The Australian Ballet: Raymonda by Stephen Baynes
Raymonda (Kirsty Martin) and her Prince (Steven Heathcote)
Production photographs by Jim McFarlane (click to enlarge)
It seems to me that the elements that distinguish Australian ballet and opera from the ballet and opera of the rest of the world are attention to dramatic detail and, most of all, acting finesse.
In opera, they are compensation for not being able to field dream team casts, a function of distance and dollars. But in ballet, where our talent is second to none, these elements make the national company the envy of far bigger nations. The Russians might be able to field a squad of 32 tall disciplined swans, but they covet the verismo of our eight or sixteen. The English, too, envy the heat generated on-stage.
A material girl... Raymonda.
The Australian Opera’s full-time chorus has benefited hugely from years of acting and movement training. They’re uncommonly good when it comes to playing Mediterranean peasants in Cav & Pag, but they’re also equally committed -- even fearless -- when performing more abstract works or in “out there” productions.
By contrast, the Australian Ballet company is visibly better when it has a story to deliver or has the scaffolding of some kind of through-line... from La Sylphide to Nacho Duato’s Por vos Muero. Aside from various productions of Giselle (one in which the leading duo were coached by prima ballerina assoluta Galina Ulanova; another, recently, by former artistic director Maina Gielgud), the company is at its very best when performing renovated classics, especially Graeme Murphy’s rewrites of Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
Murphy’s “gumnutcracker” turned a hoary old Christmas yarn into a celebration of the roots of classical ballet in Australia in the latter half of the last century. His Swan Lake had an emotional complexity that the young dancers related to and then conveyed. Instead of good versus evil, black versus white, Murphy gave us shades of grey.
But the AB’s ability in -- and success with -- the story ballets locks it into something of a time warp. Many of the dancers resist the spine-bending, loose-limbed, modern moves and contemporary repertoire. The company has only just come to terms with Balanchine. Tharp’s In The Upper Room looked bad on the company, even in a reprise season. Cranko? Brilliant. Even Bejart.
But it’s hard to imagine the Australian Ballet delivering choreography by Javier De Frutos or Michael Parmenter as well as the Royal New Zealand Ballet does, say. Let alone the recent work of William Forsythe.
So, there is an undertone of hesitation -- a bat squeak of anxiety for the future of the company -- tempering what is, otherwise, a rave review for this brand new version of Raymonda. What it does, it does brilliantly. There is confidence and sophistication here that deserve acclaim.
Now, it’s not uncommon for a classic story ballet to have three, four or even five different casts, even in a short season. And I’ve noticed, over the years, that differences in interpretation are not only tolerated but encouraged. It’s not solely a matter of ability -- Rachel Rawlins was brilliant in the second act of Giselle, for example, but didn’t quite master the first act -- it’s also about how the key dancers interact with one another. As in theatre, there’s a text (the choreography, mise en scene, whatever) and a performance text. And, yes, it might surprise you to learn that performance text in ballet can be a dynamic and responsive thing.
In the premiere season of Raymonda, I saw all three casts. And the differences were striking.
Stephen Baynes has abandoned virtually everything but the music in his new Raymonda. Instead of a hokey yarn about a crusading knight, a saracen stalker and defended honour in medieval Hungary, Baynes gives us a movie star, Raymonda Grey, about to abandon her career and her rat pack friends to marry a European Prince. Dateline 1955. Sound familiar? Grey. Grace. What’s in a name! (Above: Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly on their wedding day, fifty years ago.)
Raymonda has a few doubts and moments of anxiety -- which translate into a bad dream on the eve of her wedding -- but that’s pretty much the entire story of this two-hour story ballet.
But the nuance and detail are photoreal. The sets (2D chandeliers excepted) and costumes would stand up to any close-up shots.
Baynes sets the scene with breathtaking skill and economy. In the first seconds of the performance, we watch Raymonda and her dashing Hollywood co-star Adam Drake on the battlements of a castle in a Hamlet-like encounter. The partially lifted and partially parted curtains forming a cinematic rectangle. Before we have time to frame the thought -- God, how overacted! -- the order to “cut” is issued, and the curtains reveal a film crew, the set is struck, the actors come out of character. Director, dressers and make-up staff, paparazzi and PAs swarm after the take. Then the Prince arrives. Is revealed.
In the first cast, Kirsty Martin is Raymonda: coolly regal and every bit the superstar. Steven Heathcote is her prince. As you’d expect from Heathcote, who is in his 20th year as a principal dancer with the company, he is utterly charming and persuasive in the role. Not wooden, not forced. And Damien Welch makes a wonderful Adam Drake: pushy, impertinent, dastardly. Hellishly charming.
In the first cast, the Prince’s devotion is utterly solid. We believe it. Raymonda believes it. More, she believes she’s entitled to it. Worthy of it.
In the second cast, intriguingly, Lisa Bolte’s Raymonda is visibly more doubting of her Prince’s devotion. Bolte is resident guest principal (another of those oxymorons we’ve been encountering of late!) and quite a bit older than Martin. Robert Curran plays her Prince. He’s less Princely than Heathcote, less comfortable with the trappings of his position, but his devotion -- his power -- is made visible through his dance and, especially, his powerful lifts.
Prince Jean de Brienne (Steven Heathcote)
declares his love to Raymonda (Kirsty Martin)
Now, it might seem like I am drawing a long bow, here. Over reading. But dance has a very strong metaphorical role in Baynes’s ballet. Especially in the first act and a half. Dance as attention, dance as an enactment of love. It’s even a euphemism for sex.
We sense that Raymonda fears that her Prince won’t have enough time for her. (Much of Raymonda’s dance in the first act is done on her own. ) Her Prince doesn’t partner her as often as she’d like. Adam and the other members of the “Rat Pack” are the epitome of oily charm. They’re all too willing to dance with her. But they put it about a bit too much for Raymonda’s liking.
Raymonda knows what she wants, but will she get enough of it?
By way of contrast, in the second cast (Bolte and Curran and with Matthew Lawrence as Adam Drake) and even more so in the third cast (Rachel Rawlins and Tristan Message with Welch reprising his ratpacker role), Raymonda doubts her worthiness and, perhaps, her desirability.
Rawlins is more girlish as Raymonda, and her prince is the youngest of the lot. (Message is a soloist with the company, all other key roles are taken by AB principal artists.) And, correspondingly, this Raymonda is the least convinced of her Prince’s love. Indeed, in the late night scene where the Prince suddenly declares his adoration for Raymonda, Message’s protestation looked a little like the backlash of guilt, as if he had done something he was ashamed of.
The other variable in the equation is the Prince’s old flame, a princess in her own right, Arabella, played by Olivia Bell, Lynette Wills and Danielle Rowe. When Kirsty Martin meets Olivia Bell, Raymonda -- still a commoner -- goes to curtsey before the Princess Arabella. Bell stops Martin before she bobs down. But, in the second cast, Wills fails to stop Bolte from bowing. In the third cast, Rowe even goes as far as placing a patronising hand on the shoulder of Rawlins.
These differences might appear minor, but the fit between pieces of these separate puzzles is too tight to be incidental.
Another illustration. The second scene of the first act is set in Europe, in the palace, the day before the wedding. Raymonda’s friends are visiting while she has a veil fitting. The four friends crowd around Raymonda as she scrutinises herself in a mirror. The lights change and Raymonda apparently steps out of the picture. As performed by Martin, Raymonda does a small circle of her friends. We feel her sense of unreality. Of dissociation. But there’s also a distinct feeling that Raymonda is somehow above it all.
When Bolte steps out of the scene in the second cast, it has an entirely different significance. She’s thinking: “They don’t see me...” She steps out and back.
Likewise, in the ‘nightmare’ sequence, Raymonda dreams that the Prince’s family rejects her and that he marries Arabella instead. (In her dream, the Prince is ‘played’ by her Hollywood co-star, Adam Drake! Such are the idle thoughts of people who impersonate others for a living!) In the first cast, Kirsty Martin looks on with puzzlement. Bolte, however, seems fearful of the possibility. Again, there’s this sense that Bolte doesn’t believe her good fortune. Doesn’t believe that the royal family could possibly accept her. With Martin, the choice apparently remains with her.
As you’ve possibly guessed by now, this Raymonda is not a choreographic masterpiece. The dance is very much at the service of the scenario. It’s discreet rather than flashy. Modest even. It gives the dancers an opportunity to execute it brilliantly rather than being brilliant in its own right. But, at every point, the dance advances the action. (I wonder how long it will be before Baynes is snapped up to choreograph -- or even direct -- a full-blown musical?)
Bucks and hens
Martin is an exquisite Raymonda. She is, far and away, the one to see, if you have that choice. (Thanks to a minor ankle injury, she won’t be performing at all during the brief Adelaide season. Fingers crossed if you are in Sydney.) She carves the air, shapes it, with the easy swish of her limbs.
Matthew Lawrence is less of a cad than Damien Martin as Raymonda’s co-star, Adam Drake, but he makes the role more dancerly.
Lucinda Dunn as Phyllis in Raymonda
Each cast has its riches. I’d hate to have to choose between Lucinda Dunn and Madeleine Eastoe as Raymonda’s girlfriend Phyllis. Gaylene Cummerfield and Camilla Vergotis are excellent, too, as Lucille.
Above all, this is a romance for grown-ups. It’s a fantasia for lovers of beauty and style. It’s escapism from the ugly reality of skanky 21st century stars and starlets. It’s a myth, a beautiful illusion, a dream, for those who need to believe in a world of gods and goddesses. In a sense, it is the perfect ballet: all form, no function.
OTHER AUSTRALIAN BALLET REVIEWS:
bodytorque 3 -- face the music (June 2006)