La Bayadère

Choreography by Natalia Makarova after Marius Petipa, music by Ludwig Minkus
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Roberta Marquez as Nikiya in La Bayadère Credit: Tristram Kenton courtesy of ROH
Marianela Nuñez as Gamzatti in La Bayadère Credit: Bill Cooper courtesy of ROH

The Royal Ballet is in flux: Leanne Benjamin is retiring at the end of the season; Natalia Osipova is joining in the autumn. New names and fresh faces are being given chances to shine.

The Bronze Idol, a dynamic little cameo in Act III of La Bayadère, is danced by a name new to me, Marcelino Sambé. Turns out he is a new name. The nineteen-year-old (well, on 29 April) Royal Ballet School graduate joined the company in December 2012, and gives a buoyant performance, which the audience appreciates.

The casting of the second performance (of twelve) of La Bayadère has first soloist Hikaru Kobayashi replacing principal Lauren Cuthbertson as Nikiya, first soloist Yuhui Choe making her debut as Gamzatti, and principal Nehemiah Kish debuting as warrior Solor.

Incidentally, the first cast had the same surprises: Roberta Marquez, replacing Alina Cojocaru, by all accounts gave more than a good account of herself as Bayadère / Temple Dancer Nikiya in her dance duel for warrior Solor’s hand with rival Marianela Nuñez, rich Rajah’s daughter Gamzatti.

I love La Bayadère: three hours of grand spectacle, great choreography, dramatic music, stunning Indian sets by Pier Luigi Samaritani (think nineteenth century orientalist painters David Roberts, Lord Leighton, John Frederick Lewis), fabulous costumes by Yolanda Sonnabend, fantastic storyline, dreadlocked fakirs, opulent wealth, spineless hero, volatility, malice, death, thwarted and eternal love. We don’t see it often enough.

Love triangles, passion, power, fevered exoticism, and vengeance in legendary India, where noble warriors hunt tigers, High Brahmins betray their religion by falling in love, and Rajahs have the power over life and death. The gods bring down cataclysmic punishment on them all.

Bayadère Nikiya, loved by both the High Brahmin and Solor, has secretly sworn eternal love to the latter, and he to her. The High Brahmin is furious and determines to have Solor killed. The Rajah’s dishy daughter has her eyes on Solor, too. She tries to bribe Nikiya, who not only rejects her but pulls a knife on her. You can see where it is all going.

Solor, dazzled by Gamzatti’s beauty and compelled by the Rajah’s insistence on their marriage, betrays Nikiya, who in turn is done in with a snake hidden in a basket of flowers at the dastardly Rajah’s command when she is dancing at the betrothal ceremony.

Solor, oh fickle man, guilty and confused, smokes opium, sees Nikiya in the Kingdom of the Shades, but still goes along with the wedding. Nikiya appears again to him—opportunity for a marvellous pas de trois between him and his two loves. Hesitating to complete his vows, Solor and Gamzatti’s union brings down the wrath of the gods.

Temple destroyed, all buried beneath the falling rocks, Nikiya leads Solor across swirling concentric cloud formations to their nebula heart. Love triumphs over death, as in all the best ballets of the nineteenth century.

In true Imperial ballet fashion there are stunning virtuoso solos and pas de deux, plenty of vivid folkloric divertissements, pas d’action, and dramatic mime, which fill out and move the story along.

The lead dancers give assured if cautious performances—a little sprinkling of charisma, fire and authority would not be amiss. Hikaru Kobayashi is a lovely lyrical Nikiya, with a pliant body, and doesn’t put a foot wrong, but the crackle is not there between her and Yuhui Choe (also technically perfect), an inscrutable Gamzatti rather than a voracious one.

Nehemiah Kish’s strength is his wonderful partnering, a tremendous steadying hand, and support, but more eastern promise would lift his game and set the blood boiling. As the High Brahmin Gary Avis, dressed to the nines, red ruby in belly button, gives a reading of the role so rich and over the top that the upper slips can have no problem understanding it.

Ludwig Minkus’s expressive score, orchestrated by John Lanchberry, with its special motifs for the gentle Nikiya and the commanding jealous Gamzatti, (and gorgeous violin solos performed by Vasko Vassilev) carries Petipa’s powerful choreography pouring out in reams of dance, and its crashing chords bring the curtain down. Dramatic music and dance in perfect unison.

Regularly performed in the Soviet Union, La Bayadère was unknown in the West until 1961, when the Kirov Ballet brought the famous Kingdom of the Shades extract from Act II, in which twenty-four dancers in white tutus appear one by one in a long line descending down from the mountain into a night-time glade (shades of the Wilis) in slow arabesques to spine-tingling music till they fill the stage, dancing and breathing as one, quivering on pointe in four columns of six. Very Giselle, they are the multiple refractions of the dead Nikiya Solor sees in an opium dream.

Natalia Makarova, formerly of the Kirov Ballet, created this version for American Ballet Theatre in 1980, and oversees it now for the Royal Opera House, where it was first performed by the Royal Ballet in 1989, more than a century after its première in St Petersburg in 1877.

This season sees more debuts in La Bayadère, with principal Steven McRae dancing the role of Solor for the first time, as will guest principal dancer Matthew Golding of the Dutch National Ballet. First soloists Itziar Mendizabal, and soloist Claire Calvert will also dance the role of Gamzatti for the first time.

Go and give them a whirl, if you can get tickets. Some shows are already sold out. Worth the time, effort and money.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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