Monday, 12 November 2018

Iconic but flawed: La Bayadère the Royal Ballet

Artists of The Royal Ballet in La Bayadère © 2018 ROH. Photographed by Bill Cooper
La Bayadère: Kingdom of the Shades scene Artists of The Royal Ballet © 2018 ROH. Photographed by Bill Cooper
Petipa/Makarova/Minkus/Lanchbery La Bayadère; Royal Ballet Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 November 2018
Revival of Petipa's Orientalist fantasy with its iconic 'Kingdom of the Shades' scene

Ballet is a curious art-form, with few other genres would we accept as standard that what we see is the work of a number of different hands, based on the choreographer's original (just think how art historians obsess over whether a painting is by an artist, attributed or studio, though the process is accept to a limited extent in music, just think Cherubini's Medea). The fact is that until the invention of accurate choreographic notation, productions relied on memory and it was accepted that new generations would change and improve.

These thoughts occurred to me as we watched the recent revival of the 19th century Russian ballet La Bayadère by the Royal Ballet (seen 9 November 2018) at the Royal Opera House. The production is billed as conceived and directed by Natalia Makarova, with choreography by Natalia Makarova after Marius Petipa, with music by Ludwig Minkus orchestrated by John Lanchbery, though the work's actual heritage is even more complicated than that. We saw Sarah Lamb as the heroine, the temple dance of the title, Nikiya with Ryoichi Hirano as the hero Solor, Claire Calvert as Gamzatti, Thomas Whitehead as the High Brahmin, Bennet Gartside as the Rajah and Tristan Dyer as the head fakir. conducted by Boris Gruzin, who joined the Mariinsky Theatre in 1992 so presumably has this ballet in his blood.

Petipa first mounted La Bayadère in 1877 and the final production that he supervised was in 1900, which was notated in the Stepanov notation (a 19th century choreographic notation system which, if imperfect, allows us access to some of the choreographer's original thoughts). But all modern productions of the ballet derive from the Kirov Ballet's 1941 staging which severely trimmed the balled and reduced it to three acts from four, re-purposing Petipa's Grand pas d'action from the last act (of which he was very proud) to earlier on in the ballet. And even before 1941, details were changed by great dancers associated with the roles, and some of these changes became accepted as writ, a part of the standard ballet.

Natalia Makarova danced in the Kirov version as a young dancer, and so based her version on it. Similarly Rudolf Nureyev mounted a version of La Bayadère for the Paris Opera in 1991, and his has similar origins.

So why bother with the ballet at all?

Well, La Bayadère contains one of the great ballet scenes of 19th century Russian ballet, the 'Kingdom of the Shades' scene, a scene so influential that it was often given alone, and before the Royal Ballet took Natalia Makarova's production in 1989 it played Nureyev's version of the 'Kingdom of the Shades' scene as a stand alone ballet (first mounted  in 1963 and last given in 1985 when I saw it).

Marius Petipa's final revival of La Bayadère, with the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre shown in the scene The Kingdom of the Shades. In the center is Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Nikiya, Pavel Gerdt as Solor and the Corps de ballet.
Marius Petipa's final revival of La Bayadère, with the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre shown in the scene The Kingdom of the Shades. In the center is Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Nikiya, Pavel Gerdt as Solor and the Corps de ballet.

In the scene, Solor (having smoked opium) imagines himself in the afterlife having followed his deceased beloved Nikiya, the shades of 24 women appear and dance and then he dances with the shade of his beloved. In Petipa's original there were first 36 and then 48 shades (I have seen 36, but the Royal Ballet currently uses just 24). Each dancer enters one after the other, doing the same gestures, descending ramp, slowly, until the stage is filled with the 24/36/48 women all doing the same thing. Then they go into formation and we are securely in Swan Lake territory.

It is a mesmerising scene, a technical feat which acquires its magic from the sheer perfection of technique. Like minimalism, the dance requires the individual gestures to be co-ordinated and not noticeable individually, it is the whole which counts. It does not have quite the emotional pull of Swan Lake because it is less of a gesamkunstwerk. The music by Ludwig Minkus is more functional than Tchaikovsky's for Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, it has less emotional pull. But Minkus' music is not simplistic, Minkus wrote to Petipa's detailed specification as did Tchaikovsky in Sleeping Beauty (Swan Lake was only choreographed by Petipa after Tchaikovsky's death).

But what difference great music can make is made obvious by the rest of the ballet. In may ways the plot has similarities to that of Swan Lake, a prince involved with an unsuitable woman, a good girl and a bad girl, a lover who is not entirely human (Nikiya in La Bayadère spends half the ballet dead, as a Shade). But in La Bayadère it is the choreography only that interests us, Minkus' music, charming though it is, is just the harness.

The Royal Ballet production uses John Lanchberry's orchestrations, so I don't know how much would be revealed by going back to Minkus' original. There were only re-discovered in the Mariinsky Theatre's music archives as part of Sergei Vikharev's reconstruction of Petipa's original, complete with the missing last act.

I have seen this production when the Kirov brought it to London, though memory is a little hazy, but it felt more like a dramatised historical romance and less like a simple container for 'The Kingdom of the Shades' scene, which is what Makarova's production feels like.

In many ways, reconstruction is impossible. Petipa's dancers were generally shorter and dumpier than today's slim, willowy ballerinas. Short tutus were introduced partly to help the dancers look more elegant (rather than the longer dressers favoured by early 19th century French ballets, think Giselle). Modern dancers are slim and willowy, try to imagine Petipa's choreography danced by shorter, thicker legs and arms. The results would probably have a vigour and a robustness that modern classical ballet does not.

There is another problem too, with whichever version we use. The ballet uses a very 19th century Orientalism as its world view, with an Indian setting complete with semi-comic dancing fakirs. The sheer beauty of the Royal Ballet's sets and costumes (by Pier Luigi Samaritani and Yolanda Sonnabend) make it work, and we have to accept that the cultural appropriation of 19th century Orientalism is part of Western culture. But still, those dancing fakirs do grate rather.

At Covent Garden on Friday, Tristan Dyer did what he could with the Head Fakir, dancing the role with great skill and immense conviction, despite a profoundly dodgy costume. Sarah Lamb was a wonderfully languid and lyrical Nikiya, with Ryoichi Hirano as a fine upstanding Solor, a role which is the equivalent of the nice but dim tenor hero, he partners wonderfully but lacks the nouse to actually stand up to the Rajah. This latter role, nobly played by Benet Gartside, is little more than a cypher and woefully underwritten. It is the 'bad girl' role of Gamzatti which stands out, and Claire Calvert made a terrific Gamzatti, making every gestur of mime count.

The production works, just about, with some suspension of disbelief, and having the 'Kingdom of the Shades' in the repertoire is as essential as Swan Lake. But I can't help feeling that that reconstruction of the 1900 production would be worth investigating.

But in an age of austerity when there are other new productions of full length ballets that the Royal Ballet needs more, could we justify it. And of course, if you do go for the reconstruction of the 1900 version, that is a great deal more music by Ludwig Minkus to listen to, which might not be to everyone's taste!



Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • In Remembrance - choral discs commemorating the centenary of the Armistice  - CD review
  • Spirito: Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka in bel canto scenes (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A Mahler Piano Series: Echoes of the East (★★★½) - concert review
  • All he wanted to do was make people cry  - article
  • Intimate grandeur: Fulham Opera in Verdi's five-act version of Don Carlo  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Telling tales - Cheryl Frances Hoad's Magic Lantern Tales from Champs Hill (★★★★) - CD review
  • Lincolnshire Remembers: Britten's War Requiem from Lincoln Cathedral - concert review
  • Enjoying the musicianship: Josquin masses from The Tallis Scholars  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Brushing away cynicism: Philippe Jordan & the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven - (★★★★) CD review
  • The Unknown Traveller: The Fieri Consort in Italian madrigals from Musica Transalpina and Ben Rowarth (★★★★) - CD review
  • Disturbing intensity: Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO (★★★★) - opera review
  • Voices of Aotearoa - Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir at Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Die Walküre - Royal Opera House Live  - (★★★½) Opera review
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