, August 2011
La Bayadère, or The Temple Dancer, was created in 1877 by choreographer Marius Petipa (1818–1910). The music was written by Ludwig Minkus, Petipa’s principal collaborator. La Bayadère is a typical ballet of the period: extravagant tableaux, melodramatic story lines, romantic settings and a plot that takes place in an exotic, ancient land, with lavish decorations and sumptuous costumes. For nearly two decades, Petipa created ballets in the romantic tradition, meaning that they were usually melodramas, involving a love triangle and an ethereal woman in the form of a spirit: the embodiment of the romantic feminine ideal. This description fits La Bayadère to perfection.
As stated in the booklet notes, the origins of La Bayadère are obscure and its influences even more difficult to trace. Petipa claimed that the libretto was his. Whether this is true or not is not that relevant. It is however important to understand the chosen subject of a temple dancer, which undoubtedly has its roots in the Romantic Movement. We find, for example, exotic elements and the mythical figure of the temple dancer in the writings of Germany’s greatest romantic exponent, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) or in French poet and novelist, Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). The character of the seductive, mysterious temple dancer appears in numerous works of the period and the ballet is in line with them all.
La Bayadère tells us the story of the temple dancer Nikiya—beautifully impersonated in this production by the brilliant Tamara Rojo—and the warrior Solor (Carlos Acosta), who promise to be faithful to each other for eternity. Needless to say, life will not be easy for the two lovers and so, the High Brahmin—exceptionally well portrayed by a dashing Gary Avis—is also in love with Nikiya and discovers her relationship with Solor. To complicate matters further, the Rajah decides that Solor is to marry his daughter Gamzatti, seductively played by Marianela Nuñez. Poor Nikiya, unaware of the arrangement, agrees to dance at their betrothal celebrations. In the meantime, the jealous High Brahmin attempts to have Solor killed, so that he can keep Nikiya for himself and so tells the Rajah that Solor has already pledged his love to the beautiful “Bayadère” over a sacred fire. Unfortunately, the Rajah, instead of becoming angry with Solor, determines that it is Nikiya who must die. Gamzatti, as the spoilt, bad girl that she is, eavesdrops on this conversation and summons Nikiya to the palace to try to bribe her into giving up Solor. The temple dancer is naturally having none of it. Their rivalry intensifies and Nikiya, in a rage, picks up a dagger and attempts to kill Gamzatti but is promptly stopped, just in time, by Gamzatti’s servant. Nikiya flees and Gamzatti vows that the “Bayadère” must die. At the betrothal celebrations, Nikiya performs a sombre dance and is given a basket of flowers, which she believes are from Solor, causing her to perform a more joyous, happy dance. What the poor girl does not know is that the basket comes from the Rajah and Gamzatti, who concealed a venomous snake under the flowers. The “Bayadère” is bitten on the neck by the serpent. Promptly, the High Brahmin offers Nikiya an antidote to the poison but she, in the best romantic fashion, chooses to die rather than live without her adored Solor. After all this, naturally depressed, Solor smokes opium and immediately dives into some wonderful hallucinations where he has a vision of Nikiya’s shade (or spirit) in The Kingdom of the Shades. In his dream, they reconcile and dance together amongst all the wonderful shades: the spirits of other dead “Bayadères”. Reality awaits Solor and so, as he wakes from his dream, the preparations for his marriage to Gamzatti are under way. Later, in the temple where their wedding is to take place, Solor is haunted by his vision of Nikiya’s shade while dancing with Gamzatti. As the High Brahmin finally joins the couple’s hands in marriage, the gods, who up until then had been fairly quiet, decide to take revenge for Nikiya’s death and, in a fit of rage, destroy the temple and all its occupants. In the great finale, again very much in taste with the Romantics, the shades of Nikiya and Solor are reunited, so proving that true love is stronger than death!
Minkus’s music is tailor-made to each scene and often to single steps or sequences of movements, as was customary at the time for “specialist ballet composers”. Like many before him, Minkus sketched a great deal of his ballet scores during rehearsals while the ballet-master was choreographing. Composers were at the time obliged to follow the choreographer’s detailed instructions. Ballet composers wrote mostly music “to order” and a ballet score had to be formed of light, rich melody; uncomplicated orchestral structure and regular rhythms, which would enhance the dancers’ movements, but that also needed to be dramatically expressive, especially for the mime or for the action scenes.
I like ballet very much but—Tchaikovsky’s scores apart—I am not a great fan of ballet music. That said, Minkus did an excellent job with La Bayadère; though the version employed for this production is not his original—used in 2001 by the Mariinsky Ballet for their revival of the piece—but the one orchestrated by the late John Lanchbery (1923–2003). The orchestra and Ovsyanikov deliver an effective performance that serves the score and the dancers, though to my mind, it would have benefited from a little more passion. One might say it is the recording but in truth, this has nothing to do with the quality of the sound, which is really very good, but simply with the interpretation. I noticed exactly the same thing during the live performance, which I saw in 2009 with this same cast.
This production of the Royal Opera House is the one first created for the American Ballet Theatre by Natalia Makarova. It is supposedly an update of Petipa’s choreography but there are no real innovative elements and one is presented with the classical, traditional narrative ballet, with fabulous costumes and settings that to my mind are too exuberant and occasionally distract from the dance. Personally, I would like to see a different take on this work, perhaps in the hands of somebody a little more adventurous like John Neumeier for example. In my opinion, the most effective setting and also the most sober, is the background for the scenes in the Kingdom of the Shades. It is rather beautiful with a silvery full moon that gorgeously expresses the romanticism of the piece. The Kingdom of the Shades is also the most famous part of the ballet and contains some of Minkus’s best music, particularly the violins during the great pas de deux.
The stars of the Royal Ballet were out in force for this production and the ROH definitely chose the right cast for the filming. Tamara Rojo, as the Bayadère of the title, is simply stunning, not only for her grace and lovely, slightly exotic looks but also for her impeccable technique. Everything she does is beautiful and appears unbelievably easy, whether she is negotiating complicated steps, fast pirouettes, a perfectly balanced attitude or fouettés. She is magnificent in every scene and her emotions appear very real: one can feel her love and her pain, making her Nikiya very moving. Carlos Acosta, playing Solor, may no longer be at the peak of his powers but technically, he still delivers a great performance. There is a little more effort noticeable in one or two of his jumps but his lightness still defies gravity; he lands gracefully and all his movements are undeniably elegant. He is also the perfect partner, which he brilliantly proves when he dances with Rojo or Nuñez, particularly with Rojo during the pas de deux in the Kingdom of the Shades where he makes her shine. However, dramatically, he is not quite there, lacking passion. On occasions, he comes across as a little stiff, emotionally speaking. Marianela Nuñez, as Gamzatti, is magnificent on all counts, not only technically—she is a superb dancer—but also because she makes the capricious Gamzatti very believable. She plays with gusto a convincingly beautiful, sensual but spoilt young woman. The celebrated solo of the Bronze Idol, in Act III, is spectacularly danced by a positively dazzling José Martin, flying through the air in his immaculate golden-painted body. As ever, he got a well deserved roar from the audience at the end. The corps de ballet, in spite of some minor inaccuracies, is suitably impressive during the Kingdom of the Shades scenes, performing their difficult choreography with great impact. Actually, their performance is much more effective on film than live because the camera gives us angles that one cannot experience in the theatre. This greatly enhances the effect of the group.
The DVD is well presented, with an attractive booklet, which contains interesting notes in English, French and German, as well as rather beautiful coloured photographs of the production. It also includes a few short extra features: a cast gallery, brief interviews with Tamara Rojo, Natalia Makarova and two young dancers from the corps de ballet about working in La Bayadère, as well as a rather insightful, twenty-five-minute long feature with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta rehearsing with principal coach Alexander Agadzhanov.
Overall, this is one of the best productions of a classical ballet that the ROH has ever staged or filmed. I prefer more modern pieces but as a traditional narrative ballet, it will be difficult to top the production presented in this DVD. If such great classical and romantic pieces are your thing, then you cannot go wrong with this one; however, if you have the necessary equipment, I would recommend the Blu-Ray instead of the DVD, as the costumes and settings really come to life in all their glory.