How It's Done: Finding Flair

Hungarian spice heats up Raymonda’s “clap variation.”
Published in the April/May 2012 issue.

Ballet Arizona's Tzu-Chia Huang as Raymonda. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Raymonda is rarely performed in full anymore. But one section still thrives: the spectacular third act wedding celebration, which includes the principal solo that’s affectionately known as the “clap variation.”   

Choreographed by Petipa in 1898, Raymonda is the story of a young noblewoman betrothed to a handsome knight. Their love is tested by war and another suitor, until it ultimately triumphs. The plot is simple yet Raymonda’s character presents challenging dualities: She uses sassy port de bras, but has a noble carriage. Although the music sounds serious, at this point in the ballet Raymonda is marrying the man she loves. “The variation has a very distinct elegance and poise,” says Sabrina Lenzi, ballet mistress of Houston Ballet II, “but it also needs warmth.”

Understand The Context

Raymonda’s performance is, for the most part, restrained and dignified. However, there are touches of the exuberant czardas character dance. “There’s this sense of Hungarian pride,” says Lenzi. Late-nineteenth-century Europe saw a rebirth of nationalism in all aspects of life, including dance. Petipa seems to have been tapping this. You can even hear the Hungarian influence in the score by Alexander Glazunov.

Seamless Bourrées

The choreography is mostly bourrées. Although they should look easy and understated, bourrées are deceptively difficult. “The back foot needs to be very active,” says Lenzi. Keep it constantly moving into a more crossed fifth position. The movement only makes an impact if you really travel. “From that initial moment of stillness, it should look as if the breath takes over and sweeps you across the stage,” says Lenzi. “Feel like you’re being pulled from the center of your back. It slows, then quickens and slows again before finding the stillness of the ending position.” Don’t let the quick movements of the feet disrupt the softness of the upper body.

A Flashy Finish
Raymonda’s youthful energy seems to erupt in the final diagonal. The sequence begins with three lightning-quick passés to fifth position. Keep the accent down. “Everything must be tight in each landing,” says Lenzi. Make sure your fifth is completely crossed and turned out, especially the downstage leg. 

The fourth passé lands in fourth position and immediately launches into a pirouette. Don’t get spin-happy here—you don’t have time. “Keep tension in the feet so you can quickly push off the floor,” Lenzi advises. “The fourth is not a dead position.”
You can land the pirouette with either a plié on the standing leg and then jeté into attitude, or a battement forward out of the passé while still on pointe and tombé into attitude. Whichever version you choose, travel forward as you come out of the pirouette. Says Lenzi, “If that front leg stays underneath, you have to battement attitude behind you, which makes the rib cage splay so you lose your center.”

Port De Bras With Character
The very distinct shape of the czardas-like pose where the hand touches the back of the head is this variation’s signature. Emphasize the contrast between the fluid, grand port de bras during the bourrées with the stillness of the pose. Have fun with it: Hitting the position with personality gives the movement some spice.

And, of course, the variation also requires something quite rare in classical ballet: claps. While some coach dancers to clap almost silently, Lenzi encourages dancers to make noise. “Contrast is very important here,” she says. “You need the inner strength and drama of an explosive clap before going into that refined fifth position.” As you pas de cheval into fifth after the first clap, keep your arms low and below the shoulders to present yourself to the audience. As you reach fifth, Lenzi says to lift “your sternum, your inner self and your pride.”