Rojo’s choreographic updating is a visual feast: English National Ballet's Raymonda reviewed

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

London International Mime Festival: Gandini Juggling — LIFE

Sadler’s Wells

Velvet waistcoats, technicolour tulle and some very spangly harem pants — English National Ballet’s atelier must have been mighty busy prepping for Raymonda, Tamara Rojo’s lavish new reboot of Marius Petipa’s 1898 ballet. Antony McDonald’s costumes shimmer as vibrantly as his stage design, and Rojo’s choreographic treatment is its own visual feast, packed with pinwheeling set pieces that repackage Petipa’s fearsome technique with their own pizazz.

I can’t say the narrative is quite so electric, even with its conscientious redraft, which excises the xenophobia of the original scenario, along with its damsel-in-distress storyline, and trades the 13th century for the 19th, with the Crusades swapped for the Crimean War. In this iteration, Raymonda (Shiori Kase) pursues a calling as a wartime nurse and finds herself caught between a clean-cut British soldier (Isaac Hernandez) and a slick Turkish ambassador (Jeffrey Cirio). I say ‘finds herself’ because despite the bid to give Raymonda more agency here, things still mostly seem to happen to her. A Good Man proposes to her, and so she finds herself engaged. A Sexy Man flirts with her, and so she finds herself torn. The will-she-won’t-she scuffle is definitely an improvement — no scary foreign rapists here! — but we’re not left with much tension, unless you count freighted Victorian mores. It’s only at the end, when Raymonda rejects both men in favour of her vocation, that her voice starts to emerge.

However, classical ballet is remarkably resourceful with paper-thin plots, and this show works hard to inhabit its Victorian setting and all its connotations of hearth and home. Act One is a sepia portrait of chummy soldiers and tender nurses on the front line, while Act Three transports us to the English countryside for windmilling petticoats and a heel-clicking wedding jig. In between, a sultry Turkish soirée serves up a flight of radiant character dances, the company skipping in time to Alexander Glazunov’s zippy score, coiling their hands into curlicues. As a production, it’s distinct and impactful while deftly nodding to other 19th-century classics, from Giselle to La Bayadère.

The best sequences belong to the ensemble — including a wispy moonlit gambol, the nurses sporting lanterns à la Florence Nightingale — but the leads have their own highlights: piercing sissones in Hernandez’s dapper solos, nimble footwork from Kase as she follows the music’s surprising swerves. Cirio is in his element as the hot-blooded ambassador, barrelling in a gold bolero, his eyebrows raised as though he too is impressed at just how high he’s soaring. Sparks fly in Kase’s duets with each suitor; what’s missing, though, is a grand pas de deux to clinch the romance.

As far as performance styles go, juggling seems miles away from the experimental mechanics of Merce Cunningham, but circus troupe Gandini neatly threads the two in LIFE, a tribute to the late modern dance choreographer. Clean lines and outstretched poses pepper the show — gestures at Cunningham technique — while addresses from the founder Sean Gandini reveal a deeper link, including an early tutorial on the basics of juggling. As he dives into the difference between throwing a ‘five’ versus a ‘three’, the poppy metric of the four-ball ‘fountain’, how erasing balls from the equation altogether still has its own value ‘because zero encompasses infinity’, you can sense his affinity for the shapes, patterns and calculations that defined Cunningham’s career, the artistic meld of technical and conceptual, pedestrian and performative.

The compositions that follow are intricate, serene and totally mesmerising. Balls soar and bodies glide, skating towards what Cunningham once called ‘the possible gift of freedom’. The performers set three, four, even five balls into motion at a time, spooling their arms with the casual grace of a spider weaving a web. Choreographed to rise and fall in rhythmic arrangements (some simple, some devilishly convoluted), the balls ripple like jets in a water display, spritzing on cue before landing in hands with a satisfying thwack. Rings and batons eventually enter the mix too, the three combined in a humming lyrical climax that syncopates beautifully with Caroline Shaw’s one-woman music machine in the corner.

Early phrases incorporate the language of the ballet barre, the jugglers crouching in deep plié, pitching forward into penché, fluttering on their tiptoes. One shoots off a series of grand jetés, flinging her balls outwards for others to catch. Later the troupe reworks a section of Cunningham’s CRWDSPCR, from 1993, delivering a quirky homage of swift, swivelling arm configurations. It’s not about imitating the piece but capturing its angularity and pulsing cadence. As the tempo intensifies, the slicing and dicing becomes ever more playful. We tend to associate juggling with illusion, but in LIFE it’s wonderfully accessible.

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