Religious sleaze, blackmail, murder and narcotics are not the first things one expects in a classical ballet, which may be one reason La Bayadère is such a draw after 125 years. From its opening scene of wild, mud-smeared fakirs to the grand nuptials of a Rajah's daughter, from opium-fuelled visions to a dénouement in which a Buddhist temple collapses, killing everyone on stage, Bayadère has to be the zaniest, most action-packed ballet ever. Set in India, it also has curiosity value for its ludicrously cock-eyed view of the East as imagined by Tsarist Russia. And Natalia Makarova's 1989 reworking of Petipa's original is at pains to retain as much of this 19th-century colouring as possible, without ever descending into farce.
Back in the Royal Ballet's repertory for what seems like the umpteenth time, now with attractive new costumes, the ballet also has value in testing and extending fresh company talent. Bayadère offers three stonking good dramatic roles as well as a crucial contribution from the corps, whose ability to resemble a hall of mirrors is never more severely tested than when they famously descend a moonlit ramp in a single, snaking line of tilting arabesques – an ordeal dancers refer to as "walking the plank". Happily, the company has never looked fitter than it does in this revival, and the core trio of principals never better matched.
Tamara Rojo as Nikiya, the high-minded temple dancer of the title, may have been a shade off-form technically on opening night (betrayed by the odd stumble, and jumps that never quite took flight), but her dramatic command was undented. Both sensual and spiritual to an almost luminous degree, she made the difficult switch from the bare-bellied exotic of Acts I to the blanched, white-tutu'd spirit of Acts II and III look like jumping off a log. And the abandon she found in the confident hands of Carlos Acosta's Solor was a joy. He too found depths in a role that's too often a cardboard hero. It is, after all, pretty shabby to dump your girl for a rich aristo, still more so when you suspect her of murder. Acosta manages the remarkable feat of looking at once stricken and shifty, victim and villain.
But the revelation of this cast was new girl Marianela Nunez as the rich bitch Gamzatti. Easy enough to act proud and petulant, but the character spilled into her dancing too, in solo after solo that exulted in her grisly supremacy. Watch out for Nunez: that creamy strength and gorgeously leggy line is something we'll be seeing a lot more of.
Finally, a brief recommendation of a very different Royal Ballet enterprise, which at £5 a ticket is surely the best dance bargain around. Upstairs in the intimate Clore Studio the work of aspiring RB choreographers gets an airing. Best of the recent batch was Vanessa Fenton's Knots, which explored the circular poems of R D Laing re-imagined as mobile phone txt msgs: clever, provoking, and full of dance ideas.
'La Bayadère': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 15 MarchReuse content