My Moscow guidebook says November is the worst month to visit the city, as it is “dirty and slushy.”   Perhaps, but we barely cared if it were so---since we went there specifically to see Nina dance Raymonda at the Bolshoi.

This Friend had seen Nina only twice in this gorgeously elegant and challenging role---at London’s Coliseum during the Bolshoi season there in 1999. It has remained a treasured memory and time being as implacable as it is, I was eager to repeat the experience and see the ballet presented in its full splendor on the magnificent Bolshoi stage.

Though billed as a new production, the current version by Yuri Grigorovich (with extracts from the 1898 Petipa original, and the subsequent Alexander Gorsky restaging) is really only a slight retouching of the one that the Bolshoi has presented since 1984. The sets, designed by Simon Virsaladze, remained basically the same, with the blue and silver backdrops brightened up and the costumes refreshed but in the same colors. Choreographically, the excision of the role of the “White Lady” is the most obvious, if dubious, novelty.  A new variation for Jean De Brienne seems to have been added and a few steps changed in one of Raymonda’s endlessly fascinating variations.

Nina was kind enough to make arrangements to allow us to attend a stage rehearsal the day before the performance. This was basically to allow the principals to get accustomed to the canvas floor that is apparently still de rigueur for all Grigorovich-Virsaladze productions. Nicolai Fadeyechev supervised the rehearsal from a seat on the front of the stage. This simply added to our awe of how much tradition is honored in the company.

The evening of November 6 turned out to be clear and crisp. The sold-out crowd buzzed happily as we all made our way to our seats. Then the dream began.

Alexander Glazunov’s score remains one of the treasures of the ballet repertory. It sets the tone for the beautifully realized episodes in the story.  Raymonda’s entrance into the great hall of the Chateau de Doris, preceded by a group of her friends, leads to the first of many enchanting variations that test the ballerina’s command of all the “little” steps that serve as a virtual pedigree---the delicacy, precision and ease with which these steps are executed demonstrate the quality of the schooling; but beyond that, the inner beauty of the dancer is exposed by the manner in which she executes these steps. In my personal experience, no ballerina has come closer to an ideal Raymonda than Nina. It is as if Petipa had her in mind when he created the role. Technically, she is impeccable. As befits the title prima ballerina, she has all the qualities necessary to lift the ballet to the realm of art: the carriage and self-assurance of a beautiful aristocrat, the buoyant spirit of youth, and the tenderness of a woman loved and in love.

Her Jean De Brienne was Sergei Filin, who is even stronger in the role now than in 1999. His portrayal has gained depth---he projects a more heroic De Brienne, a stalwart warrior who is also a solicitous lover. His jumps and leg beats, always classically pure, have been imbued with more meaning. Yuri Klevtsov was a dynamic Abderakhman, exploding into jumps and stalking Raymonda with the grace of a passionate tiger. Raymonda’s friends, Clemence (Maria Alexandrova) and Henriette (Ekaterina Shipulina) provided contrasting images of ballerina pulchritude---Alexandrova brightly sparkling in her boldness, Shipulina exuding softer allure. Their cavaliers, Bernard (Ruslan Skvortsov) and Béranger (Alexander Vorobiev) were courtly partners.

The brilliant Bolshoi corps de ballet provides the majestic milieu for this fanciful tale involving French and Hungarian Crusaders, Moorish warriors and a damsel in distress.  Though the story line may be a mess (see the 1999 “As We See It” review), the choreography is treasurable and is the reason Raymonda remains an important ballet in the classical repertory. (American Ballet Theatre is to present a new production in its Spring 2004 season at the Metropolitan Opera. See Nina’s dates in the Schedule.)

The curtain opens to reveal the sumptuous great hall of the Chateau de Doris, where courtiers are gathered for a farewell to the knights leaving for a Crusade. In the first of their many pas de deux, it becomes clear that Raymonda and De Brienne are deeply in love. The knight sweeps up Raymonda in a series of low lifts---at one point carrying her tenderly in his arms, with her head on his shoulder. He gives her a diaphanous stole just before leaving.

Raymonda, left alone with her friends, tries to comfort herself by playing a lyre---but soon begins to dance with the stole---weaving it around and wrapping herself in it. Clemence and Henriette join her in swaying movements, seconded by Bernard and Béranger. Finally she is left alone on the stage. The lights dim, and as in a moonlit dream, she is transported to a magic garden where De Brienne appears to her. In their ensuing pas de deux, De Brienne supports Raymonda in lyrical turns---with many changes in directions and positions---but seemingly performed in a single unbroken breath, culminating in a mesmerizing, slow spiral in attitude before a coda of pirouettes.

Other visions appear---Nelli  Kobakhidze and Natalia Malandina were superb in their variations---and after another solo by Raymonda, De Brienne briefly reappears before vanishing again. His place is taken by a more sinister figure---a mysterious Saracen who pursues Raymonda and tries to carry her off.

In Act II, Raymonda realizes that her “dream” was a portent of things to come. During festivities at the castle, a Saracen warrior, Abderakhman, arrives with his retinue.  He is immediately attracted to Raymonda. When she dances in ensemble with her friends, he interposes himself to partner her repeatedly. Abderakhman woos Raymonda with presents and dances by his slaves. She is both fascinated and repulsed by his aggressive pursuit. Not to be thwarted, he is about to abduct Raymonda when the Crusaders return. De Brienne kills the Saracen in single combat.

Act III, the wedding of Raymonda and De Brienne, is a celebration of pure dance, featuring a suite of Hungarian-inspired ensembles, duets and solos. Here is where the superb training and spirit of the company really shines.  They embody a court full of gallant lords and proud ladies in their bearing, beauty of line and precision in response to the pronounced beats of the music and choreography. To see line upon line of difficult lifts, jumps and positions executed with such élan is heartlifting. A group of four men performing a set of jumps in perfect unison was particularly impressive. Nina Kaptsova was excellent in the female variation.

Here also, a solo for De Brienne allowed Filin to display his exquisite form---he never failed to end his explosive jumps with grace and in perfect position. And what more can I say about Nina.  Her whole, wonderfully proportioned body is an exquisite instrument of expression and articulation. Watching her lift her arms up or tuck one hand behind her tilted head in rapid yet delicate harmony with bourrées and sharply angled leg positions is to surrender to dance enchantment. A day after this performance, we visited the Kremlin’s Armory---famous for its collection of jewels. None of them surpassed the beauty of Nina as Raymonda.

(See Video Captures of Rehearsal and Backstage Scenes)

Spider's Note: I have long watched in amazement Nina's technical facility, convinced that one would have to go back in history for comparisons. After seeing her in Raymonda for the first time, I am compelled to think of great singers. If Nina were one, she should only be compared to the great opera singers Adelina Patti and Maria Barrientos in technical security, control and articulation. Coupled with her instrument (beautifully proportioned body, expressive face and eyes), which conjures the beauty of Tebaldi's and Ponselle's voices in one's mind, she would have been an incomparable singer indeed.