Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, March 16.
La Bayadère is a difficult ballet to take seriously in the 21st century and Queensland Ballet’s new production does it few favours. Despite some fine dancing the abiding impression is of a narrative in sore need of stringent dramaturgical intervention. Greg Horsman’s revision invites – no, demands – nuanced reflections on colonialism and a sophisticated appreciation of Indian culture but there is only unthinking and at times cringe-making entertainment that could have been made 150 years ago.
Marius Petipa’s sprawling melodrama, created for the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg in 1877, played to the 19th-century fascination with the exotic East. The scenario called for a consecrated forest, a Great Brahmin, warriors, fakirs, bayadères (temple dancers), a rajah’s magnificent palace, the destruction thereof, and “in the distance, the peaks of the Himalayas”. Given that nobody ever went there, the setting was an India of the imagination: romanticised, vividly coloured, sensual and excitingly foreign.
Bayadère isn’t on high rotation – it’s too odd and hokey for that – but even if one thinks the story is occasionally worth retelling there is a lot of work to be done regarding how to tell it. The choreography was revised in Petipa’s lifetime and chunks of it altered after his death, key solos in particular. The magisterial dance for the Golden (sometimes Bronze) Idol was a Soviet-era interpolation and Petipa’s fourth and final act, in which the gods exact revenge for the death of the bayadère (temple dancer) Nikiya by bringing down a palace hall and killing all within, was omitted in Soviet productions. It was likely not an artistic decision but because the sets had been destroyed at some point and not rebuilt.
Until Natalia Makarova restored the last act for American Ballet Theatre in 1980 (the first full production in the West), Bayadère ended abruptly after The Kingdom of the Shades, one of the most celebrated scenes in classical dance. It’s the glowing heart of the ballet (so singular it’s frequently seen as a standalone one-act work) and the reason Bayadère persists in the standard repertoire, albeit at the fringes.
Horsman duly stages The Kingdom of the Shades faithfully while significantly altering the surrounding landscape. The action moves to the dying gasp of the British East India Company in mid-19th century India, adding a political and racial dimension to the love triangle involving Nikiya, the princely warrior Solor and the high-born woman he is promised to, Gamzatti. In this version Gamzatti is recast as Edith, daughter of the British Governor General of India.
To the welcome sound of the sitar, a prologue shows the Governor General and a Maharajah deciding on a treaty to end deadly conflict between their forces. The pact is to be sealed with a marriage between Solor and Edith.
In its own way this scenario is as much a fantasy as Petipa’s, even if more rooted in a real society, but its superficial handling is the real problem. Horsman’s broad brush turns Indian servants into figures of parody, makes Edith an inexplicably forward and vulgar opportunist and strips Solor of his dignity with a drunken dance and an act of violence that makes nonsense of the apotheosis that immediately follows. This is pantomime, not tragedy.
Decorum, subtlety and an understanding of tone are in short supply again and again. When attendants in Solor’s opium den play for laughs in the prelude to the solemn Kingdom of the Shades, misjudgement is taken to an impressive level.
It is one of the mysteries of the age that ballet companies persistently ignore the need for expert dramaturgy. They do choreographers no favours by enabling virtually impossible quadruple duty as librettist, dramaturg, dance-maker and director.
At the QB premiere Yanela Pinera danced Nikiya with a diamond edge and little spiritual dimension. The admirable Georgia Swan did what was asked of her as Edith and the three soloist Shades – Neneka Yoshida, Lucy Green and Laura Hidalgo – brought much balm after the 20-strong corps made an unfortunately shaky start to the hallucinatory Kingdom scene.
The Shades represent Solor’s multiple vision of his lost love Nikiya and their hypnotic power resides in breathing and moving as one, a state not achieved at the first performance.
Soloist Joel Woellner scored a big personal success as Solor. His unaffected sincerity, ardour and noble bearing showed what this ballet could be. He still has some way to go to be in full command of his technique and stamina but is the real deal. He was rewarded several days later with a promotion to senior soloist, QB’s second-highest rank.
There was also a great deal to enjoy musically. QB’s music director Nigel Gaynor reorchestrated significant sections of the score to feature Indian instruments and modes. Minkus’s pleasant, danceable melodies were much enlivened.
La Bayadère is a co-production with West Australian Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It ends in Brisbane on March 31.