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The return of Raymonda.

For better or worse, large ballet companies live off their old Russian and French story ballets--Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Giselle. But, as American Ballet Theatre's artistic director Kevin McKenzie says ruefully, "There are so few of them." At least on the surface. That dapper Franco-Russian genius of a nineteenth century choreographer, Marius Petipa, made a slew of original ballets in Russia and revived earlier French works, the majority of them half-forgotten or wholly lost. In 1995, McKenzie tried an experiment, retooling one of those neglected French ballets--the 1856 Le Corsaire--and brought it off to acclaim. Now another lesser-known gem is ready to hit the Metropolitan Opera House stage May 21--Raymonda, of 1898.

For anyone who knew it, Raymonda was a heartbreaker. It came with the requisite castle, princess, prince, villain, and happy ending. It had streams of beautiful dancing choreographed by the 80-year-old Petipa--his "last masterpiece," said contemporaries. "It's a relatively young ballet," says McKenzie, "only two or three generations removed from when it was first done." (ABT last performed Raymonda in 1975, in Rudolf Nureyev's 1964 version for The Royal Ballet.) Plus there's that heavenly Alexander Glazunov music.

Two problems remained. The audience couldn't follow the story: Jean de Brienne, a medieval Hungarian hero away at the Crusades, appears in a dream (in a tapestry) to dance with his fiancee; a leering Saracen, Abderakhman, tries to abduct her. And the lead guys barely danced. Raymonda herself had phrases and phrases of beautiful dancing, plus five variations (compared to Aurora's three). Her two suitors mostly stood around and posed.

To the rescue came the team that did Le Corsaire--Anna-Marie Holmes, former artistic director of the Boston Ballet, and McKenzie himself, plus a third partner new to the Raymonda project, the Finnish National Ballet, which provided the costume workshop and the scenic department that contributed to the premiere of the production last May.

Holmes began her research at the source, Harvard's Houghton Library, which holds the famous thirty-three boxes of roles and diagrams about the ballet classics, including Raymonda, taken out of Russia in 1921. To read them, she taught herself the Stepanov notation system "from an old book." (Holmes, the first North American ballerina to study in Russia in the 1960s, reads Russian.)

Then she, McKenzie, and The National Ballet of Canada's music director Ormsby Wilkins rolled up their sleeves, shortened the score from three acts to two, and retooled the story. In the new Raymonda the good guy isn't away at the Crusades; he's on the spot. "Raymonda falls in love with a man, not with a piece of cloth," explains Holmes. And Abderakhman isn't evil, he's "passionate and sexy," she says, "the sort of man who's exciting to live with but not the best husband material." New male variations full of "dramatic jumping," choreographed by Holmes with McKenzie's input, heightened the suitor conflict. With active suitors, Raymonda herself becomes, as Holmes says, a "real girl, not a decorative object, with a real dilemma: which man to choose?"

The best thing about this new Raymonda, though, lies in the dancing--as much pure Petipa as the team could keep. "We can upgrade and still keep beauty and flow and line," Holmes says passionately.

To bring that beauty alive, ABT has another secret weapon: Russian ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, one of the great Kirov Ballet Raymondas, passing down in the studio daily what she herself got from the source. Designer Zack Brown has given the refurbished princess a fairytale castle and a "gorgeous garden," both done with what Holmes calls a "light, light, light filigree palette," to match the music.

"It's the most sumptuous and luxurious ballet in all the classical repertory," says Kolpakova. "The steps convey that pure, precise and grand classical style of the court, the classical style that Russia gave to the world."

Edited by Allan Ulrich
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Title Annotation:Dance Matters; ballet retooled for American Ballet Theatre
Author:Kendall, Elizabeth
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:642
Previous Article:Clarifications.
Next Article:All the steps and nothing but the steps.
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