Maryinsky magic

Having reclaimed its Tsarist name of Maryinsky, the Kirov Ballet, here for the summer, has now lovingly returned La Bayadère to its pre-Revolution glory, writes Nadine Meisner
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The Independent Culture

It must be summer, because the fabulous Kirov Ballet is back again - or, rather, the Maryinsky Ballet, even if the presenters, terrified of scaring off audiences with unfamiliarity, are clinging to the Soviet name. Indeed, the Maryinsky has not only reclaimed its Tsarist name, but is continuing to rediscover Russia's balletic history.

It brings to London the recent acquisitions of Nijinsky's legendary The Rite of Spring, and his sister Nijinska's overwhelming Les Noces, both created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, yet intensely right for the Maryinsky in their Russianness. And it brings its new-old La Bayadère, a reconstruction of one of Petipa's greatest ballets, staged last year as part of its ongoing excavation of its own repertoire, which began triumphantly in 1999 with the The Sleeping Beauty.

But it's not all tender traditionalism at the Maryinsky. The citizens of St Petersburg learnt this lesson on 28 June, with the announcement of the $100m winning design for the Maryinsky Theatre's much-needed extension. The French architect Dominique Perrault's giant glass-and-marble cocoon has provoked outrage, as it is seen as shattering the theatre's 19th-century elegance and harmony. It could have been even more dramatic. The Maryinsky's director, Valery Gergiev, determined to show that Russian art institutions can be as cutting-edge as anywhere, initially tried to force through a design described by detractors as resembling garbage bags.

So much for deconstruction. The Maryinsky's reconstruction of La Bayadère was led by Sergei Vikharev and Pavel Gershenzon, the team behind the recent Sleeping Beauty. Created in 1877 at St Petersburg's Bolshoi Theatre (ballet performances were not given at the Maryinsky until 1880), La Bayadère is the earliest surviving Petipa ballet after Don Quixote. It became a popular item of the Russian repertory, its fake oriental setting appealing to the public's taste for the exotic. But it took almost 100 years - the Kirov Ballet's 1961 foreign tour, in fact, the one also marked by Nureyev's departure - for audiences in the West to discover La Bayadère. Even then, it was only an extract: what they saw was the Kingdom of Shades, the scene in which a line of bayadères, or temple dancers, enters down a ramp, each performing the same repeated arabesque, like a vision of eternity.

The Kingdom of Shades, often performed on its own like this, is justly famous, a radical and beautiful choreographic experiment. Within the complete ballet, it comes in the third of four acts, the point in the story when Nikiya, the titular bayadère, has died, and Solor, on the brink of despair, dances with her in a hallucinatory encounter. Or rather, the Kingdom of Shades used to belong to the third act, because on the way - after 1926, to be precise - La Bayadère lost its apocalyptic closing act, with earthquake and collapsing temple.

No one is certain of how this happened. Maybe, after the Revolution, the theatre lacked the technical staff to produce the elaborate effects. Maybe, also, there was less impetus to perform it after the 1924 flood in Petrograd ruined the fourth-act sets. Maybe the notion of divine retribution, ending with the reunion of Solor and Gamzatti in some Himalayan heaven, ran counter to secular Soviet orthodoxy.

Either way, the act disappeared, as did its music by Minkus. This means that past attempts to recreate it, such as Makarova's 1980 version, had to commission extra music. Vikharev and Gershenzon rightly consider it a coup to have found the original music. The pages, all out of sequence, took hours of painstaking reordering, but they were written in Minkus's own hand, lying waiting to be rediscovered in the Maryinsky music library.

So, what the Maryinsky Ballet is bringing to London is the complete Bayadère, with all its choreography, all its music, all its design. The sets, drawn by a number of artists, are not much different (with the exception of the Kingdom of Shades) from those the Maryinsky has brought many times to London. The costumes, though, will be unfamiliar, made from the original sketches by the Maryinsky seamstresses. All this, however, restores not the first, 1877 production, but the 1900 one, the last supervised by Petipa. It incorporated choreographic changes as well as new designs. It is the version that was notated, some time between 1900-1903, using the Stepanov notation system, and stored, like the choreographic score for The Sleeping Beauty, in the Sergeyev Collection of the Harvard Theatre Museum.

The Maryinsky's previous, incomplete staging was based on a 1941 production by Vladimir Ponomarev and Vakhtang Chabukiani. After La Bayadère lost its final act, it disappeared from the repertory until Ponomarev and Chabukiani came along. They shifted much of the choreography of the missing act to make a brilliant classical grand pas in the Act II celebration scene, ending with Nikiya's death.

Having seen the reconstructed Bayadère in Paris last year, I can say that not only has Vikharev put back the choreography to its rightful place in the final act, but he has shown just how much was missing elsewhere. He has worked like the restorer of an old-master painting - uncovering details, bringing back whole sections that had been blotted out, cleaning away later additions. It turns out, for example, that Nikiya plays a veena (a small Indian lute), her strumming matching the music's string chords while she dances her melancholic second-act solo. And that the warrior Solor's short opium-smoking scene before the Kingdom of Shades is not short at all, but involves lengthy mime and dance for Nikiya's ghost and her rival, Gamzatti. In compliance with modern expectations of male virtuosity, Vikharev retains Chaboukiani's 1941 solos for Solor. But Konstantin Sergeyev's jarring 1954 pas de deux for Nikiya and a slave are gone, as is the Bronze Idol cameo, which audiences love, but which is another modern (1948), redundant addition.

So, how is the final act? It's a magnificent revelation, a tour de force of ambitious scope and achievement. A lotus-flower dance for young girls traces floor patterns that culminate in a circle, enlarging like blossoming petals. Then comes the classical female quartet, familiar from its previous Act II position, alternating with Solor, Gamzatti and Nikiya's ghost. Layers of narrative, suspense and ritual are superimposed magisterially in a continuum of dance. The characters' interaction depicts rivalry, longing, and horrible echoes of the past, so when a basket of flowers, similar to the one that caused Nikiya's murder, is violently thrust at Gamzatti, she recoils in guilty terror.

On the down side, you may find - as I did - that the temple's collapse is a tame affair. Similarly, in the Kingdom of Shades, you may agree that the silhouetted rocks and foliage along the mountain descent of the Shades obscure the famously hypnotic entry of repeated arabesques. But for all this, the restored La Bayadère is truly a triumph. It may be a longer ballet, but it never feels like it. Ignore the schlock, 19th-century pseudo-oriental packaging: it has satisfying narrative logic; it has rounded, interesting characters; it has stunning choreography. What more could you want?

Kirov (Maryinsky) Ballet at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000): 21 July to 9 August; performances of 'La Bayadère': 31 July to 2 August

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