into rather precious luvvie-speak so that whole passages can emerge as obvious candidates for Private Eye magazine's Pseuds Corner. Fortunately, though, once in a while one of the interviewees makes a crystal clear point, the most succinct and apposite of which occurs at virtually the end of the film: “He [Nureyev] was a great artist. He had a feeling for music, stories, situations and characters. That's how he had a clear vision and a precise idea of how he wanted to tell a story. And he knew how to tell it to the persons working with him.”

This documentary is, it goes without saying, best enjoyed by someone who has already become familiar with the ballet itself. Fortunately, as an internet search will quickly reveal, there are several excellent performances available on DVD, though sadly not, as far as I can see, one of POB in Nureyev's production. My own shelves hold enjoyable versions featuring Kolpakova/Berezhnoi/Selutsky at the Kirov - now the Mariinsky - in 1980 (VAI 4447); a 1987 Bolshoi production featuring Semenyaka/Moukhamedov/Taranda (Kultur D1170); and Bessmertnova/Vasyuchenko/Taranda at the Bolshoi in 1989 (Arthaus Musik 100 719). This documentary film makes an interesting supplement to them all.

Rob Maynard



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