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La Bayad&egrave;re, Royal Opera House, London<br>Mathurin Bolze & Hedi Thabet, ICA, London

An old-fashioned love triangle set in an imagined India draws the very best from the Royal Ballet

Reviewed,Jenny Gilbert
Sunday 18 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Travel may broaden the mind, but it spells death to the imagination. Had Marius Petipa, choreographer in the 1870s to the Tsar, been able to fly Aeroflot to India, the world would be without La Bayadère.

From its opening scene of naked fakirs to the grand nuptials of a rajah's daughter, by way of murder-by-snakebite, an opium trip and a collapsing Buddhist temple, the ballet revels in the India of stay-at-home foreigners' dreams. One of the less obvious pleasures of Natalia Makarova's 1980s production, now being revived by the Royal Ballet, is the way each of Pier Luigi Samaritani's sets suggests a different contemporary source: a Dela-croix painting of a rajah's palace, a tinted engraving of the Himalayas, all fictions in their way.

The plot could easily be hammed: high-minded temple dancer loves noble warrior; warrior is reluctantly engaged to bitchy princess; princess bumps off her rival. Like Giselle, this is a ballet in which the title character dies half way through, thereafter appearing as a ghost. Happily, Tamara Rojo gives a performance that glows with conviction and higher purpose, in death as in life. Her bayadère is pliant yet redoubtable, her dancing as a Shade blanched and remote, but no less technically superb. Less happily, as Gamzatti, Alexandra Ansanelli, replacing Laura Morera who was already replacing someone else (it's that time of year), has yet to mesh her acting into the fabric of the steps. Her jealous seething looked hysterical.

Between this tussle of female wills, Carlos Acosta inserts his warrior, Solor, managing to look both stricken and shifty, victim and villain. He knows he should refuse to marry the rich girl and stay true to love, but it's easier to go with the flow. Thus he dances mostly as a man whose brain is only half engaged, and when he realises his error, it's electrifying. His jumps may lack the thrilling height they once had, but their gleam and finish is undimmed.

The principal high spots, however, are not the only reason to see this Bayadère. Lesser soloists gleam – José Martin makes a stunning Bronze Idol, and the corps in the Kingdom of the Shades earns the longest applause of the night. As the 24 girls descend their Himalayan slope in a trance of dipping white tutus, clock-time stops. Such control takes ferocious discipline. There's fine musicianship too, as Valeriy Ovsyanikov draws limpid sounds from the pit, and later swings into those incongruous Minkus waltzes – ludicrous but irresistible.

The London International Mime Festival got under way last week, and so many and varied are the acts that it would have been easy to miss the scant half-hour with French duo Mathurin Bolze and Hedi Thabet at the ICA. I'm glad I didn't.

Theirs are acrobatics with a difference, since they have only three legs between them, Thabet having lost one to bone cancer. Yet, far from inspiring pity, their largely silent performance inspires only amazement, respect, and even levity, as Thabet backflips, frontflips, tosses his friend like a caber, and shares hairy knees in a scene of Chaplinesque confusion involving rolled-up trousers. So sure is his balance that he even resists the most alarming assaults as Bolze lunges full-length at Thabet's single foot in an attempt to topple him as he "jogs" using crutches. Disabled? Hardly. Inspiration to a defeatist world, yes.

'La Bayadère': ROH (020-7304 4000) to 7 Feb., runs to 25 Jan

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