Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda ticks all the boxes. It boasts a ravishing score to rival Tchaikovsky by Alexander Glazunov (played with gusto by the 65-strong ENB Philharmonic). It has a plot that, in Lucinda Coxon’s rewrite, is plausible and relatable (what woman hasn’t been tempted by a man whom her friends have warned her against?). And it’s a real company showcase, both for Petipa’s original choreography and Rojo’s additions: no dancer is allowed to play it safe (particularly the men, breathtakingly pushed to their limits here), and everyone has a ball.

English National Ballet in Raymonda
© Johan Persson

Premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1898, Raymonda has rarely been performed outside Russia in its entirety due to its incomprehensible plot which, based on the medieval Crusades, perpetuates offensive racial stereotypes – the “noble” Christian French knight Jean de Brienne, engaged to Raymonda, being pitted against the “barbaric” Muslim warrior Abederakhman, who abducts her. Instead, it became popular to reproduce the ballet in divertissement form, Nureyev’s tableaux of Act 3 dances for The Royal Ballet in the mid-‘60s becoming a regular fixture this side of the pond.

English National Ballet in Raymonda
© Johan Persson

Rojo was in awe of Petipa’s choreography – for the eponymous role in particular, created on Pierina Legnani – and also Glazunov’s score, but wanted to find a new context. Thus, with Coxon she has relocated the story to the 19th-century Crimean War, drawing on the figure of Florence Nightingale to create a Raymonda who redefines the role of women in wartime and society. This Raymonda is not content to stay at home and sew, so she hot-foots it from England across the Black Sea (Alexander Gunnarsson’s video projection charts her progress, by horse-and-carriage, then ship) to Sevastopol. There, she tends to injured soldiers, and is reacquainted with John de Bryan, a family friend, who has joined the Light Brigade. As he leaves for battle, he persuades Raymonda to accept his hand in marriage. His friend, Abdur Rhaman, an ally from the Ottoman army, promises to take care of Raymonda until de Bryan returns.

Isaac Hernández (John de Bryan) and Shiori Kase (Raymonda)
© Johan Persson

As Raymonda, Fernanda Oliveira is feisty and single-minded, reluctant to commit herself to de Bryan (a dashing Francesco Gabriele Frola, his bravura matched by fellow soldier Daniel McCormick) but urged to show compassion by Sister Clemence, the regally poised Precious Adams. And Raymonda is attracted to Abdur, a glowering, swaggering Erik Woolhouse who relishes the Turkish-imbued choreography: Karate Kid hands, flexed feet and splayed knees. The backdrop is a black-and-white photograph of a bleak landscape, set within a picture frame (a photographer hovering on the periphery reminds us that the Crimean War was the first conflict to be photographed). Set designer Antony McDonald creates a sense of space (essential here, where full-company numbers dominate), while his costumes are some of the best I’ve seen for ballet – of the period, yet never stiff or unyielding.

Shiori Kase (Raymonda)
© Johan Persson

While Rojo has, with scholar Doug Fullington, consulted the original Stepanov notations of Petipa’s choreography, she hasn’t been afraid to embrace the new – significantly adding a dream sequence to Act 1 (set to more Glazunov unearthed by Music Director Gavin Sutherland, who, with Music Librarian Lars Payne, has also cut and reordered the score). This pays homage to the fallen but also features a gorgeous pas de trois for Raymonda and her suitors. In addition, there’s some stunning work from the corps, evoking the Willis from Akhram Khan’s Giselle (but wielding lamps, not sticks) and, later, the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère.

For Act 2, we’re transported to Abdur’s tent – cue Persian rugs and lanterns, harem pants and fezzes. There’s a sensuous pas de deux, Abdur shoulder-shimmying and sliding on his knees toward Raymonda, until, thrillingly, the roles are reversed and the seduced becomes the seducer.

Shiori Kase (Raymonda) and Jeffrey Cirio (Abdur Rahman)
© Joan Persson

For anyone familiar with Nureyev’s lavish, Imperial Ballet setting, Rojo’s Act 3 is a breath of fresh air. Here we have Hungarian farmhands from Raymonda’s estate, expressing their unbridled joy at their mistress’s marriage to de Bryan. This is rustic, foot-stomping, body-slapping stuff, the Hungarian accents feeling authentic and unapologetic (Rojo credits character dance specialist Vadim Sirotin for reworking these numbers; she also acknowledges Ceyda Tanc for familiarising her dancers with traditional Turkish dance movement). With musicians playing hurdy-gurdy and cimbalom onstage, it all feels like one huge, improvised knees-up.

Shiori Kase (Raymonda)
© Johan Persson

Compared to The Royal Ballet’s Natalia Osipova’s instinctive musicality and sinuous lines, Oliveira is rather muted here. Then again, she’s marrying a man she doesn’t fancy. It’s frustrating to watch someone whom Rojo wanted to make a modern heroine slip back into her pre-defined role – I’d have loved to see Raymonda throw herself into Abdur’s arms at this point. But that isn’t to detract from an overall euphoric production, which surely deserves to find a permanent place in ENB’s repertory – no less a legacy than Rojo, soon to depart for San Francisco, deserves.

****1