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American Ballet Theatre

'La Bayadere'

by Colleen Boresta

May 26, 2012 (m)-- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, NY

Marius Petipa’s ‘La Bayadere’ has been danced in Russia since its premiere in 1877. We in the West, however, were only introduced to this masterpiece in the second half of the 20th century. This was due to the efforts of two Kirov Ballet defectors – Rudolph Nureyev and Natalia Markarova. American Ballet Theatre has danced the full-length Petipa-Makarova ‘La Bayadere’ since 1980. The sheer spectacle of Makarova’s staging of the ballet is extraordinary. She has streamlined a good deal of the Petipa version, while keeping the Soviet era choreography for the male solos. Best of all, Makarova has choreographed a final act for ‘La Bayadere’. This act was discarded by the Soviets in the early 20th century.

‘La Bayadere’ 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), loves Solor, a warrior of the noble class. Solor loves Nikiya as well, but he is told by the Radjah that he must marry Gamzatti, the Radjah’s daughter. In Act I, Scene I the High Brahmin (priest) declares his love for Nikiya, but she rejects him. Later the High Brahmin overhears Solor and Nikiya pledging their love for each other. The High Brahmin vows to kill Solor.

In Scene II, the High Brahmin informs the Radjah of Solor’s duplicity. Upon learning of this, the Radjah decides to kill Nikiya, not Solor. Gamzatti overhears this conversation and decides to bribe Nikiya to give up Solor. When this doesn’t work, Gamzatti swears that she will get rid of Nikiya.

Scene III is Solor and Gamzatti’s betrothal ceremony. As lead temple dancer, Nikiya is forced to dance in honor of the engaged couple. Gamzatti’s servant, Aya, gives Nikiya a basket of flowers containing a deadly snake. The snake bites Nikiya and she dies.

In Act II Solor smokes opium and dreams that he is reunited with Nikiya in the Kingdom of the Shades. Act III is Solor and Gamzatti’s wedding day. The vision of Nikiya continues to haunt Solor. As the High Brahmin is about to marry Solor and Gamzatti, the gods unleash their fury and destroy the temple, killing everyone at the wedding. Nikiya and Solor are finally united in the afterworld.

As Nikiya, Gillian Murphy is a wonderfully lyrical dancer with a technique of steel. Her beautifully flexible upper body clearly shows the despair she feels when Solor becomes engaged to Gamzatti. In the Kingdom of the Shades, Murphy stands out for her precise footwork and powerfully high grand jetes. At the end of Act II she whirls across the stage at a breakneck pace.

Russian guest artist, Denis Matvienko, is an extremely exciting dancer to watch. He moves with lightning speed and his double barrel air assemble turns in Act II are absolutely perfect. Matvienko’s acting, however, is not nearly as strong as his dancing. His Solor is a cipher. It is not at all clear whether or not he loves Nikiya. His feelings toward his fiancée, Gamzatti, are also vague. Unfortunately there is no chemistry between Matvienko’s Solor and Murphy’s Nikiya.

As Gamzatti, Simone Messmer’s acting is as strong as her dancing. She is a thoughtfully controlling young woman who will do anything to win the man she loves. The crystalline sharpness of her movements are magnificent, especially the fouettes Messmer whips off at the end of the betrothal pas de deux.

Victor Barbee delivers a flesh and blood characterization of the High Brahmin. He is ashamed of his unrequited passion for Nikiya, but totally unable to control his feelings. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Radjah lacks any sense of power or majesty. In the Bronze Idol solo, Arron Scott is very good, but he does not begin to erase my memories of Angel Corella or Herman Cornejo in the role.

The all-important corps dancers in the Kingdom of the Shades are somewhat disappointing. The shades start out well, floating gently one by one down the ramp in the moonlight, their leg stretched out in arabesque position. When they all reach the stage, however, the wobbles begin. One of the shades in the first row has a leg so shaky that I am really distracted.

Despite these few weaknesses, I really love ABT’s production of ‘La Bayadere’. Other versions of this ballet end with the Kingdom of the Shades act (Makarova’s Act II). While it is wonderful to have ‘La Bayadere’ end on such a choreographic high note, for me there is no closure. I also love the fact that in Act III of Makarova’s ‘La Bayadere’ evil is punished (with the deaths of Gamzatti, the Radjah and the High Brahmin) and the lovers are joined forever in the afterworld. I hope ABT keeps dancing Natalia Makarova’s staging of ‘La Bayadere’ for many years to come.

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