La Bayadère
Isabella Boylston in “La Bayadere.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

Shades of Beauty

American Ballet Theatre’s “La Bayadère”

Performance
American Ballet Theatre: “La Bayadère”
Place
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY, June 6, 2015
Words
Oksana Khadarina

American Ballet Theatre’s “La Bayadère” has just turned 35 years old, standing as one of the most enduring of the nineteenth century classics in the company’s repertory. Such impressive longevity can be attributed to the uniqueness of the current staging, mounted for the company in 1980 by Russian prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, who danced the ballet, originally created by Marius Petipa, during her years with the Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg (then called Kirov Ballet). Makarova acquired her knowledge of the interpretive nuances of the choreography as a manner of genuine artistic succession, learning the role of Nikiya, the ballet’s heroine, from Natalia Dudinskaya, former prima and the ballet mistress of the Kirov. Dudinskaya, in turn, was taught by Agrippina Vaganova, a pupil of Ekaterina Vazem, for whom the role of Nikiya was created and who danced it at the ballet’s premier in 1877. For Makarova, “La Bayadère” has become a life-long passion and vocation. Over the years, she has staged numerous productions of the ballet for companies around the globe.

With its exotic locale, alluring temple virgins, tantalizing religious processions and a fatal love triangle, “La Bayadère” is both eye-rolling camp and poignant drama. The ballet’s convoluted plot bubbles with passion, jealousy, intrigue and revenge and remains one of the most engaging love stories of the classical canon, complete with a spectacular ballet blanc act.

The main events of “La Bayadère” take place at an ancient temple located in a place vaguely identified as “the Royal India of the past.” Nikiya, the most beautiful of the bayadères, is sought by the powerful High Brahmin. She rejects his advances; her heart belongs to a noble warrior, Solor, who is captivated by her purity and innocence and pledges her eternal love. Princess Gamzatti, however, who is besotted with the handsome warrior, destroys their chances to be together. She wants Solor for herself and wishes Nikiya dead—and succeeds in both. After Nikiya’s death, the devastated and remorseful Solor, in an opium-induced delirium, envisions the Kingdom of the Shades, where he is reunited, even if for a moment, with the spirit of his lost beloved, yearning for her affection and forgiveness.

The performance this reviewer attended on June 6 brought together a fascinating trio of dancers in the leading roles: Russian-born Maria Kochetkova, principal with the San Francisco Ballet, as Nikiya; Ukrainian-born Leonid Sarafanov, principal with the Mikhailovsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, as Solor; and American ballerina, Isabella Boylston, principal with ABT, as Gamzatti. (Kochetkova and Sarafanov are guest artists with ABT this season.)

Maria Kochetkova and Leonid Sarafanov in “La Bayadere.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

As Nikiya, Kochetkova was resolutely effective. Her acting and dancing expressed in vivid dramatic colors her heroine’s journey from a delicate, reticent girl to a fearless, proud woman. Petite and incredibly pliant, the 31-year-old ballerina performed with deep theatrical insight and sincerity, drawing the audience into her character’s emotional turmoil.

Nikiya is a temple dancer. Her duty is to please and entertain the powerful and the rich. Her greatest possession is her beauty; her greatest virtue is her pure heart; and her greatest strength is her uncompromising belief that she is a worthy human being despite her unfortunate predicament. All these traits of her heroine Kochetkova brought to the fore.

Dancing at the order of High Brahmin, the highest priest of the temple, Kochetkova’s Nikiya resembled a solemn apparition—pale, fragile, and otherworldly. From the pliant bend of her back to the sumptuous arch of her feet, her body emanated an aching sorrow and loneliness. But there was also tenderness and gentle grace in her melancholy monologue, her fluid movements pouring out in one uninterrupted flow—a mesmerizing mélange of classical ballet steps with stylized Indian gestures.

When she meets her beloved Solor—she is transformed. You can see the blush on her cheeks and her eyes shining with lively sparkles. I loved the sheer determination with which Kochetkova’s heroine confronted the scheming Gamzatti. No longer a lamb, she is now a daring lioness fighting for her right to love and to be loved; and when she pulls a knife to demand justice the audience could justly fear bloodshed.

Sarafanov couldn’t match Kochetkova’s dramatic drive; and his acting often felt muted and unarticulated. His Solor was more a placid nobleman than an intrepid warrior, but this made his hero’s hesitation between his love for Nikiya and his fatal attraction to Gamzatti look all the more believable.

Yet when it was time for Solor’s bravura turns, Sarafanov was breathtaking. His pyrotechnics are never less than spectacular—grand, effortless, flawless.

The superb Boylston made an irresistible, sensational Gamzatti—a lethally jealous princess who would stop at nothing to achieve her goals. In her bejeweled costume, she looked stunning and truly regal. Her grand pas de deux with Solor was dazzling in allure, speed and precision.

The illustrious Kingdom of the Shades act—the ballet’s choreographic and dramatic climax—was gorgeously danced by the excellent ABT corps. Here Petipa is simultaneously the classicist and modernist, creating to a lilting melody of Ludwig Minkus one of the greatest abstractions in all classical ballet: the white-clad ballerinas multiplying before our eyes in a hypnotic procession of sumptuous arabesques—a powerful metaphor for purity and transcendence.

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