In 1877, Marius Petipa of the Imperial Russian ballet choreographed two ballets. One was to become arguably the most popular classical ballet of all time, the other languished in later decades and, until relatively recently, only a part of its second act was performed. In 1877, audiences regarded the two productions in a very different way. La Bayadère was received rapturously, Swan Lake comparatively coolly with some distaste for that undanceable Tchaikovsky music…
The revival of Bayadère as a full-length ballet is pretty much single-handedly down to Natalia Makarova – and this is the version on stage now at Covent Garden (also to be shown live in cinemas on 13 November). If you’re concerned about cultural appropriation, look away now.
Bayadère is all about exoticism, in this case India and temple dancers, opium and fire rituals (not to mention a particularly dopey looking trophy tiger). Petipa regularly used other cultures, folk tales and dances to give added spice to his classical technique but he also absorbed the nuances of these dances into his choreography. Here, it is most clearly seen in the role of Nikiya the temple dancer whose sinuous grace is perfectly captured by Marianela Nunez – does she have solid bones?
Nikiya rejects the advances of the High Brahmin (Gary Avis – never trust a man in baggy pants) but falls hopelessly for the returning warrior Solor (Vadim Muntagirov). He returns her passion and they swear eternal love over the sacred fire of the temple – but of course it’s not meant to be. The Rajah announces his plan for Solor to marry his daughter Gamzatti. Gamzatti tries to persuade and even bribe Nikiya to let Solor go. But Nikiya refuses and tries to stab Gamzatti who determines to kill her. Dancing at the betrothal of Gamzatti and Solor, Nikiya is handed a basket of flowers. Hidden inside is a snake. It bites Nikiya but she refuses the antidote when she sees Solor take Gamzatti’s hand.
The second act centres on the Kingdom of the Shades. This is a scene that is utterly simple and utterly hypnotic. Exit harem pants and enter white tutus. The corps de ballet become 24 Nikiyas performing the same quiet recurring pattern of steps and tilted arabesques as they slowly fill the stage. They are Solor’s grieving, opium-fuelled vision of his dead love and this corps was perfect – pure precision and moving gravity. The three soloists, too, were all superb – Yuhui Choe, Yasmine Naghdi and Akane Takada.
When Solor wakes from his dream and goes back to the temple for his wedding, the air is full of omens. A candle dance by Nikiya’s fellow temple dancers recalls the sacred fire over which the lovers swore their oath. A basket of flowers is handed to Gamzatti, identical to the one given to Nikiya. Solor falters in his vows and eventually the gods have had enough and the temple crashes down, burying everyone.
So a ballet with (not unusually) plenty of melodrama and a pretty farcical plot, then. The role of Gamzatti is a particularly tricky one as she is clearly the main villain but also the victim of an arranged marriage herself. Natalia Osipova is a marvellous baddie, with an unflinching gaze as she paces steadily towards her victim and steely panache as the sophisticated Rajah’s daughter. Her technique is fabulous in Gamzatti’s diamond-sharp classical role – it will be interesting to see what happens when the two main ballerinas swap roles later in the run.
As Nikiya last night, it was the marvellous Marianela Nunez. She was filled with outrage at the Brahmin’s advances, luminous and lyrical as the shade who haunts Solor. As Solor, Vadim Muntagirov was master of his technique (an uncommonly bendy male spine there) but lacked colour – it was hard to see why two such passionate women would be so fixated on him.
The set by Pier Luigi Samaritani is ravishing, a series of Claude Lorrain paintings set in the tropics and Yolanda Sonnabend’s costumes are equally gorgeous. The orchestra was under the baton of Boris Gruzin who had some changes of tempo that must have proved alarming for the dancers. The centrepiece of the evening, though, was a perfectly executed Kingdom of the Shades – a corps on absolute top form.
La Bayadère at Royal Opera House Covent Garden until 17 November 2018. Production images by Bill Cooper. For more information and tickets please visit the website.