There's a Monday-morning feeling to the Royal Ballet's La Bayadère - the company has returned from its summer break out of shape and out of sorts.
This isn't a work that survives such treatment. Petipa made the ballet as a mixture of classical dance and exotic spectacle. The Shades act is one of the great vision scenes of nineteenth-century ballet. The rest is a melodrama about the temple dancer Nikiya's love for the warrior Solor, who is betrothed to the Rajah's daughter Gamzatti. The "rumtitum" music is by Leon Minkus, ballet's most-mocked composer. On an off-night, La Bayadère becomes a long evening of orientalist kitsch.
Natalia Makarova's production is the second Bayadère to appear at Covent Garden this year. On spectacle, it loses out to the Kirov Ballet's reconstruction of the 1900 production. The Kirov version had its own dance troubles, but there was a gusto to its processions and ceremonial dances where the Royal Ballet just gives us flimsy.
The whole production looks stodgily under-rehearsed. Scene after scene is muddled, badly paced, often rushed by Valery Ovsyanikov's conducting. Important plot details get lost.
Tamara Rojo, the first-cast Nikiya, is rusty after the summer break. Last season her dancing was brilliantly assured, so it is a shock to see her technique so much impaired. Pointe work is stilted, her jump much weakened. Phrasing is often choppy or strained.
She has not lost her sense of drama, and her authority returns in the mime scenes. When Nikiya confronts her rival Gamzatti, she threatens her with a dagger and Rojo lets us see her catch sight of the knife and give a flicker of recognition before she grabs it.
Marianela Nunez is a fierce, chilly Gamzatti. Overhearing the news that her betrothed is in love with a temple girl, she listens furiously, eyes angry and face frozen. She also dances brightly, with clear attack and confident phrasing in her betrothal pas de deux.
Carlos Acosta, as Solor, goes through the whole ballet in a state of generalised yearning. Acosta is usually a careful, sometimes earnest actor. The dancing may not have been nuanced, but it was impressive.
The most famous scene in La Bayadère is The Shades act when Solor has a vision of the dead Nikiya in the realm of ghosts. The entrance of the shades is the ballet's greatest moment, repetitious dances stretching into infinity. The women of the corps appear one by one, each stepping into arabesque, arching back, repeating the process until the stage is filled.
It should be hypnotic and, indeed, the Royal Ballet's corps is dutiful. In time, but slackly phrased and straggling in style. Legs go up at different angles, bodies tilt out of shape. These are dancers who, as recently as last season's Raymonda, could dance with attention to rhythm and the details of steps, with a sense of shared style. They need to recover it.
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