Royal Opera House
I have often wondered what it is that makes the 1877 La Bayadère such a popular ballet. Certainly not the flimsy, derivative and highly unbelievable plot, as full of sensationalist twists as any mass-oriented 19th-century feuilleton; nor the music, a concoction of fairly uninspiring catchy tunes by the well-known 19th-century ballet composer and note-monger Ludwig Minkus. And certainly not the choreographic layout, which is for more than two thirds a hotchpotch of superfluous character dancing, lengthy mime scenes, endless waltzing for the corps and circus-like bravura for the principals. True, the so-called ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ act remains the one example of pure choreographic genius and craftsmanship, but once the hypnotic and seemingly seamless flow of arabesques is over, the whole thing reverts to well-established and fairly trite canons of the conventional supernatural plot found in almost every ballet of the period.
But it is exactly the not-so-subtle blend of all these not-so-perfect ingredients that turns the whole ballet into a captivating oddity. As such it evokes perfectly a bygone era in which spectacle was paramount regardless of any notion of dramatic unity and stylistic consistency; an era in which any implausible and exotic-scented fairy tale provided the ideal escapist solution to everyday troubles. Indeed, little has changed since, and the lure of La Bayadère is, today, the same as that of an old (please note ‘old’) Walt Disney movie or of any of the increasingly popular Bollywood ones, with which this ballet has loads in common.
It was thus a good idea for the Royal Ballet to start 2009 with such a ballet spectacular. Makarova’s 1980 production lacks the phantasmagorical grandeur of other and more recent stagings of the same work, such as Nureyev’s one for the Paris Opera or the philological one presented a few years back by the Kirov. Still, it remains a lavish and dramatically engaging reading of the old work, which manages to capture beautifully its essence without having to rely on elephants on stage — even though the final crumbling of the temple could be slightly less risible.
On the opening night, Tamara Rojo, as the eponymous temple dancer, was simply radiant, and proved to be one of today’s best interpreters of the role. I particularly liked the way she highlighted the choreographic contrast between the balletic adaptation of the pseudo-oriental dances in the first scenes and the purely classical lines in the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’. Her acting was also good, and added greatly to the flimsy, almost two-dimensional character. Next to her Carlos Acosta was as buoyant as ever, but did not manage to express in full the tormented and forbidden passion the warrior Solor has for the temple dancer. Such a lukewarm dramatic involvement had some serious repercussions on the whole ballet, depriving it of the hyper-heightened, silent-movie-like drama it calls for. Alexandra Ansanelli, as the evil princess Gamzatti, danced beautifully, too, and acted with more conviction than Acosta. Still, she needs to master the correct range of facial expressions that must accompany each of the complex 19th-century ballet mime gestures — something that Gary Avis, as the lustful and villainous High Brahmin, seems to have mastered perfectly. The corps was far more in unison than in any of the other performances I have seen so far and elicited a well-deserved ovation at the end of the Shades’ entrance. q