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American Ballet Theatre

Marius Petipa's 'La Bayadère'

by Colleen Boresta

May 22, 2010 matinee -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Marius Petipa’s La Bayadère has been danced in Russia since its premiere in 1877. We in the West, however, were only introduced to the splendors of this balletic jewel in the second half of the 20th century. This was mainly due to the efforts of two Kirov Ballet defectors – Rudolph Nureyev and Natalia Makarova.

American Ballet Theatre has danced the full-length Petipa-Makarova La Bayadère since 1980. Noted ballet critic, Mary Cargill, has called this production Makarova’s gift to ABT. I certainly agree with her. The sheer spectacle of Makarova’s staging of La Bayadère is remarkable. She has streamlined much of the original ballet, while also keeping the Soviet era choreography for the male bravura solos. Most importantly, Makarova has choreographed a final act for La Bayadère. This act was discarded by the Soviets in the early 1920’s.

La Bayadère is set in the royal India of the past – India as imagined by a Frenchman (Petipa) living in 19th century St. Petersburg. Nikiya, the lead bayadere (temple dancer), is in love with Solor, a warrior. Solor also loves Nikiya, but he is told by the Radjah that he must marry Gamzatti, the Radjah’s beautiful young daughter. In Act I, Scene I the High Brahmin (priest) declares his love for Nikiya, but she rejects him. Later the High Brahmin sees Solor and Nikiya declaring their love for each other. The High Brahmin vows to kill Solor.

In Scene II, the High Brahmin tells the Radjah of Solor’s treachery. To the High Brahmin’s horror, the Radjah decides to kill Nikiya, not Solor. Gamzatti, already in love with Solor, overhears this conversation and decides to bribe Nikiya to give up Solor. When this doesn’t work, Gamzatti swears she will destroy Nikiya.

Scene III is the betrothal of Solor and Gamzatti. Nikiya is forced to dance in honor of the betrothed couple. Gamzatti presents Nikiya with a basket of flowers containing a deadly snake. The snake bites Nikiya and she dies.

In Act II, a grief-stricken Solor smokes opium and dreams he is reunited with Nikiya in the Kingdom of the Shades. In Act III, it is Solor and Gamzatti’s wedding day. The vision of Nikiya continues to haunt Solor. As Gamzatti and Solor say their vows, the gods unleash their fury and destroy the temple and everyone at the wedding. Nikiya and Solor are reunited in the afterworld.

I have delighted in the sumptuous beauty of Makarova’s La Bayadère close to 20 times since 1980. I have fallen under the spell of many different Nikiyas, Solors and Gamzattis as they danced their tale of treachery, deceit and love finally conquering all (even an earthquake). Chief among them are Nina Ananiashvili, Julio Bocca and Gillian Murphy and Veronika Part, Marcelo Gomes and Michele Wiles. Unfortunately Julie Kent as Nikiya and José Manuel Carreño as Solor at the May 22nd matinee failed to live up to my high expectations from the past.

Julie Kent is a sweet and vulnerable Nikiya, but with regard to her dancing she is not a good fit for the role. In her Act I solo, her back lacks the suppleness needed to show Nikiya’s poignancy. In Act II her jumps are void of both power and height. At the end of Act II her diagonal turns across the stage are missing both speed and precision.

Jose Manuel Carreño is a Solor full of heat and passion. He still has enough charisma to set the stage alight, but at this point in his career his leaps are not quite as high as they used to be. In Act II one of his double barrel assemblé air turns went badly off center. Sad to say, it seems that this great dancer is slowing down.

On a more positive note, Hee Seo’s Gamzatti is a wonder. It is hard to believe she is still in the corps. Seo’s Gamzatti is a spoiled princess whose daddy has given her everything her heart desires. Her longing looks at Solor during the betrothal scene show how much Gamzatti loves Solor, but also wants to control him. Seo’s dancing is spectacular, especially the fouettes she whips off at the end of the betrothal pas de deux.

Roman Zhurbin is a powerfully fierce High Brahmin who mimes his scenes beautifully. As the Radjah, Alexandre Hammoudi looks the part, but seems to be controlled by his daughter, Gamzatti. Jeffrey Golladay is a high-flying whirling dervish of a head fakir.

In the role of the Bronze Idol, Carlos Lopez is very exciting. The Bronze Idol dances a brief, but incredibly difficult solo which requires speeding up and braking at a breakneck pace. As good as Lopez’s performance is, it does not erase the images of Herman Cornejo and Angel Corella as the Bronze Idol. I am looking forward to the day (if it ever comes) when I see a Bronze Idol at least equal to Cornejo and Corella in the role.

No review of La Bayadère would be complete without mention of the corps in Act II (the Kingdom of the Shades). I doubt that there is any more beautiful sight in classical ballet than the moment when the shades float gently one by one down the ramp in the moonlight, their leg stretched behind them in arabesque position. I saw a few wobbles once all 24 shades had reached the stage, but they did not detract from the magic. Overall, the corps’ arabesques were well-timed and in sync.

I have seen a few other productions of La Bayadère - most notably Rudolph Nureyev’s staging for the Paris Opera Ballet. Nureyev’s La Bayadère ends with the Kingdom of the Shades Act (Markarova’s Act II).  While it was wonderful to see the ballet conclude on such a choreographic high note, for me there was no closure. I also love the fact that in Act III of Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère evil is punished (with the deaths of Gamzatti, the Radjah and the High Brahmin) and the lovers are reunited in the afterworld. I hope ABT keeps dancing Natalia Makarova’s staging of La Bayadère for at least another 30 years.

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