Those feet! Those hands! Those insanely flat stomachs! This is American Ballet Theatre’s “La Bayadère,” Marius Petipa’s iconic 1877 ballet restaged in the West by Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova for ABT in 1980 and seen over the weekend with three different casts. (It’s also the 200-year anniversary of the birth of Petipa, a giant in the ballet world whose some 150 choreographies include his 1862 opus, “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” his 1869 “Don Quixote” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” from 1890).
A soap operatic three-act work featuring an ill-fated love triangle, “Bayadère” (literally, “temple dancer”), is set in a make-believe Indian kingdom in days of yore. With yet another forgettable score by Ludwig Minkus, it was, happily, conducted with fervor by ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins in an arrangement by John Lanchbery, the harp and strings sounding particularly potent.
It’s a shame, though, that the composer’s waltz-heavy music is not in step with the exoticism one associates with a ballet featuring slinky, midriff-baring costumes (and for the tutu-loving crowd, there are plenty of those to go around, all designed by Tony award-winning Theoni V. Aldredge), a toxic snake in a flower basket and fabulous fakirs, those devoted religious persons akin to monks.
But stellar dancing ruled and the extravagant but not always successful milieu featured Pierluigi Samaritani’s somewhat dull painted scenery (the stuffed tiger carried in by two minions in the first act would not be a PETA pleaser, instead recalling Trump’s sons posing with kills from big game hunting trips). These illusory backdrops and Toshiro Ogawa’s serviceable lighting, nevertheless served the story.
The temple dancer Nikiya (an achingly lovely Hee Seo, who, however, if turned sideways, would be near invisible), is desired by the High Brahmin (Thomas Forster looked convincingly menacing). But as with all melodramas, Nikiya instead loves the proud warrior Solor (a princely Cory Stearns) who, in turn, is betrothed to willful princess, Gamzatti (a most regal, if murderous, Gillian Murphy).
In short, this is a tale of undying love, mystery, Kismet, vengeance, and justice. If it were set in modern times, though, it might include a #SheToo movement, meaning, why must it always be two women seduced by the same man (think “Giselle”)? Why can’t these gals bond in a show of anti-male solidarity, or at least each have a pair of men for themselves, the dudes becoming the betrayed for a change?
It may be #TimesUp in the world at large, but in ballet, the classics are best left to unfold as usual. Undeniably, say the word “Bayadère” to a balletomane, and one thing comes to mind: the Act II “Kingdom of the Shades,” a near perfect example of “ballet-blanc,” and one that might be considered the work’s choreographic heart. Solor’s opium-induced vision (seeing Stearns puff on his hookah, not vaping, while seated on his peacock throne proved a charged moment of anticipation), which led to the ballet’s processional entrance of the female corps, those spiritual Shades.
Often performed as a stand-alone set piece, one can see why: Here, 24 white-clad women descend in very slow succession down a ramp (some versions feature 32 dancers), all repeating the same sequence of steps—an arm stretches forward and a leg extends in arabesque before the back arches and both arms lift to frame the head—over and over again, until their zigzag formation finally fills the stage.
This is nothing less than a feat of stunning timing, determination and exactitude, as the dancers seem to not only move as one, but to breathe as a single, astonishing organism, their hypnotic stirrings reminding us of why we come to the theater—to witness, well, poetry on pointe. That said, is it possible that Petipa, himself, partook of the sleep-inducing opiate, able to conjure the “Shades” as a near 40-minute fantasia of transcendent classicism?
It’s certainly not a case of the dancers, to use today’s jargon, “throwing shade,” but sharing, instead, their spectral beauty with grateful onlookers. Whatever the reason, we come for the “Shades”—decidedly a potent deliverable as rendered by this ABT corps—but stay for the rest of the otherwise preposterousness that is “Bayadère.”
Toss in a Bronze Idol (Joseph Gorak’s temple statue-come-to life deployed sky-high jumps and curled fingers in his Act III solo, albeit an all too brief one in relation to the amount of time it must take for his face and body to be gilded in gold), oodles of slinky harem girls and an earthquake-decimating finale, and this, with the addition of star dancers, is what gives “Bayadère” its allure.
And how the ABT terpsichores shone! Sao, 32, and a principal since 2012, may look slight of build, but there’s steel underneath her tulle. As the story’s heroine, her elegiac dance done in front of Solor—and her mean girl rival, Gamzatti—mere moments before her death by the aforementioned snake, is replete with über-slow bourrées, rock-steady balances and deeply articulated backbends, her suppleness something to behold.
Indeed, Stearns partnered her as if she were a feather, his overhead lifts giving Sao the look of a Rolls Royce hood ornament. Not only a Romantic dreamer – were those Shades he hallucinated a multitude of Nikiyas – Stearns also leaped with controlled abandon, his landings buttery soft, his ease of execution making him an ideal, er, lady-killer.
Stearns also looked equally comfortable paired with Murphy, whose imperious demeanor oozed malice and who, at 39, appears to be at the height of her powers, both technically and interpretatively.
Other notables in the very large cast included: Isadora Loyola, Gamzatti’s faithful servant, her footwork sparkling and assured; Alexei Agoudine as the lead fakir, madly miming and jumping about as if possessed; and a trio of solo Shades—Zhong-Jing Fang, Katherine Williams and Catherine Hurlin, all inhabiting their Shadeyness with aplomb.
And while the question of Petipa’s overall depiction of these Indian royals as boorish louts often raises cries of blatant xenophobia (consider the ballet a product of Tsarist Russia), as long as the Shades exist, so, too, will this beguiling—if basically bewildering—otherworldly ballet.