In the original, girl meets knight; knight goes to the Crusades, ‘Saracen’ kidnaps girl; knight rescues girl from ‘Saracen’ castle — they get married. The end. Tamara Rojo has called for more narrative and drama and given us a revamped Raymonda with more athletic parts for male dancers.
Set in the Crimean War, Raymonda leaves her rich family (sewing peacefully) to go and be a nurse. Her family (to a lesser extent Raymonda) are impressed by a nice British chap and soldierly type, John, and want her to get engaged to him post haste. Raymonda is unsure — shown in her arms being pinned awkwardly by her side when he embraces her kindly, and in pulling one way, off balance, when they dance together.
Then his Turkish (Ottoman really) ally, Abdul arrives and after a skuffle between the English, French and Turkish troops, maybe Italian as well, there is a ball. It is also Adbul who rescues Raymonda after she is pushed and falls. He has terrific and impressive moves! (though to be fair all the male dancers do). Despite social niceties and deep social disapproval, Raymonda is persuaded to dance with him, and they dance together passionately, smoothly, in sync. He even keeps his cool as she’s held upside down and her crinolines cover his head! But it’s too late — she’s already engaged, to his ally, the nice chap. What will she do? Dance in a dream with Abdul and John, distracted between the two of them, that’s what.
Ultimately, marry the nice chap as it turns out. Which is heart breaking as her solo is less triumphant and exultant and more forced by family and social-cultural expectations. She drifts reluctantly to look at the very handsome Turkish ally as he arrives at the celebration and then goes back to her nice chap, who clearly loves her. Although clearly her heart is elsewhere. But no-one noticed as it’s all fantastic clapping and stamping Hungarian dancing — essentially a vein of ‘everybody Polka’, the dance so beloved by 19th century romantic society.
Whilst I want her to remain swooping and soaring with the Turkish ally instead, Raymonda is a ballet of narrative storytelling throughout — her dancers act and the action keeps going all the time, even in the background. There are divertissements throughout (in the form of Russian dancers, Spanish dancers, I’m not sure what as a large group, a Polish Masurka group formation, a society lady very distracted by two handsome Spanish dancers, army officers really going for it and in Raymonda herself). When Raymonda does her solo at her wedding, it’s more recalling her love for the Turkish ally than her triumph at being rescued, and true love restored. The accompanying background music is beautiful yet mournful — the musicians are on stage at this point — comprising a violin, clarinet, cimbalom and hurdy-gurdy. And yet, at the end, Raymonda seemingly gets called away from her wedding to nurse (and in dancing with lamps at points, the ballet celebrates the nurses of the Crimean War)…