Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; May 24 (m, e), 28 (m, e)

Jerry Hochman

Alina Cojocaru and Herman Cornejo in La Bayadère.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Alina Cojocaru and Herman Cornejo in ‘La Bayadère’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre’s production of “La Bayadère” is one of those miracles for which adjectives of praise are superfluous. But I’ll give it a shot anyway.

There is nothing about “La Bayadère”, which was re-created by the legendary Natalia Makarova, that isn’t the perfect ballet entertainment. It’s exciting, stunning, sumptuous, sensual, exotic, and hypnotic. It’s accessible (one doesn’t need to think too hard), beautiful to watch on all levels (sets, costumes, staging), has a bewitchingly gorgeous score, and features non-stop dancing with a variety of movement qualities that fit each scene like a glove and look different from moment to moment. It also happens to be a really good ballet. It’s the perfect ballet to attend whether one is skittish about ballet or is an experienced balletomaniac, has a short attention span or is fascinated by a ballet classic. Indeed, for any reason at all – including the dubious opportunity to see more imported guest artists in a week than one might normally see in an entire season.

Since its premiere in 1877 in St Petersburg, the ballet has had several revivals, each with its own additions and changes. But has been added or subtracted from the original matters less to the viewer than what’s seen in the production the viewer sees – and in the case of this version by Makarova, what is seen is marvelous regardless of its historical antecedents: the choreography and the music (skillfully arranged by John Lanchbery, who as I’ve noted previously had a singular ability to make an arrangement sound better than the original) take your breath away

When Makarova’s “La Bayadère” premiered at the Met in 1980, the first full-length production in the West, it was then considered to be ABT’s most expensive production. Whether that is true does not matter – the fact that it looks exquisitely opulent without being overbearing is testament not to the money spent, but to the good taste that spent it. The sets, by PierLuigi Samaritani, are to get lost in; the costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, particularly the multiple costumes for Nikiya but also those for the corps dancers in the themed dances, are extraordinarily sensual; and the lighting, by Toshiro Ogawa, captures the mood of the different scenes perfectly. It all looks just as wonderful today as it did when I saw it at its premiere.

And as substantively stimulating and deliciously entertaining as all the choreography is, what is perhaps most indelible is Act II (the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’). The ‘kingdom’ is viewed by the audience as Solor’s opium-induced vision of a Nirvana-like twilight dimension where spirits of the dead (except for Solor – who within the confines of his dream might as well be) live in a rarified state of timelessness. Then, suddenly, what had been an exotic ballet becomes a spiritual experience.

American Ballet Theatre in the Kingdom of the Shades from 'La Bayadère'. Photo © Marty Sohl

American Ballet Theatre in the Kingdom of the Shades from ‘La Bayadère’.
Photo © Marty Sohl

As the Shades, the spirits, descend down a diagonal incline as if off a mountaintop, each in a pure white tutu with added diaphanous fabric connecting their forearms to their shoulders, they look like winged angels – but they’re not winged (this is an Eastern religious experience, not a Western one), and the effect is mesmerizing. The otherworldliness continues long past the point where the downward arabesque promenade exhausts, as the shades form parallel lines that reference images in illuminated manuscripts or paintings. The dancer/spirits who populate these lines (they’re not artificial patterns; they’re moving lines that create a mystical, hallucinogenic effect) repeatedly lift themselves up off the stage floor in unison, as if to emphasize their heavenly weightlessness. And the spirituality continues through the pas de cinq by Nikiya, Solor, and the three lead Shades. It’s all a breathing, expanding and liberating ritual; a moving tantra.

Perhaps the most magnificent moment of all, on a spiritual level, is early in the vision – after the shades have concluded their entry – when Solor slowly follows Nikiya offstage and the audience visualizes him deep in his own trance-like religious experience, his body moving as if by an invisible force. No dancing; just walking into the wings, as if on air, in a state of enlightenment.

Through all this, one watches, mesmerized by the choreography and by the impeccable execution by the ABT dancers who move individually and yet as one body. The extended period of applause that the corps receives, which stops the action every time, is well-deserved.

In all the years that I’ve seen “La Bayadère” since its premiere, none of the casts has matched the brilliance of its initial lead cast – Ms. Makarova’s Nikiya, Cynthia Harvey’s Gamzatti, Anthony Dowell’s Solor, and Alexander Minz’s High Brahmin. But the ballet is so good that it’s difficult to make any of its characters look bad – certainly none of the four casts I saw this past week did. But there were clear differences. To me, the most successful of the Nikiyas was Alina Cojacaru’s on Saturday 24th evening; the most successful of the Solors was her partner, Herman Cornejo. But the most eagerly awaited performance was that of guest artist Olga Smirnova, who made her ABT debut in the role the following Wednesday evening, partnered by a more ‘veteran’ ABT guest artist, Vadim Muntagirov.

Olga Smirnova in 'La Bayadère'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Olga Smirnova in ‘La Bayadère’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Ms. Smirnova is an interesting dancer, and her appearance exemplifies ABT’s guest artist policy at its best, and at its worst. Of all the ‘new’ guests this year, and they are legion, she represents a typical ballerina as ABT has frequently presented them over the years. She is young (she is not yet even a Bolshoi principal), but already has an international reputation. She has a technique that’s clear as a bell, brilliant musicality, and a commanding stage presence. Since, at least for the time being, ABT has lost Natalia Osipova (who will be returning with the Mikhailovsky Ballet in November), Ms. Smirnova’s appearance is a reasonable attempt to maintain that ‘guest artist’ tradition.

But one of the consequences of importing a guest artist for a one-shot performance, aside from eliminating an opportunity that could have been given to a home-grown dancer, is that Ms. Smirnova, as finely crafted as her portrayal was, is so stylistically different that she looked out of place even if her execution, by Bolshoi standards, may have been spot on. And highlighting a dancer who performs so distinctively emphasizes an unfortunate reality: every time ABT imports a guest with a different set of stylistic values, it creates a different stylistic reference point – and since ABT imports so many guests, it has multiple stylistic reference points, and no clear style that it can call its own.

Ms. Smirnova is a beautiful and strong dancer, and she’s extraordinarily physically expressive. Her limbs seem to have a mind of their own. Everything looks extended and somewhat affected; every gesture emphasized and exaggerated. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just different. Similarly, her body appears to contort itself in different and unexpected ways, most notably, when she assumes a subservient position (which happens frequently in Act I) and when her body doesn’t just get ‘smaller’, it twists into an awkward S-shape with her supple back curved inward while her shoulders and hips are contorted the opposite way. It looks uncomfortable for her, and comes across the same way to a viewer. And her beautiful long lines are repeatedly marred by hands that are angled down, pulling her line down with them – so instead of a clean line from shoulder through fingertips, there’s a break. Again, it’s not a ‘fault’ – it’s a different style. Much of it is lovely, but it can also look jarring.

There’s also an unfortunate characteristic of her performance that may not be attributable to a different stylistic background: her blank expression. I noted the same thing when she appeared at a Youth America Grand Prix Gala earlier this spring. As beautiful as she is to watch, she’s in her own world, and doesn’t seem to care to connect with the audience. I never felt drawn in. Except for a few smiles of exhilaration when she sees Solor, it all appeared monochromatic. While this was appropriate for Act II’s dream scene, where facial expressiveness would not be correct, it diminished her Act I. Perhaps the cause was justifiable nerves and the need to concentrate so as not to get caught up in slight staging differences from those she’s used to (which I understand happened with another guest artist this week). Perhaps it also was her partner. There appeared to be no chemistry at all between Ms. Smirnova and Mr. Muntagirov, which made Act I almost painful to watch. While his dancing came to life in Acts II and III (his Act I was relatively moribund), Ms. Smirnova was still less a partner/love interest than someone who happened to be sharing the same stage.

Ms. Cojocaru, on the other hand, was an exemplary Nikiya in every respect. Since she was unable to dance due to injury last year, I anticipated that her technical ability might have been impaired, but this was not the case. Like Ms. Smirnova, she also brings stylistic differences with her performances, but here hers enhanced the portrayal. One was particularly intriguing – at the top of a lift, she’d stop the action ever so slightly as if frozen in time. One might think that this would adversely affect the choreographic flow, but it didn’t – on the contrary, it made ‘routine’ lifts look breathtaking.

Hee Seo in 'La Bayadère'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Hee Seo in ‘La Bayadère’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Of course, credit for her fine performance also goes to her partner. Mr. Cornejo was a dominant, rather than dominating, Solor. From his first moment on stage, he was in command. He was a war hero – he wasn’t playing one. More important than his characterization, however, was his execution and his partnering. In both respects, he danced with excitement, and the combination of his aerated jumps, clean leg beats, and extraordinary turns (though never milked beyond reason), with his attentive partnering and connection with Ms. Cojacaru, made it one of his finest performances.

Veronika Part’s Nikiya suffered in two respects, with one probably being a consequence of the other: first, though she executed the choreography without any visible deficiency, she seemed tentative and unexciting; second, there was no connection between her and her Solor, James Whiteside. They were two separate entities. This was Mr. Whiteside’s New York debut in the role, and perhaps there was a lack of confidence on both their parts, but whatever the reason, and although it was not at all a bad performance from either of them, it didn’t gel. And Mr. Whiteside’s perpetual snarl didn’t help.

But in his second effort, at Wednesday’s matinee, Mr. Whiteside improved considerably (and killed the snarl). Now he was a powerful Solor, not quite as commanding or accomplished as Mr. Cornejo, but his portrayal was very well realized. And for whatever reason, his Nikiya, Paloma Herrera, appeared energized. She executed the choreography well, but of equal importance, she was a ‘presence’ with the right emotional attitude. I’ve been critical of Ms. Herrera’s performances in recent seasons, but this one was on the mark.

Misty Copeland in 'La Bayadère'.  Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Misty Copeland in ‘La Bayadère’.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

In these performances I saw three different Gamzattis – Stella Abrera on Saturday matinee; Misty Copeland on Saturday evening and Wednesday matinee; and Hee Seo on Wednesday evening. All three were quite good. Ms. Copeland has a powerful aura about her and her Gamzatti was a particularly dominating one. But Ms. Seo was every bit as forceful, with a delicacy and intelligence that made for an interesting combination of personality traits (although I would have preferred to see her as Nikiya). Ms. Abrera’s Gamzatti seemed more forced emotionally, but was the most technically outstanding of the three. Of the two Bronze Idols I saw, Arron Scott did a fine job; but Joseph Gorak gave the role a different dimension. His body appears lankier than others I’ve seen dance the role who rely as much on power as finesse. But his execution was smooth as silk. His was the most elegant of Bronze Idols.

In other roles of note, Roman Zhurban was a diminutive High Brahmin, but appeared more powerful than Thomas Forster in the same role. As the head fakir, both Luis Ribagorda and Craig Salstein performed admirably, but Alexei Agoudine at Wednesday evening’s performance was the most exciting of the three. Gamzatti’s servant, Aya, which is a small but significant non-dancing role, was well-played by the three dancers I saw: Nicola Curry, Kelley Boyd, and Zhong-Jing Fang. Of the three Rajas spread across the four performances, Alexandre Hammoudi was the most commanding.  And once again demonstrating that there are no small roles, Sterling Baca, who performed the role of Solor’s Friend, gave the strongest portrayal of the three I saw.

Finally, all the ballerinas who danced the three ‘featured’ Shades performed well, but assigning some of these roles to soloists is unfortunate on two levels: it’s demeaning to the soloists, who should be given more weighty assignments, and to members of the corps, who should be given the opportunity to climb the ladder, but have to wait behind soloists who in turn have to wait behind guest artists. And the situation is worse for ABT’s male dancers: of the eight total performances scheduled, only three ABT danseurs performed the role of Solor (with Mr. Whiteside dancing it twice); the other four performances were divided among three guest artists.

Regardless of the casting, however, “La Bayadère” is a ballet that anyone would enjoy. The one regret I have about ABT’s week of performances of it is that it’s over, and if the past is any guide, the ballet may not return for at least two years.