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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2009

This appears to be the first of a projected series of DVDs dedicated to the choreography of Rudolf Nureyev, the ballet phenomenon who died in 1993. This documentary film was made in 1998 by François Roussillon to honor the great ballerina Yvette Chauviré, as well as to zero in on Nureyev’s particularly intense rehearsal and performance methods. In the course of the film, which is riveting and tightly structured, one sees and hears Nureyev rehearsing as well as talking to the press about his work, but more important, the reactions and reminiscences of many who worked with him. Among the great stars who appear in the film are Sylvie Guillem, Isabelle Guérin, Laurent Hilaire, Charles Jude, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Maurin, and Kader Belarbi.

What comes across most forcefully is Nureyev’s passion for dance, his almost demonic work ethic, his encyclopedic knowledge of styles from classic French to modern dance, and most interesting of all, his little-known musical education. I had no idea that Nureyev was a skilled harpsichordist who particularly loved the fugues of J. S. Bach, or that he studied conducting so that he could someday direct a performance of one of his ballets from the orchestra pit. Because of his all-encompassing knowledge of both ballet and musical styles, he was able to achieve a synthesis in his stage productions that not only “filled the stage,” as all great choreographers do, but also followed the score virtually note for note. As one dancer remarked, quickly but tellingly, Nureyev had a corresponding movement for almost every note in the score.

Upon taking over the Paris Ballet in 1983, Nureyev quickly established “his” method of rehearsal: “Everyone show me what you’ve got, let it all hang out and don’t hold back, and I’ll decide who fits in where.” This didn’t sit too well with a few then-established stars who found themselves eventually relegated to secondary roles, but even the gripers admitted that Nureyev was fair. The new hierarchy he established within the company was based entirely on talent. Favoritism had nothing to do with personality; indeed, some of those he chose for lead roles were some of those who resented his workaholic methods the most. In 1986, when Legris was suddenly chosen as Tartar chieftain Abderachman in the New York premiere of Raymonda over Jude, who had been performing it for three years, Legris was stunned—he didn’t even know the whole part! Later, after the performance, he thanked Nureyev for the opportunity. Nureyev’s reply was typical: “You don’t need to thank me. My choice had nothing to do with my liking you more than Charles. You’re just better at certain moves within the role, that’s all.”

In an earlier review I wrote of Alexander Glazunov’s symphonies, I criticized his modest and quite predictable thematic development, but I have no such reservations about his score for Raymonda. It is, quite simply, brilliant. Freed of the constraints of developing music over long stretches of time, Glazunov allowed his imagination free rein. The result was one of the most varied, colorful, and interesting scores in the entire history of ballet. He truly outdid himself in attempting to create a work that was as interesting to hear as to dance to, including an innovative finale in which the prima ballerina dances to a solo piano with only occasional interjections from the winds and pizzicato strings.

The dancing and choreography are simply overwhelming in their effectiveness and exuberance. Nureyev completely revamped Petipa’s original version, adding a “danced fugue,” additional motion for the wooden horses of the infidels, and upgrading Abderachman’s role to include extraordinarily difficult and highly effective moves based on Tartar folk dance. His modus operandi was to choose the most interesting moves, not necessarily the most difficult or flashy, and always keep things in motion. As one ballerina put it, in most choreography you have a little “breathing room” between dances, but in Nureyev’s staging you went from whirling in one scene to a six-minute Adagio of extraordinary difficulty. “All you want to do is rest for a minute, and you have to control your body for what seems like an eternity!” she lamented.

Watching this DVD left me wanting to see a complete Paris performance of Nureyev’s Raymonda, but alas, it isn’t available at the moment. Perhaps Arthaus Musik will do us the favor of issuing it someday. In the meantime, I sincerely hope that this isn’t a one-shot release, and that we’ll get to see more videos of other Nureyev choreographies.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, June 2009

Why is Glazunov’s Raymonda—choreographer Marius Petipa’s last great achievement—not better known?

In the first place it is long…And, for substantial stretches at a time, very little appears to be happening on stage…And, quite frankly, when something is happening, it can be rather difficult to decide what it signifies. Who or what is the White Lady? Is the Saracen prince Abderahman a real person or is he merely an erotic fantasy figure that Raymonda dreams into life when faced with the prospect of marriage to the unexcitingly vanilla “good guy” Jean de Brienne?

Once you accept the threadbare plot, however, Raymonda has two saving graces that have kept it in the repertory of the world’s major ballet companies—Glazunov’s lush score and Petipa’s choreography.

Although Rudolf Nureyev had produced other stage works for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) before, Raymonda—hardly known at all in France until then—was his first major project with them after becoming their Director in 1983 and this documentary film examines his approach to that production. The new boss had stressed from the outset that he wanted the Paris company to move out of their comfort zone and into new directions, yet he simultaneously believed that classical ballets such as Raymonda should remain at the heart of the repertory.

As the film’s interviewees repeatedly make plain, Nureyev was no easy taskmaster. He sidelined several dancers, promoted (and perhaps over-promoted) others, had obvious favourites, was autocratic and difficult and, while meticulously demonstrating his own conception of all the on-stage roles (both male and female) in fine detail, would insist at the same time that the dancers personalise them too.

The Paris Opera Ballet’s strength in depth offered him, though, the means he needed to bring to the stage his vision of Raymonda—basically Patipa’s but stripped of the inauthentic traditions that had been added on over the years and with a new emphasis on the male roles, especially that of Abderahman. It allowed him, for instance, to cast some of the company’s biggest names in what had hitherto been considered secondary roles. POB’s extensive material resources also gave him the opportunity to indulge himself with some remarkable sets and costumes—such things were never mere decoration in a Nureyev production. Brief glimpses we are given—of knights jousting from wooden horses pushed by the men of the corps de ballet or of a breathtaking coup de théâtre when, in just a few seconds, a roll of cloth is magically transformed into a stunning oriental tent—certainly make one want to see the production in full.

The quality of the dancing too is exceptional and is—even in very brief extracts which are often cut between various soloists—another reason to watch this film. Sadly, though, the process of interviewing dancer after dancer draws us deeper and deeper into rather precious luvvie-speak so that whole passages can emerge as obvious candidates for Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner. Fortunately, though, once in a while one of the interviewees makes a crystal clear point, the most succinct and apposite of which occurs at virtually the end of the film: “He [Nureyev] was a great artist. He had a feeling for music, stories, situations and characters. That’s how he had a clear vision and a precise idea of how he wanted to tell a story. And he knew how to tell it to the persons working with him.”

This documentary is, it goes without saying, best enjoyed by someone who has already become familiar with the ballet itself. Fortunately, as an internet search will quickly reveal, there are several excellent performances available on DVD, though sadly not, as far as I can see, one of POB in Nureyev’s production. My own shelves hold enjoyable versions featuring Kolpakova/Berezhnoi/Selutsky at the Kirov—now the Mariinsky—in 1980 (VAI 4447); a 1987 Bolshoi production featuring Semenyaka/Moukhamedov/Taranda (Kultur D1170); and Bessmertnova/Vasyuchenko/Taranda at the Bolshoi in 1989 (Arthaus Musik 100 719). This documentary film makes an interesting supplement to them all.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

Dancer’s Dream: The Great Ballets of Nureyev – Minkus: La Bayadere (Paris National Opera, 2002) (NTSC)

Dancer’s Dream: The Great Ballets of Nureyev – Glazunov: Raymonda (Paris National Opera Ballet, 1999) (NTSC)

The great ballets of Nureyev, his choreographic take on Petipa’s La Bayadère and Raymonda, are the subject of documentaries (Bayadère 107023; Raymonda 107 015). Through interviews, especially with dancers who worked with Nureyev (who had worked with people who worked with Petipa), the tradition is enhanced. This is strictly for fans of ballet history. There are numerous samples of choreography, excerpts from the ballets in question, appreciations of Nureyev by ballet stars of the Paris Opera. What does not occur is a full presentation of either ballet. If that is what you are looking for, seek elsewhere.

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