Boston Opera House, Boston, MA; October 25 and 30, 2013

Carla DeFord

Boston Ballet in "La Bayadere" Photo © Gene Schiavone

Boston Ballet in “La Bayadere”
Photo © Gene Schiavone

To see one outstanding performance of “La Bayadère” in a season is fortunate; to see two in five days is a bit of a shock – albeit an exhilarating one.  On October 25 Lorna Feijóo, Whitney Jensen, and Nelson Madrigal appeared in the starring roles, and I thought they couldn’t be improved upon, but when I returned the next week, Ashley Ellis, Anaïs Chalendard, and Alejandro Virelles gave the first cast a run for its money.

As Nikiya, Feijóo was consistently believable and a true tragic figure.  In the danse panier of act II, for example, she was exultant but not carefree.  She seemed to know that although she might have won the battle with her rival, she would not win the war.  What she conveyed was manic intensity rather than happiness: a perfect realization of the character.  Feijóo often showed breathtaking technique as well; her bourées in the act I, scene 1, variation were like the beating of hummingbird wings or the fluttering of Nikiya’s heart.

Madrigal was also compelling as Solor.  He and Feijóo (who are husband and wife) gave an object lesson in what a mature partnership can do, as evidenced by her confident reliance on him and his responsiveness to her in their pas de deux.  A veteran principal dancer, Madrigal executed the many difficult lifts with assurance, and the jumps and spins of his solos were also done well.

As Gamzatti, Whitney Jensen was notable for her flowing lines, accompanied by innate acting ability.  She and Feijóo were a good match.  The fight scene in act I, scene 2, worked not only as realism but also as stylized pantomime. The two of them went at each other like highly refined Bengal tigers.

On October 30 Ashley Ellis’s Nikiya was different from Feijóo’s, but equally impressive.  At this point in her career, Ellis is not an exceptional actress, but she is a supremely gifted adagio dancer.  The phrase “exquisite port de bras” may be overused, but in this case it’s deserved.  Not only her floating arms, but also the way she stretches every movement to its absolute maximum and her phrasing, which is so extended that it almost (but not quite) runs counter to the music, all add up to a technique that becomes a kind of character creation in its own right.

Boston Ballet in "La Bayadere" Photo © Gene Schiavone

Boston Ballet in “La Bayadere”
Photo © Gene Schiavone

There was a moment in act III when she faced the audience and, while balanced on pointe, slowly extended her arms to their fullest reach while raising her face to the heaven she would soon enter with her beloved.  That single gesture brought me to the verge of tears; I felt privileged to see it.

Anaïs Chalendard as Gamzatti offered an excitingly no-holds-barred approach to the role.  Her contempt for Nikiya was positively Olympian, and when she slapped the temple dancer’s face during their confrontation, you really felt the sting.  As a ballerina, her movements were less fluid than Jensen’s, with somewhat angular arm positions, but Chalendard is a newcomer to Boston Ballet, and who knows how her style will develop in the future?

Alejandro Virelles as Solor made his Boston Ballet debut in a principal role.  A solid partner, he freed Ellis to concentrate on deploying her stunning technique.  His performance also featured expressive hands and good command of the solo variations.  Madrigal, the more experienced dancer, was also the more convincing actor.  Virelles is a young man, however, and has plenty of time to grow into the role.

Kudos to the members of the female corps de ballet for the tremendous discipline they showed in the Kingdom of Shades sequence.  The descent of the ramp was mesmerizing, and in the excruciating (at least it looks that way to me) section that follows, when I was rooting for the ladies to hold their positions, they did.  No squeaky pointe shoes either, as there were the last time Boston Ballet did “La Bayadère” in 2010.

Also noteworthy were Robert Kretz and Isaac Akiba as lead fakir on October 25 and 30, respectively; the incredibly charming Sylvia Deaton as Manu (October 25); soloist Shades Dalay Parrondo, Rie Ichikawa, and Anaïs Chalendard (October 25) and Lia Cirio, Rie Ichikawa, and Whitney Jensen (October 30); as well as Roddy Doble (a striking new presence in the company) as Indian soloist (October 30).  In both performances Yury Yanowsky was the High Brahmin, and I regretted that he didn’t have more to do; he is always memorable in those man-you-love-to-hate roles.

Like Misa Kuranaga in her performance as Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty” last season, Feijóo and Ellis benefited from the coaching of former principal dancer Larissa Ponomarenko.  Now in her second year as ballet master, Ponomarenko always wanted to be a teacher and almost didn’t go onstage after graduating from the Vaganova Academy.  Although I’m glad she didn’t forsake the stage, as ballet master she appears to be transforming the dancers she works with.  At her request, there was no public celebration of her career when she retired as a dancer, but the enormous contribution she has made and is making to the company should not go unrecognized.

On the musical side of things, I was pleased to be present for Boston Ballet assistant conductor Geneviève Leclair’s debut performance of “La Bayadère” on October 30.  I also attended a Boston Ballet Orchestra rehearsal under the direction of principal conductor, Jonathan McPhee, on October 22 and a performance under his baton three days later.  Being at the rehearsal helped enhance my appreciation of how crucial live music is to the experience of dance theatre.  Solos by violinist Michael Rosenbloom, flautist Lisa Hennessy, clarinetist Alexis Lanz, cellists Ronald Lowry (October 25) and Jolene Kessler (October 30), and harpist Cynthia Price-Glynn all contributed immeasurably to the performances.  A special shout-out goes to cornet players Bruce Hall (October 25) and Dana Oakes (October 30).  Their part in the rising cadence of the act III grand pas de deux, which is also featured in the overture, proclaimed Nikiya’s triumph over death and imminent reunion with Solor in paradise.  As Cole Porter once said in similar circumstances, “Blow, Gabriel, blow.”