At the Bolshoi, Raymonda is considered the ballerina’s Spartacus because the eponymous role requires exceptional stamina. Raymonda is on stage for much of the first and second acts, and dances four pas de deux and six variations in addition to several group dances.

Since she joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 2011, Olga Smirnova has been hailed as an extraordinary talent. She began dancing solo roles immediately and rose quickly through the ranks. Last month – at the age of 24 – she was promoted to principal dancer status. Her debut as Raymonda has been much anticipated and marks a milestone in an already impressive career for one so young.

Raymonda was choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1898 for the Imperial Maryinsky Ballet to a lush, romantic, and rousing score by Alexander Glazunov – his first for a ballet. In 1948 it was restaged for the Kirov Ballet by Konstantin Sergeyev, who revised some of the original choreography. Yuri Grigorovich’s version for the Bolshoi Ballet premiered in 1984 and was restaged in 2003 with minor revisions. Grigorovich simplified the original libretto considerably and the result is a ballet with a bare minimum of mime and non-stop dancing – folk, ethnic, and pure classical. In the first act, Jean de Brienne visits Raymonda at her aunt’s castle prior to departing for a crusade led by the king of Hungary.  In the second scene, Raymonda is re-united with de Brienne in a dream, but he suddenly departs and a Saracen knight appears and declares his love to Raymonda, who is frightened  by his appearance and intense passion. Act I ends as she awakens from her dream.

In Act II, Aberakhman, a Saracen knight accompanied by а large retinue, comes to the castle. Raymonda, recognizing him from her dream, is both frightened and repelled by his advances. When she rejects him and his offer of riches, he becomes enraged and attempts to abduct her but she is rescued by de Brienne, who has just returned from the Crusades. He and Abderakhman fight and the latter is killed, declaring his love for Raymonda with his last breath.  In Act III, de Brienne and Raymonda are married with the blessing of the Hungarian king, in whose honour the wedding festivities include a Hungarian dance.

Smirnova’s performance as Raymonda was nothing short of extraordinary. Her musicality, exquisite line, elegant bearing, supple back, and beautiful arms combined to create a harmony of movement that was breathtaking. She excels in adagio and while her allegro dancing lacks the energy of some other ballerinas, she danced all aspects of this demanding role with a commanding assurance that is astonishing for her age. While Raymonda is not a dramatic role, it does require emotional expressivity and the only aspect of Smirnova’s performance that could be improved is her facial expressiveness. Onstage, she often has an impassive expression, which makes her appear lacking in warmth and much older than her years. With coaching and experience, this aspect of her characterization should improve.    

Denis Rodkin as Jean de Brienne was a reliable partner, dancing with strength and elegance. The role does not require much in the way of dramatic skills but Rodkin conveyed ardent affection for his betrothed. Mikhail Lobukhin was impressive as Abderakhman – dancing with powerful energy and dramatic intensity.

The corps de ballet – particularly the women – did triple duty with numerous character and classical dances in all three acts. The dream sequence at the end of Act I with 36 female corps dancers was a marvel of intricate inter-weaving dance patterns. The Hungarian Dance in Act III was energetically performed with 40 corps de ballet members and 4 soloists. It was followed by Petipa’s acclaimed Hungarian Pas de Dix, which was elegant and rousing in equal measure.   

Smirnova’s debut is a performance that will be long remembered. She will dance the role again in December, when the production is refurbished and moved to the historic stage.