American Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadère'
by Jerry Hochman
May 18, 19, 2010 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York
Sitting in the audience for the first full-length performance of the first week of American Ballet Theatre’s 2010 season at the Metropolitan Opera House, it was difficult not to see ghosts. Not just the spirits, the shades, who fill the stage during Act II of “La Bayadère,” which will be presented during this first week, but the images of the dancers who performed principal roles previously, and the memory of the first performance of this landmark production thirty years ago.
On May 21, 1980, Natalia Makarova’s staging of the “La Bayadère,” based on the original 1877 production choreographed by Marius Petipa, premiered at the Met. [Makarova’s staging of Act II alone had already been performed by ABT for several seasons.] The production was clearly a labor of love, a meticulous recreation, and creation, of a work that Makarova had previously seen performed, and had danced in, before she defected from the Soviet Union. But it was more than that – it was Makarova’s gift to the West, and to the audiences throughout the world that would be privileged to see it.
Before its opening, rumors had spread that ABT had spared no expense for this production, and that it was, even by the standards of that time, exceptionally expensive. But whatever it cost, the money could not have been spent more wisely. The production was not so much lavishly opulent as it was sumptuously sophisticated. “Perfect” is probably the wrong word to describe the production, but the feeling that every inch of every aspect of the production was as perfect as it could ever be, without going over the top, is the way it appeared to me in the audience then, and the way it still appears now – from the ravishingly beautiful scenery created by Pierluigi Samaritani (I remember thinking, at the time, that the way the sets looked to the eye seemed to be a reflection of the way his name sounded to the ear); to the equally sumptuous costumes designed by Theoni V. Aldredge; to the pitch-perfect lighting by Toshiro Ogawa, to the arrangement of the Ludwig Minkus music by John Lanchbery (who had a singular ability to make his arrangements for ballet sound better than the original).
And then, of course, there was the choreography and the cast.
I can’t speak for what ballet performances were like prior to Natalia Makarova’s arrival in the West – the first live ballet performance I ever saw, which happened to have been soon after she joined ABT, included a Makarova pas de deux. But whether she alone set the standard, or simply raised the bar, she (together, perhaps, with Gelsey Kirkland, who was then dancing with NYCB) delivered the electric charge that propelled ballet into a Golden Age of astonishingly talented dancer/actors and widespread public appreciation and acclaim. Perhaps this Golden Age resulted as much from a convergence of other factors: the growing emphasis on physicality and beauty; media focus (including the ardently written proselytizing of Clive Barnes, whose reviews recruited me); cheap student-rush seats; the impact of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn before, and to an even greater extent Mikhail Baryshnikov after. But Makarova was magic, and from the point of her arrival forward, ballet became part of popular culture, and ballet dancers became stars.
So, considering her accomplishments to that point, it came as no surprise that Makarova’s choreography for “La Bayadère”, was as perfectly conceived and executed as were her performances, with not a step too many or too few, clearly defined characterizations, and understated technical fireworks that didn’t overwhelm the piece or stop the movement of the story. What was a surprise (at least to me), was how extraordinary the production was as a whole. It was, and is, a multi-faceted but constantly focused and cohesive work of ballet theater, with a non-stop fluidity that mirrors the fluidity of Makarova’s performances. “La Bayadère” is more than a treasure unearthed – it is a miracle. It’s also serious fun to watch.
The story fits neatly within the panoply of 19th Century Romantic ballets. Set in romantic India, Solor, a warrior hunk, and Nikiya, the hottest of the bayaderes (temple dancers), are in love. The powerful but dense High Brahmin also loves Nikiya – but she spurns his advances. Over a Sacred Fire, in the presence of the gods, Solor swears his love for Nikiya. Unfortunately, this vow was also made in the presence of the High Brahmin, who watched it while peeping through a curtain. The High Brahmin vows revenge. [So far, it sounds a little like a Hindu “Giselle.” But bear with me.]
Into this already unstable situation comes Gamzatti, the beautiful daughter of the Rajah. After seeing Solor’s portrait image, Gamzatti falls madly in love with him. Some guys don’t even need to be there in person…. The Rajah, perhaps as much to create an alliance with the popular warrior as to make his little girl happy, orders Solor to marry Gamzatti. After a brief hesitation to contemplate the consequences of defying the Rajah, and recognizing that marrying Gamzatti really wouldn’t be all that bad a lifestyle choice, Solor eventually agrees to do so -- in violation of his sacred vow to Nikiya. [Shades of “Swan Lake.”] In the meantime, to eliminate what they considered to be a potential threat, the Rajah and Gamzatti vow to destroy Nikiya.
While dancing, as commanded, at Solor and Gamzatti’s engagement party, Nikiya is killed by a poisonous snake that Gamzatti or the Rajah or Gamzatti’s servant Aya planted in a basket of flowers. Bummer. The High Brahmin tries to save her by offering an antidote. [He really wasn’t such a bad guy – but he was dense.] But, seeing a seemingly indifferent Solor leave the festivities with Gamzatti, Nikiya decides she’d rather die. And does. And all this is just Act I.
Wracked with guilt, Albrecht, I mean Siegfried, I mean Solor, then has this really strange opium-inspired dream that he and Nikiya will live together forever in the kingdom of the Shades, a nirvana where earthly troubles vanish and love conquers all. At the wedding the next day, after Solor and Gamzatti exchange vows, the angry gods destroy the temple (after all, Solor lied to them too), everybody dies, and Solor and Nikiya are reunited as spirit lovers for eternity; dead, but happy together.
The ballet takes the superficial complexity of the story and adds depth and emotional intensity, making the story appear not only credible, but memorable in its depiction of love, betrayal, vengeance, and redemption. But this production takes the ballet to an even higher emotional level. While perhaps not as powerful as one of its Romantic predecessors, “Giselle,” or one of its Romantic successors, “Swan Lake,” to me the success of Makarova’s “La Bayadère” arises from its delicious and pervasive sensuality. Fueled by the lush scenery, costumes, and music, the piece is infused by choreographic lyricism that permeates every scene (particularly Act III, which Makarova rescued, reconceived and honed to perfection) and that makes the action not just move, but pulse and flow like the Ganges River as it leaves the Himalayas. “La Bayadère” is not only a work of art to be appreciated; it is a work of passion to be loved.
Of course, Makarova created, and instantly set the standard for, the role of Nikiya, the temple dancer who is the heart of “La Bayadère.” But she also created, and allowed others to set the standard for, every character in the production, from the incomparable Anthony Dowell’s Solor to Alexander Minz’s High Brahmin. And no one who I’ve seen dance Gamzatti does it better than Cynthia Harvey, who created the role on opening night.
The performances on May 18 and May 19 simply added luster to Makarova’s miraculous production.
Diana Vishneva was, well, Diana Vishneva. Except for an unnecessarily dour demeanor, she inhabited Nikiya the way she inhabits every other role, and executed flawlessly. After watching her dance as often as I have, it still amazes me that she can do everything. But she also takes chances – calculated I’m sure, but they come across as daring. At times, during the Act II finale, she seemed to spin so fast during a series of chaîné turns, I was sure she would lose control – but she didn’t. This was followed by hops backward in arabesque, propelling herself so far with each backward chug that I was sure she’d fall – but she didn’t.
Veronika Part’s Nikiya, at the May 19th performances, was as sublime as Ms. Vishneva’s, but in different ways. Ms. Part is beautiful to watch, and her characterization was spot-on. As I’ve previously written, no one does pathos better than Ms. Part – and her Nikiya conveyed appropriate sadness rather than resentment or anger. But she didn’t show the same technical facility that Ms. Vishneva did: She’d come off pointe too soon and too fast, or would not seem to move fast enough in the chaîné turns (but, compared to Vishneva, no one would). But this is hyper-technical – it was a wonderful performance.
Both Gillian Murphy and Michele Wiles were excellent Gamzattis – Ms. Murphy as commanding as she seems always to be, and Ms. Wiles showing marked improvement. The only criticism I have – which isn’t a criticism of either of them -- is that they (particularly Ms. Wiles) wore pasty-looking make-up that made them appear malevolent. The extra help was superfluous - both Ms. Murphy and Ms. Wiles can deliver malevolence perfectly well by their acting ability alone. As Gamzatti’s servant Aya, Karen Ellis-Wentz on the 18th and Sarah Smith on the 19th will eventually add necessary nuance to the role – and Ms. Smith needs to find a way to look less pretty. [I never thought I’d ever make that comment.] Victor Barbee’s High Brahmin on both nights was up to his customary high dramatic standards.
Craig Salstein, at the May 19 performance, danced the Bronze Idol with his usual exuberance and finesse. But Daniil Simkin’s performance on May 18 was extraordinary. While other Bronze Idols make you feel exhausted just by watching their constant movement, and seem to just-barely-make-it back to position before the music runs out, Mr. Simkin made it look easy, and at the end didn’t even appear out of breath. In demi-soloist roles, the three lead shades on both nights were excellent, particularly Leann Underwood on May 19 (Christine Shevchenko, at the same performance, showed considerable promise after overcoming initial nervous jitters). Both Isabella Boylston and Katherine Williams stood out in the May 19 Pas D’Action. As I noted last year, both are dancers to watch.
Which brings me to Marcelo Gomes, who danced Solor at both performances (he subbed for an injured Roberto Bolle on May 19). As I have frequently observed, Mr. Gomes is an extraordinary dancer – not so much because of his ability to do extraordinary things with his body (which he certainly can do), but because he understands that he doesn’t need to. This isn’t to say that he’s not technically accomplished – of course he is. But he’s much more than that. As good as he is on his own, he’s an even better partner. He’s on stage not just for himself, but for whomever he’s partnering – it’s never just about him. Mr. Gomes has a genuine and perceptible ability to make his ballerina, whoever it is, look good. As a direct result, he makes himself look good, and the entire production look even better than it already is. And he does it all with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that makes you believe he’s having fun. The fact that he filled in at the last minute for Mr. Bolle, and gave an even better performance than he did the night before (which is difficult to understand, since his performance the night before was exemplary), proves (as if proof were necessary at this point) how essential Mr. Gomes is to the company. Simply put, in this writer’s opinion Mr. Gomes is the most valuable dancer on ABT’s roster.
But as accomplished as these individual performances were, as distinguished as individual performances have been since its premiere, and as impressive as individual performances surely will be in the future, it is the vision of Natalia Makarova’s production of “La Bayadère” that dominates the memory. One cannot remember “La Bayadère” without recognizing and celebrating Makarova’s miracle. And so, when the May 18 performance ended and, after the initial curtain calls, Kevin McKenzie brought Ms. Makarova on stage both to celebrate the ballet’s thirtieth anniversary and to honor her, the surprised audience erupted as if its appreciation and respect for this remarkable ballerina and choreographer had been bottled up for years. As beautiful as ever (perhaps more so; no longer dancer-thin, she looks softer and more serene than when she was performing), seeing her was a special treat. And yet another gift from Natalia Makarova.