Reviewed by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic
Three Steps To Heaven
In the Second Act of La Bayadere, in Hindu India, Solar reclines in sorrow, smokes his opium pipe, and dreams of his dead lover, Nikiya. As he falls into a dream vision–The Kingdom of Shades–harp strings lead us into his subconscious world. Then, the first of thirty-two shades, or spirits, appear as from the clouds; plie arabesque, cambre, port du bras repeated in timeless unison growing whiter and whiter as light suffuses and overcomes darkness. In a word, the dancers create an impression, mesmerizing and sublime, that is one of the most iconic exerpts in classical ballet.
In 1877, the genius of classical ballet choreography, Marius Petipa, first unveiled La Bayadere in Imperial Russia. It has been considered one of his finest achievements in an illustrious career that included the best of the best for this Frenchman: Le Corsaire, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Don Quixote, Cinderella, Raymonda, and of course, the great Swan Lake. All these works, and many others of his, fill dance theatres all over the world on any evening, and have become the ethos of ballet itself, today and perhaps forever.
La Bayadere is a narrative ballet about the love affair between Solar, a warrior, and Nikiya, a temple dancer (Bayadere) in exotic, ancient India. But their love is thwarted by the High Brahmin who also declares his love for Nikiya, but is rejected by her. The Radjah Dugumanta wants Solar to marry his daughter Gamzatti, but finds that he is already in love with Nikiya. Both he and the Brahmin collude to kill to Nikiya. Solar must marry Gamzatti.
La Bayadere then becomes a eternal story of love, jealousy, revenge, and eventually, cosmic reconciliation. It has sometimes been compared to Verdi’s opera Aida, especially the ending, the triangular love affair, an exotic locale, but these prove to be loose comparisons, and reflect the cultural developments and tastes of the era more than anything else.
David Hallberg, back from Russia, where he was made principal dancer at the Bolshoi, a first ever for an American, brilliantly danced the role of Solar. Nikiya was flawlessly danced by Paolina Semionova from St. Petersberg–the place where the first La Bayadere was originally performed; so you could say the production was infused with a genuine Russian spirit. This, added the fact that this version was conceived of and directed by the great Natalia Makarova, made everything even more compelling.
Hallberg now appears to be a more mature artist; his acting ability and mime, noble and tastefully restrained, always promising more in his glowingly fluid movement. He seems to float when he is airborne, and always lands lightly, composed, and clear in his transitions. He seems to be made for classicism, as his abilities are textbook clear and delightfully executed. With so many stars retiring this year–Maxim Beloserkovsky, Angel Corella, and Ethan Stiefel– Hallberg will no doubt be a busy dancer.
Paolina Semionova was astonishing throughout, and was most effective in the famous “basket dance.” Solar is forced into marrying Gamzatti, the Radjah’s daughter, and Nikiya is ordered to dance at the betrothal celebration. To render this complex and pathetic moment, a dancer must live a multiplicity of emotions as she dances before her lost love: confusion, disbelief, sorrow, as she dances sensually before the gathering.
Semionova captures all the complexities with her arching back, expressive arms, and slow slides into the floor while the delicate Minkus score underscores the pathos. Ingrid Bergman, 20th century actress, could achieve this dramatic life on screen, and this was a moving likeness in dance.
During Nikiya’s dance, a basket of flowers is presented to her. Thinking it a gift from Solar, and a secret sign of fidelity, her mood brightens, and life is breathed into her movements, she has a reason to believe. But in her joy, she buries her head into the flowers, and a serpent strikes out and bites her in the neck. The conspirators succeed. An antidote is offered by the Bhramin, she refuses, as sees Solar and Gamzatti depart. She would rather die than live without Solar, and collapses.
Earlier in the week, Veronika Part and Marcello Gomes danced the leads to equal effectiveness. Part, long limbed, with beautiful arched feet and wonderful line danced with passion and precision. Gomes always a devoted and stellar partner added with his precise technique and powerful sensitive presence. Gamzatti was danced by Gillian Murphy–confident, strong, full of attack and perfect energy. Seo, as Gamzatti with Hallberg was more lyrical, airy, without the punch of Murphy, but again very expressive in her pas de duex, with beautiful quality.
Finally, at the wedding ceremony at the temple, with a great Buddha statue presiding, we have a show stopping dance–the Bronze Idol. Daniel Simkin on Tuesday, and Joseph Phillips on Saturday. Both had bravura performances and were electrifying in their stylized leaps.
The ceremony is solemn. Solar is going to the alter but sees images of Nikiya as a shade, and falls into remorse. Nikiya’s spirit, dressed is white, enters and departs, spinning and leaping through the proceedings, as the beautiful candle dance is created by sixteen bayaderes. As in a serenade, and music to match, they surround the couple with crooked arms and flexed hands holding candles aloft. As Gamzatti lures Solar to the alter, a shade enters with a basket of flowers that was used to kill her rival, reminding Solar once again of the evil transgressions. As he approaches the alter, as if going to the guillotine, the rare contrast between beauty, sadness, and remorse is struck.
But nature, the gods, do not want this ending. As the Bhramin orders the couple to take their vows, the temple is destroyed, and in the apotheosis, Nikiya emerges from the destruction with a white coil of ribbon that Solar catches as they eternally ascend together, united at last.
Praise all around: For Petipa, for Ludwig Minkus’ score, for Natalia Makarova’s staging, to the truly world class dancers, and even the maestro of both evenings–Charles Barker–who worked wonderfully with the dancers both evenings. La Bayadere is a study in Romantic Classicism, with many music and dance styles, groups of varying sizes, classic partnering, and exotic costumes and sets. We have Imperial Russia to thank for this exquisite artistic production–a nod to the accomplishments of Aristocracy–and to the astonishing talent of our 21st Century World.
A little bit more on David Hallberg (video)