A love triangle. Jealousy. Betrayal. A beautiful temple dancer. A deceitful High Brahmin. A deadly snake bite. An opium dream. Rich colors and snow-white serenity. And one of the most stunning ensemble pieces of breathtaking precision in the history of dance.
These are among the dynamic and gloriously entertaining elements of La Bayadre, the classic full-evening ballet that is one of the great treasures of the Russian ballet repertory. From February 25 to March 7, 2010 Houston Ballet will unveil the world premiere of its splendid new production of the 19th century masterwork, a bold version that infuses a cinematic-style extravaganza into the legacy of classical ballet. When it comes to story ballets, it's hard to beat La Bayadre for high drama, bravura choreography and eye-catching scenery and costumes.
"We wanted a grand classical ballet as the centerpiece for the 40th anniversary season, and this will be like a big Bollywood production. It's a colorful story that's sexy, provocative and very dramatic," says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet's Artistic Director.
The narrative of La Bayadre is set in a romantic fantasy of long-ago, exotic India and involves love, murder and the wrath of the gods. The principal players in the story are Nikiya, a bayadre (temple dancer) and her soul mate, the warrior Solor. Complications arise when he is hotly pursued by Gamzatti, the daughter of the powerful Rajah. During the ceremony to celebrate the betrothal of Gamzatti and Solor, Gamzatti sends a basket of flowers that conceals a poisonous snake to her rival Nikiya. When bitten Nikiya dies and the heartbroken Solor dreams of her in the Kingdom of the Shades, where the two are united.
It is in the monumental third act, the other-worldly Kingdom of the Shades, where the ballet achieves its deserved reputation in classicism. An incredible tour de force for the corps de ballet of 24 women, it represents the ultimate ballet blanc (white ballet), rivaling Swan Lake and Giselle in its purity of form. In this now famous scene, the corps de ballet dancers enter down a ramp, in single file, repeating the same phrase in a mesmerizing repetition resulting in a profound minimalism.
La Bayadre originally premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1877 with choreography by Marius Petipa, the Russian dance master who would later create the dances for The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Even as the plot of La Bayadre advances, the choreography, referencing the exoticism of the East, features a substantial amount of dancing through solos and group dances in a variety of textures and styles.
The story was devised by Petipa and librettist Sergei Khudekov after the works of the Sanskrit dramatist and poet Kalidasa, particularly Sakuntala and The Cart of Clay. The Kingdom of the Shades scene, possibly inspired by Gustav Dor_'s illustrations for Dante's Paradiso, broke new ground in ballet by showcasing the dancers' pointe technique and classical strengths in contrast to the dramatic scenario.
The ballet was first seen outside Russia when the Kirov Ballet brought its production to London and the United States. The legendary Rudolph Nureyev staged the Kingdom of Shades scene for The Royal Ballet in 1963 after his defection from the Soviet Union. Adding La Bayadre to any company's roster serves as a benchmark of achievement.
In addition to showcasing the strength of Houston Ballet's ensemble dancing, the ballet showcases four principal dancers. The role of Nikiya demands sensual lyricism and technical finesse, while Gamzatti, the envious daughter of royalty, is a powerhouse of jumping and turning. The part of Solor, the warrior, requires athletic virtuosity and artistic sensibility.
La Bayadre will be designed by Peter Farmer, who has created eight full-length productions for Houston Ballet, including Manon and Giselle. "Stanton's vision, as in all his works, is visually exciting and adventurous," says Farmer. "I've always admired La Bayadre and have wanted to design it for some time. It's a big challenge for me, and for the company, to have the chance to make the production new again."
The music for La Bayadre was written by the Viennese composer Ludwig Minkus, evoking an image of India as filtered through a Western 19th century ear. The arrangement of the score is by John Lanchbery, who streamlined many ballet scores for contemporary, sophisticated tastes.
Arlene Croce, the former dance critic for the New Yorker, wrote, "Ballets, passed down the generations like legends, acquire a patina of ritualism, but La Bayadre is a ritual, a poem about dancing and memory and time. Each dance seems to add something new to the previous one, like a language being learned. The ballet grows heavy with this knowledge, which at the beginning had been only a primordial utterance, and in the coda it fairly bursts with articulate splendor.... It's Elysian bliss, and its setting is eternity."
For those curious to experience and know more about ballet and its wonders, La Bayadre is the perfect vehicle for the imagination. As set in Welch's Broadway-scaled production, this is indeed the perfect way for Houston Ballet: and its diverse audience: to celebrate the company's longevity.
Visit Houston Ballet for tickets.
Joseph Carman writes about the arts and is the author of Round About the Ballet.