Metropolitan Opera House, New York, New York; May 24(m), 2014
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 because of two Kirov Ballet defectors – Rudolph Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. American Ballet Theatre has performed the three act Petipa-Makarova ‘La Bayadere’ since 1980. The sheer majesty of Makarova’s staging of this work is astounding. She has streamlined much of the Petipa production while keeping the Soviet era choreography for the male solos. Most importantly Makarova 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 envisioned by Marius Petipa, a Frenchman living in 19th century St. Petersburg, Russia. Nikiya, the lead bayadere (temple dancer) loves Solor, a warrior of the noble class. Solor returns her love but he is commanded by the Rajah (ruler) to marry Gamzatti, the Rajah’s daughter. In Act I, Scene I the High Brahmin (priest) proclaims his love for Nikiya but she rejects him. Later the High Brahmin overhears Nikiya and Solor declaring their love for each other. The High Brahmin swears that he will kill Solor.
In Scene II the High Brahmin tells the Rajah of Solor’s treachery. The High Brahmin is horrified when the Rajah decides to kill Nikiya, not Solor. Gamzatti, already in love with Solor, tries to bribe Nikiya to give up Solor. When Nikiya refuses Gamzatti’s offer of jewelry, Gamzatti pledges that she will destroy Nikiya.
Scene III is Gamzatti and Solor’s betrothal ceremony. As lead temple dancer Nikiya is forced to dance in honor of the newly engaged couple. Gamzatti’s servant, Aya, gives Nikiya a basket of flowers, saying they are from Solor. The basket contains a 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. Act III is Gamzatti’s and Solor’s wedding day. The vision of Nikiya still haunts Solor. As Gamzatti and Solor say their vows, the gods unleash their fury, destroying the temple and killing everyone at the wedding. Nikiya and Solor are finally united in the afterworld
I have delighted in the opulent loveliness of Makarova’s ‘La Bayadere’ close to 20 times. I have fallen under the spell of many different Nikiyas, Solors and Gamzattis as they danced their tale of betrayal and true love finally conquering all (even an earthquake sent by the gods). Chief among them are Nina Ananiashvili, Julio Bocca and Gillian Murphy and Veronika Part, Marcelo Gomes and Michele Wiles. I can now add to the list the names of Veronika Part, James Whiteside and Stella Abrera.
Veronika Part is a dancer born to play Nikiya in ‘La Bayadere’. She is a wonderfully lyrical performer with glorious extensions. Her beautifully pliant upper body clearly shows Nikiya’s despair when Solor becomes engaged to Gamzatti. Part’s Nikiya is an innocent young girl.
Her love for Solor is her whole world and she cannot understand the machinations of the High Brahmin, the Rajah and Gamzatti. In the Kingdom of the Shades, Part shows off her powerfully high grand jetes. She is the perfect vessel for Ludwig Minkus’ score. I have only one small quibble with Part’s performance. Her turns at the end of Act II lack speed.
Having seen Part dance Nikiya in the past (with Marcelo Gomes) I was expecting a great performance from her. This is my first time, however, seeing James Whiteside in a leading role in a full length ballet. His Solor is a revelation. Whiteside stands out for his soaring leaps with the softest of landings. His double barrel air assemble turns are spot on. Whiteside’s Solor truly loves Nikiya but he is a man of the world. He knows a lowly temple dancer can never marry a warrior of the noble class. That being said, Nikiya’s death brings Solor to the edge of misery. After he has seen Nikiya in the Kingdom of the Shades Whiteside’s Solor know that he will never willingly marry Gamzatti. Fortunately the gods are on Nikiya’s and Solor’s side (the side of true love) and as already mentioned at the end of ‘La Bayadere’ Nikiya and Solor are reunited in the afterworld.
As magnificently as Part and Whiteside dance separately, magic occurs when they dance together. Whiteside is a wonderfully attentive partner and the chemistry between Part and Whiteside is palpable. As much as I loved the partnership between Part and Gomes, I now look forward to seeing Part and Whiteside perform together for many years.
Stella Abrera delivers a marvelous characterization of Gamzatti, the Rajah’s daughter. She is a haughty beauty who has learned much about treachery and deceit from her father. Abrera’s Gamzatti really loves Solor and she believes this gives her the right to do anything to win him. Overall Abrera’s dancing is strong though she does fall off pointe at the end of the betrothal ceremony.
Thomas Forster’s High Brahmin needs more work. I miss Victor Barbee’s flesh and blood portrayal of the role. Grant DeLong is a powerful Radjah who radiates command and authority. Joseph Gorak is the best Bronze Idol I have seen since Herman Cornejo. The Bronze Idol dances a brief but incredibly difficult solo which involves speeding up and braking at a breakneck pace. I don’t think Gorak is yet up to the level of Angel Corella or Cornjeo, but he’s close. I don’t understand why Gorak has not been promoted to soloist.
No review of ‘La Bayadere’ would be complete without mention of the female corps de ballet in Act II. I doubt that there is any more beautiful sight in classical ballet than the moment when the Shades float down the ramp in the moonlight, their leg out behind them in arabesque position. I see one or two tiny bobbles once the Shades reach the stage, but they do not detract from the magic. Overall the corps’ arabesques are well timed and in sync.
I have seen a few other versions of ‘La Bayadere’, among them Rudolph Nureyevv’s staging for the Paris Opera Ballet. Nureyev’s ‘La Bayadere’ concludes with the Kingdom of the Shades Act (Makarova’s Act II). While it was great to see the ballet end on such a high choreographic point, for me there is no closure. I also enjoy the fact that in Act III of Makarova’s ‘La Bayadere’, evil is punished (with the deaths of Gamzatti, the Rajah and the High Brahmin) and the lovers are finally united in the afterworld. I hope ABT keeps dancing Makarova’s version of ‘La Bayadere’ for many years to come.