Not really a vintage Mariinsky season — an odd choice of repertoire and some hit-and-miss male casting — but the Covent Garden run ended on a glorious high.
Marius Petipa’s La Bayadère is a lightly curried love triangle about a handsome warrior torn between his betrothed (a Rajah’s daughter) and a beautiful temple dancer. Old-fashioned? You bet. But the scenery is chewed with such relish and the choreo-graphy delivered with such radiant commitment that the three hours roll by in a lime-lit haze — you half expect an audience in dress uniforms and tiaras.
The scenery, a pick-and-mix from the 1877 premiere and the 1900 revival, adds to the sense of time travel with a Rousseau-esque sacred forest for Act One and a masterclass in two-point perspective from Matvei Shishkov for the Rajah’s palace.
The Royal Ballet’s Bayadère makes do with fewer servants than Downton Abbey but Petipa’s ballet à grand spectacle was conceived and staged with orientalist largesse. Our hero arrives at the Act Two engagement party astride an elephant and the original défilé featured 230 dancers, figurants and flagellants together with a dozen small girls in chocolate-coloured fleshings: la danse de négrillons.
You won’t see négrillons in the American Ballet Theatre or Covent Garden productions but they live on in Moscow, St Petersburg and Paris, an odd but instructive reminder of bygone sins. Hardliners would like to see them airbrushed from the ballet stage, the same healing spirit that has purged Petrushka from the repertoire (remember the Moor worshipping his coconut?), but where do you draw the line? There is hardly a classic in the canon without its share of ‘cultural appropriation’ and dodgy racial stereotypes. What price the Chinese dance in Nutcracker? Commission an explanatory programme note by all means, give a talk beforehand but start blue-pencilling a turbaned, navel-jewelled extravaganza like La Bayadère or Le Corsaire and there would be nothing left but tights, tutus and toe shoes; all the fun, all the fragrance would evaporate.
For all its dodgy local colour Bayadère is stuffed with classical gems including a grand pas classique and killer variations for Solor and his two ballerinas: lyrical for Anastasia Matvienko’s Nikiya, extrovert for Gamzatti — the two faces of Eve.
Solor himself didn’t really trouble the scorer in the original 1877 production but subsequent directors have ramped up the male virtuosity. Grigory Popov rode the air as the fakir in the opening scene and Filipp Stepin made easy work of the fiendish Golden Idol (added by Nikolai Zubkovsky in 1948). Best of all was Vladimir Shklyarov whose white-hot rendition elevates Solor from love rat to tragic hero. He flew through the swizzling manège of double assemblés (a Nureyev embellishment) with elegance and panache, holding his line in the air and landing in an impossibly deep backbend.
Shklyarov invests every step with a moral dimension. The Act Two party piece becomes the physical expression of a conscience in turmoil and however nobly he partners the Rajah’s daughter (Elena Yev-seyeva), his drooping head and guilty sidelong glances show that his heart is elsewhere.
After his fiancée has murdered his true love (cue plastic asp) Nikiya’s forgiving ghost and the spirits of 32 fellow Shades come to him in a dream, tiptoeing down the Himalayas in a matched string of arabesques allongées.
Even after three solid weeks of performances all 64 pink satin feet were pin-sharp and kitten-soft. May Nagahisa — a new signing from Monte Carlo — was radiant in a solo danced in close conspiracy with Alexei Repnikov’s baton. The orchestra have had few opportunities to let rip — only one Tchaikovsky score, no Stravinsky, no Shostakovich — but they treated Minkus’s music-box melodies with affection and respect.
Nagahisa’s dancing had already prompted a rustle of cast sheets earlier in the week during the glorious Grand Pas from Paquita — finale to an ill-assorted triple bill.
Contrasts got off to a soggy start with Alberto Alonso’s 1967 Carmen Suite set to Rodion Shchedrin’s score (‘after George Bizet’ — several light years after) and originally choreographed for the incandescent Maya Plisetskaya.
Diana Vishneva stalks the bullring with steely efficiency but can’t match Pliset-skaya’s taconeo pointe-work and sluttish insouciance. Konstantin Zverev’s pallid Jose and Evgeny Ivanchenko’s lumpen Escamillo were no help — if that’s the toreador, my money’s definitely on the bull.
Fans of Paquita tend to run a mile from Wayne McGregor (and vice versa), and I suspect few of them will have made it to the Roundhouse in Camden Town last weekend where the dancemaker was joining forces with Random International for +/– Human, a slick but essentially gimmicky installation that combines 15 dancers and seven drone-like spheres which hover magically over the proceedings, delighting the audience and generally pulling focus away from the dance.
McGregor’s Infra, in the Mariinsky repertoire since 2014, is also design-heavy but Julian Opie’s dot-matrix frieze of animated figures stood little chance against the Mariinsky’s principals and soloists in last week’s mixed bill.
These dancers can’t hide their classical training but there was no sense of prettification or compromise and any fears that it might all look a bit like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa doing show tunes were dispelled when the bare-chested Filipp Stepin began steaming through his first solo. Kimin Kim and Nadezhda Batoeva transformed McGregor’s tendon-testing twosome into a relationship, but the ears and the tail went to Ekaterina Kondaurova as the lonely, silently screaming woman at the ballet’s heart.