A Russian masterpiece full of eastern promise

La Bayadÿre may have kitsch elements, but it's also a superb spectacle. So why, asks Nadine Meisner, does the Royal Ballet's version fall short?
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The Independent Culture

It may now be familiar, but La Bayadère took 112 years to arrive here from Russia, more than twice as long as it took Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Long before Natalia Makarova's 1989 staging, her former Maryinsky (Kirov) colleague Nureyev had suggested it to the Royal Ballet; but Ninette de Valois took fright and agreed only to an extract. This was the famed Kingdom of the Shades, which he mounted in 1963, two years after the Maryinsky first showed it in the West. Even earlier, Nikolai Sergeyev, the former Maryinsky regisseur who, ballet notations tucked under his arm, fled post-revolution Russia and transported the 19th-century classics to the West, encountered similar opposition. Only with his own short-lived troupe did he manage a few performances of what sounds like a version of the Kingdom of the Shades. He even failed to persuade Anna Pavlova to take it for her touring company, despite its importance in launching her career. (She scored her first great dramatic success at the Maryinsky as the bayadère – or temple dancer – Nikiya in 1903.) She agreed to start rehearsals; but when the (mostly) English dancers saw the choreography for a Fakir ensemble, they fell into hysterics and Pavlova realised how quaintly passé the ballet was to Western taste.

No amount of diplomacy could soothe Sergeyev's hurt. Russians are passionate about La Bayadère, and our incomprehension must have been disheartening. OK, Minkus's beer-garden score is no Tchaikovsky masterpiece. OK, the setting is ersatz India, crudely clichéd and inaccurate. But the story – an Eastern Giselle – is rather good, a meaty, adroitly constructed triangle in which the hero is truly in a dilemma, and a wonderfully flawed Brahmin priest acts as a catalyst. If we can accept Giselle's Wilis, we can see beyond La Bayadère's bare-midriff kitsch and appreciate the magnificent span of the choreography: from character dances such as the charming danse manu, in which two thirsty little girls badger a woman with a water pitcher on her head, to the classical grand pas of the engagement festivities, where jewel-like ensembles frame a glittering pas de deux for the noble warrior Solor (who has sworn undying love to Nikiya) and Gamzatti (Nikiya's high-born rival). And there is, of course, the Kingdom of the Shades, the vast suspended opium dream where Solor meets Nikiya's ghost: perhaps the most eerily beautiful, classically pure achievement of any ballet. Its opening, inspired by Gustave Doré's illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy, is a masterstroke – minimalism a century early – in which 32 identical bayadères (expanded to 48 in 1900) enter down a ramp with a hypnotically long series of repeated fondu arabesques. (The back bend following each arabesque is a Soviet refinement.) Time has a drugged elasticity and the apparitions are like refractions in a play of mirrors, stretching into eternity.

This marks Marius Petipa, creator of The Sleeping Beauty and, with Lev Ivanov, of Swan Lake as a genius, capable of mould-breaking leaps. The premiere of La Bayadère took place at the Bolshoi Theatre, St Petersburg, in 1877, with Ivanov as Solor and Ekaterina Vazem, Russia's first great ballerina, as Nikiya. Rehearsals were stressful, and made worse by Vazem, who disliked Petipa, rejected any solo she thought unsuitable, and was the dancer from hell.

Writing about his first viewing of the ballet, when he was seven, the designer Alexander Benois remembered leaping tongues of flame in the opening scene, and the elaborate procession for the engagement festivities, with a bejewelled elephant, a royal tiger and "warriors in their golden armour... beautiful veiled maidens whose arms and ankles jingled with bracelets". In the final act, before Solor and Gamzatti's marriage vows, flashes of lightning came, sent to avenge Nikiya. The sumptuous temple collapsed, its falling blocks crushing the assembled crowds. Only Solor remained, standing in a picturesque pose with Nikiya by his side.

Contemporaries thought this act to be one of the ballet's most successful passages, dramatically and choreographically, Nikiya's ghost flitting between Solor and Gamzatti. But it has not been seen since 1926; and when, in 1941, the dancer Vakhtang Chabukiani revived the ballet, he made changes, transferring and enlarging dances from the final act to make the Gamzatti-Solor grand pas of the engagement festivities. Much of this brilliant grand pas is by Chabukiani, choreographed in Petipa's manner.

For all its grandeur, the present, otherwise complete Maryinsky production has no final act, requiring it to close, open-endedly, with the Shades. Nor could Nureyev's luxurious version for the Paris Opera Ballet manage a final act. (He became too ill.) So all credit for its restoration to Makarova's production, the first Bayadère seen in the West, originally mounted on American Ballet Theatre in 1980. But that is its only virtue. It might seem magnificent – until you've seen the Kirov or Paris production, despite their amputated status. In trying to make it palatable for today's audiences and budgets, Makarova has scaled it down, reduced the cast (Petipa included 230 people in his procession), shortened some dances and omitted others. There is no elephant, no danse manu, no Hindu dance. The final act is cramped and choreographically dull, given that she has kept the Chabukiani grand pas in the earlier scene. Worse is the reduction of the 32 Shades to 24, and their feeble single-slope ramp, compared to the zig-zag of other productions. Surely, if you're going to stage La Bayadère at all, you have to do it properly, as the spectacle that Petipa conceived?

There is a huge variety of roles, but the present Royal Ballet run has an inflexibility of casting in the secondary parts. Ashley Page has been the High Brahmin at all performances, playing with a melodrama that certainly can't be faulted for restraint. Also unchanging is Ivan Putrov as the Bronze Idol: miscast in a part demanding a certain grotesqueness, not Putrov's elegant, soaring lines. The three leading roles, however, feature an interesting selection of dancers. Where Marianella Nunez's Gamzatti mixes determination to get her man with charm, Mara Galeazzi is relentless, transfixing her victim with the glacial beauty of her stare. As Nikiya, Darcey Bussell is a surprise, allying her tapering, classical shapes and spacious technique with an affecting emotion and spirituality that had previously eluded her. Alina Cojocaru's elfin style gives Nikiya a lovely delicacy, but she has yet to find a mystical otherness for the later scenes. Her Solor is Angel Corella, guesting from American Ballet Theatre. Fond of declamatory postures, he relies too much on his facility for turns, whipping them off at a blender speed that milks the applause but jars with the music and mood. So far, Carlos Acosta is the best Solor: able to conquer the stage with epic pyrotechnics, but colouring everything with sincere emotion. Johan Kobborg has an equally stylish technique, more intimate, without Acosta's exciting razzle dazzle.

Unlike Giselle's Albrecht, Solor is no duplicitous cad. In the original libretto, forced to marry Gamzatti by the despotic Rajah, he is only fleetingly dazzled by Gamzatti's beauty – which is how the present Solors play him. But unlike the present performers, early Gamzattis had little dancing, while Nikiya's solo with the flowers is danced on half-point. The Maryinsky Ballet have announced they will restore the final act. Does that mean they'll return to early Petipa for the rest, as they did with The Sleeping Beauty?

To 15 March (020-7304 4000)