Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
June 5, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Alina Cojocaru and Herman Cornejo in La Bayadere Photo Gene Schiavone

Alina Cojocaru and Herman Cornejo in La Bayadère
Photo Gene Schiavone

If there is one ballet that I would encourage anyone to see, it would be American Ballet Theater’s production of La Bayadere, as remembered, conceived, and directed by Natalia Makarova. The subject may be an Indian royal soap opera, but I can think of no greater confluence of benevolent theatrical factors in a single ballet.

La Bayadere combines choreographic quality (by Makarova after Marius Petipa) with exquisite production values (scenery by Pierluigi Samaritani, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, and lighting by Toshiro Agawa), and puts it together in a sophisticated entertainment package. It moves passionately and expeditiously, and also maintains a high excitement level – and consequently audience interest – throughout. There’s no opportunity to doze from boredom or to wilt from over-stimulation. And it has been thus since the complete production premiered at the Met in 1980 with Makarova herself as Nikiya, Anthony Dowell as Solor, Cynthia Harvey as Gamzatti, and Alexander Minz as The High Brahman. As more than one commentator observed, and as I witnessed, it was a miracle.

It still is.

From year to year and from performance to performance, the only variables in the production (aside from orchestral tempo of the Ludwig Minkus score, arranged brilliantly by John Lanchbery), have been the performances. And at Thursday’s performance at the Met, the primary level of excitement was generated by the sole scheduled appearance this season of guest artist Alina Cojocaru.

It’s no secret that Cojocaru has been plagued by injuries for much of the past few years, and her appearance was in doubt from the moment it was announced. But appear she did, and although she has not yet regained full technical command, for Cojocaru it doesn’t matter. Through her compellingly vulnerable stage presence, she creates magic and maintains interest. So if parts of the choreography looked skipped or modified, and if she fell off pointe once or twice, I doubt that anyone cared. And though her legendary bunions could probably be viewed from the moon, and were painful just to look at, seeing her on stage again was what mattered most. That she delivered a thoroughly competent and overwhelmingly sensitive portrayal was a miracle upon a miracle.

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 her Solor, Herman Cornejo was at the top of his game: dramatic, dynamic, and thoroughly engaged. His execution, as well as his portrayal, was top notch. Most importantly, however, he was there for Cojocaru, and was in control in his partnering throughout.

As powerful and successful as Cojocaru and Cornejo were, the story of Thursday’s performance was the brilliance of ABT’s female corps in Act II (‘The Kingdom of the Shades’), and in particular the performances by the three ‘lead’ Shades: Skylar Brandt, Stephanie Williams, and Casandra Trenary. Other unfortunate, and at times artistically inexplicable, casting decisions notwithstanding, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie does appear to finally be encouraging the next generation of soloists. Williams and Trenary did excellent work in their Shades solos, far superior in clarity to performances I’ve seen in the same roles by ballerinas with greater experience. But in the first Shades solo, Brandt lit up the stage. During a series of turns that required pinpoint timing in order to segue to the next combination, and which often appear sloppy-looking for that reason, Brandt did the turns correctly and completely each time. Somehow she managed to gobble stage space and be in position, and on the beat, for the next combination. And she finished her turns not with a triple, which would have been sufficiently extraordinary, but with a quadruple pirouette en pointe – without requiring any diminution in orchestral tempo. Usually these solos are given perfunctory applause upon their conclusion, but the quality of the performances by these three, particularly by Brandt, were thoroughly recognized and appreciated by the audience.

Joseph Gorak reprised his excellent performance as the Bronze Idol. Unlike the bursts of non-stop energy demonstrated by others in the role, his Bronze Idol is a moving statue with class: he does what the others do, but with a minimum of apparent effort, and smooth as…if not silk, then molten bronze.

Roman Zhurbin has improved considerably since he first assayed the role of The High Brahmin, and now performs it very well, with just the right mixture of lechery, righteous indignation, and impulsive stupidity.

But Misty Copeland’s Gamzatti was disappointing. Now in her second year dancing this role, her technical execution has not improved. Not only did the orchestral tempo slow to a crawl to facilitate her completion of turns en pointe and fouettés (at least as compared to other dancers performing Gamzatti who I’ve seen in previous seasons), her ‘clunks’ as she landed her jumps, which weren’t particularly high, could be heard in the next state. And her characterization has become more rather than less monochromatic over time. To be a compelling character, Gamzatti must be more than the queen of mean. Just as the perfect Nikiya requires some visible measure of fire underlying her vulnerability (which Cojocaru provided), Gamzatti requires the display of some level of vulnerability and insecurity underlying the powerful malevolence, which was absent in Copeland’s portrayal.

If history is a guide, ABT will probably rest La Bayadere for a year or two before returning it to the repertory again. That would be unfortunate. Makarova’s conception is flawless, a perfect- quality gem of a ballet. The thought of being unable to see it for any extended period of time wilts the soul.