Choreography: Marius Petipa
Music: Ludwig Minkus
Debut: Marynsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia 1877
La Bayadere is a typical example of classical ballet containing every requisite cliché. Set in an unspecified era of a “long-ago” version of India as imagined by 19th century eastern Europeans, the story features the bayadere (temple dancer) Nikiya whose pure, committed love for the warrior Solor is met with betrayal. Loyal Nikiya is thrown over for a rich and beautiful princess (Gamzatti) who then kills her via snakebite. Nikiya takes awhile to die, dancing fiercely before collapsing to the floor. Realizing his fickle behavior has brought about his true love’s demise, Solor is deeply regretful. He smokes some opium and hallucinates all of Act III.
Act III, the “white” act, is one of the most famous classical ballet excerpts and is often performed independently as a full-length ballet. Solor has a vision of Nikiya in The Kingdom of the Shades. Petipa’s iconic procession of 32 shades (spirits) as they gradually enter the stage in a zig-zag pattern is an all-time great moment in ballet history. The repeated series of steps is brief and simple, like a classroom combination. It is passed on – through the line of dancers, from one to the next – just as ballet tradition itself is passed on through the generations, from one dancer to the next.
The final action takes place at Solor and Gamzatti’s wedding, where the gods avenge Nikiya’s murder by burning the entire temple down, killing everyone within. Despite his recently unheroic behavior, Solor is joined with Nikiya in death.
Along the way are plentiful variations by cheerful, dedicated slaves and townspeople. Most offensive are the dancers, usually children, who appear in blackface to portray natives at the nuptial celebrations. A golden idol appears for a virtuosic show of the male danceur’s skill. The royal couple performs a joyful pas de deux in Act II, as though half the action of the ballet were not yet left to occur. And, of course, Gamzatti does an impressive series of fouetté turns – a must in any classical ballet!
I have seen La Bayadere in several live performances but rented a copy of the 2008 Kirov (Mariinsky) production for the purposes of this post. This interpretation cuts the final act, closing the curtain on Solor still in his Kingdom of the Shades hallucination. Bayadere is a long ballet and features several beautiful dances. Highlights include the variations at the betrothal ceremony, as well as Nikiya’s writhing, tortured dance that immediately follows. The golden idol is always a big hit and, of course, the exquisite precision of Act III, which conjures the other-worldly atmosphere of Solor’s dreamlike state.
Although Petipa defined in many ways the aesthetic of modern ballet, a large part of the storytelling in his model relies on an elaborate vocabulary of pantomime, which dominates Act I. Unlike many of today’s ballets, more abstract in nature, Petipa ballets require an accompanying synopsis. Otherwise, the plot would be almost entirely lost on most viewers.
The plot represents much of what I love and hate about classical ballet. It makes very little sense and is heavy on the ridiculous. Setting is unrealistic in the senses of both time and place. Justice, throughout, is highly questionable. After all, the torment of the lovers overshadows the needless suffering of the slaves and natives, as well as that of the wedding attendees who end up being collateral damage. The ballerina represents everything pure and good. She remains elusive to the hero, who is attributed with honor but who is weak and fickle.
Would this scenario work in a contemporary setting? Our innocent young heroine goes away to college and falls in love. He loves her, too, but gets drunk and associates himself with sorority girl at a mixer one night. Tragedy ensues…
Perhaps the themes of Bayadere and other ballets of its kind – love, loyalty, betrayal and death – are better portrayed in a more ethereal setting, where they are felt in a loftier manner. Still, I can’t help but long for a relevance in ballet that is achieved in other art forms today such as music and film.