La Bayadère

Choreography Natalia Makarova after Marius Petipa, music Ludwig Minkus orchestration John Lanchbery
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
to

Marianela Nuñez as Nikiya the temple dancer, the bayadère of the title—wow! At the height of her considerable powers and talent, she brings the evening to momentous life: quietly, sensually stunning in adagio, soft arms, pliant body, eloquent and touching in its pleading, in her desperate love for two-timing warrior Solor tempted away by wealth and status.

But let’s start at the beginning. La Bayadère (Bayaderka in Russian), one of Marius Petipa’s grand, expansive, nineteenth century Russian Imperial Ballets, has a sense of the generic, of déjà vu.

A stage brimming with dancers in white tutus, a love triangle at its heart, betrayal of one’s true love, and what does one get? Swan Lake, Giselle… in a fashionably over-the-top oriental setting (set Pier Luigi Samaritini, costumes Yolanda Sonnabend). Petipa knew how to please his patrons. As did his regular composer Ludwig Minkus.

Solor is in love with Nikiya, but so is the High Brahmin (Gary Avis) of the temple—a malicious fly in the ointment, as we shall see. The young couple pledge eternal love over the sacred fire, but the local Rajah has other plans for Solor. He decides he’s just the man for his beautiful daughter Gamzatti. And what the Rajah says goes.

The High Brahmin betrays Nikiya and Solor to the Rajah and guess what—it’s the woman who has to die. Gamzatti tries to bribe Nikiya, but Nikiya is not for turning. Her love is pure.

Nikiya is brought to dance at the betrothal ceremony—and killed by a deadly snake deliberately planted in a basket of flowers. What has the High Brahmin done? He loves her. He offers her an antidote, but she prefers death to seeing her lover marry another.

How can Solor be so blind? Nuñez’s gentle Nikiya or Natalia Osipova’s spoilt brat Gamzatti? What would you do? He takes to opium to drown his misery, and in that opium dream this young man, Vadim Muntagirov, better known as Vadream, sees his beloved in the Kingdom of the Shades, refracted multiple times. Twenty-four to be exact: Petipa was known to up the numbers to thirty-two and even forty-eight on occasion.

It is this middle act that was the better known in the West until Natalia Makarova (here to take her bow tonight) recreated the full Kirov version for the Royal Ballet in 1989. Under a pale moon, the Shades descend a ramp slowly, elegantly in perfect arabesque symmetry to the music. Down they come and fill the stage, trembling, shimmering on pointe, geometrically synchronised.

Waking from his dream, Solor realises his folly, but can’t stop the wedding. Nikiya appears to him (like Odette to Siegfried) to try and stop him, but there is no way out for him. The gods intervene and bring the temple down on all the sinners below. And the lovers unite in apotheosis in blinding light (and much dry ice) for all eternity.

That’s the basics, but there are tons of divertissements and entertainments against spectacular Himalayan scenery—a chance for the whole company to show itself off. Not to mention the Bronze Idol solo, which Alexander Campbell dashes off effortlessly, or so it seems. It could be a gala evening if one cut out the pantomime.

So many exquisite pas de deux, so many dazzling variations: those nineteenth century creatives knew how to put on a glamorous show. Vadream Muntagirov (his dancing really is a dream, perfect soft landings, long graceful arms, strong legs) has to partner two prima ballerinas, vying for his attention.

And this charming polite young man does his cavalier duty by them both, as well as knocking off some spectacular solo turns of his own. But he is no macho tiger-hunting warrior. At twenty-eight, Muntagirov still looks a teenager from a distance. He is a sweet prince amongst men, no wonder everyone gets the better of him. Too obliging…

Osipova on the other hand gives good bitch as Gamzatti, the foil to Nuñez’s Nikiya. Nikiya dances in red for Gamzatti’s betrothal and guess what Gamzatti wears to her wedding—red of course. Both performances are perfectly pitched. And I must mention Kirsten McNally as Gamzatti’s obsequious Aya—her unobtrusiveness very visible...

During this revival of La Bayadère—it was last seen here five years ago—Osipova and Nuñez will be alternating roles—which means one ought to see it twice if the run were not almost sold out. There is a chance to see this cast in the cinema on 13 November.

Osipova is new to both roles, as is Muntagirov to Solor. Both the women look as if they could devour him whole, but he holds his own. There are other mouth-watering debuts to come: Cesar Corrales, Matthew Ball. But what triumphant performances tonight, as befits opening night, not just from the principals but also from the corps de ballet in their nerve-wracking, breathing as one, almost military, precision.

And, appropriately, it’s quite a Russian-heavy night: Muntagirov, Osipova, Makarova and Boris Gruzin wielding the baton. Poor Gruzin comes a cropper on those treacherous vast bouquets of flowers cluttering the stage. Quite an evening—the audience goes away buzzing.

Vera Liber