DANCE: Pas de trois of the personalities

La Bayadere Royal Opera House, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Optimistic Japanese ladies stood in the Opera House foyer clutching polite notices that read "Want to buy ticket please", and there was a salty smell of tout in the air. The Royal Ballet has long been fighting a rearguard action against any sort of personality cult among its dancers, but there is no doubt that the prospect of Darcey Bussell, Jonathan Cope and Sylvie Guillem in La Bayadere is a proposition that shifts tickets. So far, management has resisted any temptation to return to a world where the likes of Fonteyn automatically commanded higher ticket prices but Guillem is undoubtedly a star of that order.

The solemnity of her entrance as the veiled temple dancer is so profound that the capacity audience sat on its hands as if reluctant to break the spell, already caught up in the drama of her performance. A convincing rebuttal, surely, to anyone who complains that she allows her starry personality to obliterate the roles she dances. On Saturday she was Nikiya, whose lover, Solor, forsakes her for Gamzatti. Murdered by her rival, she is reconciled to Solor in a dream and the pair are finally united in death after his wedding to the Rajah's daughter is disrupted by an earthquake.

Guillem manages to combine spiritual purity with a normal, girlish sensuality. The strength and clarity of her dancing is a constant source of wonder, her chaine turns unravel at dizzying speed. These marvels combine thrillingly with a very modern ability to just walk naturally, arms dangling by her sides in dejected reflection.

To conjure such a mood she has only to contemplate the production. The flaws in Makarova's 1989 version are often blamed on 19th-century theatrical taste but the Kirov's London seasons of La Bayadere have shown that if you trust the ballet and perform it wholeheartedly it can be immensely powerful. The Royal Ballet's rule of thumb seems to be: when in doubt, ham it up. Gary Avis's High Brahmin is a painful example of this. The vengeful priest destroyed by desire is a pivotal role in the drama but Avis throws it away with a few camp histrionics. Happily, the exquisite Kingdom of the Shades scene was well-rehearsed and hit just the right note of high-Victorian melancholy.

Our turbaned love-rat was Jonathan Cope, who showed Guillem off to perfection. His partnership with Darcey Bussell was fractionally less successful. The wedding scene prefigures Petipa's Black Swan pas de deux, in which our hero is also seduced by the sexy virtuosity of the wrong woman. Unfortunately Bussell's ravishing smiles are of a general nature and she makes little attempt to cement the affections of her stolen warrior. Her dancing, though masterly in places, was slightly uneven. In the wedding scene she had trouble with the beguiling sequence of accelerating and decelerating pirouettes. Perhaps she is saving herself for her Nikiya on 4 April, perhaps she feels that the role is a secondary one. That need not be the case: Covent Garden has seen Guillem dance both women and her reading of the spoilt beauty definitely qualifies for equal billing. Gamzatti is a complex character at a total loss to understand how anyone could prefer a mere dancing girl to a beautiful, rich Rajah's daughter with 180-degree extensions. In an ideal world, I'd like to see Guillem dancing opposite herself.

Performances: 25-27, 31 Mar, 1, 3-4, 10 Apr. Booking: 0171-304 4000