The house was not as full for Saturday afternoon's matinee "Raymonda" as it had been the night before, when the Bolshoi's production had its opening and was sold out. But the matinee's was a very receptive, friendly audience, and most seats were taken. In the lobby one was surrounded by the sound of Russian being spoken, and there were many children in the house, small children whom one assumed were being brought by their families for contact with one of the great treasures of their own heritage.
The presence of "Raymonda" in the Bay Area has certainly brought out the balletomanes. Few around here have ever seen a complete"Raymonda"—it was certainly MY first (and I adored it). The night before I'd noticed a lot of teen-aged girls with long necks and straight backs, clearly bunheads, including many I knew from class in Berkeley. One saw the stars of San Francisco ballet, Guennadi Nedviguine, Elizabeth Miner, Gonzalo Garcia, Ruben Martin, Kristin Long. Makarova was there. Probably the Gettys.
But for the matinee it was families, and lots of emigrés. There was even a babe in arms—this being Berkeley—which was in fact really a bit much. The infant was not quiet during the first act, and a fair number of people were annoyed, but may have been taken to the "children's room" (this being Berkeley); we heard no more of that.
One must say, also, that the stage of Zellerbach Hall is too small for the Bolshoi, by far; why they didn't appear in the Opera House, where the stage is also not really big enough, is a vexed question—but thank God Cal Performances is able to present them. We have not seen much of companies that outrank San Francisco Ballet for almost a decade, and it is a revelation to see such attention to detail in the deep background and such uniform company style, united with such joy in dancing as we saw from the Bolshoi in "Raymonda".
Perhaps because the audience was so responsive—there'd be ripples of applause for an overhead lift, a BIG wave of applause when Simon Virsaladze's wonderful set became transparent and a whole world of dream-spirits materialized—the performers opened up and gave a performance that was even more enjoyable than the opening night's. Raymonda is a famously difficult role, and now it's obvious why. The ballerina is dancing all the time, one difficult solo after another exploiting the whole range of the technique. It's a uniquely challenging part. But although the matinee starred Maria Allash and Alexander Volchkov, who rank only as First Soloists, they succeeded far better than the opening night stars (Anna Antonicheva and Sergey Filin) at making an emotional connection with the audience and bringing their characters to life. In particular, Ms Allash began to get happy in her dancing; when the music went allegro, her heart lifted, her eyes opened up, and a sweet, spontaneous smile animated her face—as she did the most difficult things.
She reminded me strikingly of Kyra Nichols; she even looks like her in the face, she uses her eyes the same. She's a sincere dancer, with a formidable technique but an even more striking musicality, and a gift for drama. In Act 2 she responded with such smoldering contempt to the advances of her Saracen suitor, the thrilling Rinat Aifulin (who was at least the equal of the opening-night star, Dmitry Belogolovtsev) we could almost smell the emotions, and at the end of Act 2 Mr Volchkov likewise came to life (as Jean de Brienne). This warmed their performances and by the end made us love them.
This on top of having fallen for the whole company, which seemed very different from the group we saw here only a couple of years ago in "Swan Lake," when only Maria Alexandrova really seemed to dance with the spontaneity that we saw so thoroughly imbuing the dance impulses of the whole ensemble last weekend. I don't have enough information to make comparisons; is it only in "Raymonda" that they dance like this? Is it Ratmansky's leadership? Yes they are well-schooled, yes they all have the same (wonderful) fingers, with hands like lilies, the same (wonderful) way of opening the arm out from the center, yes they have a company style—but they suddenly look so buoyant, so "dancerly." EVERYBODY was dancing in "Raymonda". They're dancing like Americans, large, open, fresh, youthful, musical, light, honest, with limpid phrasing and exquisite footwork. Of course, the American style was Russian to start with.
And perhaps Grigorovich—this is his version we were seeing—was more like Balanchine than I was ever encouraged to think. He's condensed the story to its barest essentials. In three acts there's no white lady, there's just one dream in which both rival suitors make an appearance, a second act in which his extravagant Abderakhman casts all the wealth of Arabia before her in tribute, but rebuffed, attempts to abduct her, only to be cut off by Jean de Brienne, and then Act 3, the wedding at the court of the King of Hungary. But the music is so atmospheric, the dances are so many, so beautiful, so rich in surprising detail, so individualized and so telling, they create a world and a fascination with its inhabitants—so much so that Balanchine's question comes immediately to mind: "How much story you WANT?"
We did not have a Plisetskaya or a Maximova to take and hold our attention; the heroine did not intrigue me until Act 2, but she had done nothing that wasn't beautiful, and her court took my attention and built my interest unceasingly, so that by the time Raymonda's four friends did a stately dance of pas de bourrées I was beside myself with delight—such invention, such surprising tiny details, little pas de chevals where you'd least expect them, exactly faceted changes of direction. And Raymonda's grand variation with the scarf that Jean has given her upon departing for the wars was large, generous, and the scarf itself moved so soulfully I felt myself opening up to her.
It was the first time since the elections, which most of us in Berkeley have taken like a kick in the stomach, that I forgot about how alarmed I am about the future. The production presented a vision that's consistently humane, noble, invigorating - not only of the performers, but of the ideals built into the choreography (whether that of Petipa, Gorsky, or Grigorovich). In particular the distinction between the frank open-hearted manner of the true lovers, and the preening macho-thuggishness built into the seductive but frightening world of Abderakhman, could not be more telling. In a week when our own Governor Schwarzenegger asked "Why should we compromise with losers?" I found myself grateful to meet an ideal public rhetoric that can identify and subjugate a bully.
It has certainly raised Yuri Grigorovich in my estimation. But we hadn't seen much—"Spartacus" (which despite its ugliness I really admire), "Romeo and Juliet." I was used to thinking that he had coarsened women's dancing, and that his insistence on substituting dancing for mime even in Romeo and Juliet went to ludicrous extremes.
I certainly don't think so aftter this. And indeed, I must praise all the soloists—Olga Stebletsova (who alternated with the exquisite Maria Alexandrova) and Ekaterina Shipulina as Raymonda's friends, Irina Semirechenskaya for her fabulous variation in the Dream sequence, and the darling Ekaterina Krysanova. For her variations in the dream and in the wedding festivities.
THe character dancers were again almost unbearably delightful. Anna Antropova, who danced the Mazurka on opening night and the Czardas at the matinee, has a head-to-toe freedom and lightness, a delicious involvement in every transition, I have rarely ever seen. The whole company has an enviable elasticity in the collar-bone, but Antropova's freedom and subtlety in the neck and head brought that aspect of company style to its highest realization.
PHOTO: IGOR ZAKHARKIN