La Bayadère opens with a sacred flame and ends with an earthquake. In between, Marius Petipa’s ballet of 1877 gives us an India of the imagination, an India that never was. It is a place of tigers and tutus, scimitars and slippers. Cultural appropriation, you say? But who could object when it’s all so Pondicherry pretty: a durbar dream of silk harem pants, beaded bracelets, sun-goddess gowns, swags of hibiscus, palanquins, hookah pipes, snakes, divans and dances of the seven tie-dyed veils. The temple backdrops are gorgeous and preposterous. I’m the king of the swingers, oh…
Besides you can hardly culturally appropriate when the company of the Royal Ballet is the grandest of grand bazaars. On the night I saw La Bayadère, Nikiya, the eponymous temple dancer, was danced by Akane Takada (born in Tokyo), her rival Gamzatti, the Raja’s scheming daughter, by Yasmine Naghdi (born in London to a Belgian mother and Iranian father) and Solor the warrior who betrays Nikiya’s love for Gamzatti’s by Steven McRae (Sydney). The first night cast was Marianela Nunez (Buenos Aires), Natalia Osipova (Moscow) and Vadim Muntagirov (Chelyabinsk).
Takada dances with an air of otherworldly detachment and exquisite lightness of line. She is refined more than expressive, contained more than open. The partnership of Takada and McRae, with Inspector Clouseau moustache and turban, doesn’t quite catch light. They are like two flints —sharp and shining in their own ways — struck together but failing to spark.
Yasmine Naghdi is turning into a marvellous actress. She communicates more menace and majesty in a flick of her ankle than many dancers with their whole body. Watch her feet — mesmerising. As Gamzatti, she is bullying, imperious, a girl who gets her way. Sly smile, flickering sneer, pout, wink, flirt. She stalks, she shimmies. Such litheness, such energy, such gracious disdain. If only she would hold her positions for a fraction longer. After each lift and leap, relief flashes across her face. She should relish her triumphs.
Fragile Nikiya never stands a chance. Takada brings immense pathos and a sense of quivering grief to her red-costumed dance of supplication. Hitherto hesitant, McRae reminds us in Act Two that when he is good he is very, very good. Not tall, but a pocket rocket. He gathers momentum and confidence until he is going like the clappers — though always in total control. Well-deserved whoops from the Gods.
First soloist Luca Acri is superb as the Bronze Idol, gleaming and molten as he moves. In the dance of the Kingdom of the Shades, the corps de ballet are divine. Not a toe, not a finger out of place. We abandon any pretence we are in India for the sheer, eerie beauty of the Shades in perfect sympathy.
More doomed lovers at Sadler’s Wells in Layla and Majnun. The lovers’ story is told in Turkey, Persia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and across the Arabic world. They are the silkroads’ Romeo and Juliet. Here, an opera first performed in Azerbaijan in 1908 is reimagined by the musicians of the Silkroad Ensemble and Mark Morris Dance Company against a backdrop by the late Howard Hodgkin, who was so fired and inspired by the colours of India. The production is a splodgy, well-intentioned mess. Mark Morris gives us kindergarten calisthenics, silly skipping and Julie Andrews hills-are-alive twirling. The stage blocks are ugly, the candles are worthy of a massage parlour and the space available for the dancers is an awkward U with the musicians — splendid, arresting — in the middle. After faffing about with the candles, there is an hour of wishy-washy sun-salutes and floppy-hoppy blether.
Four couples play Layla and Majnun at four different stages of their courtship. When not called for, the remaining company wafts about in the background. The choreography picks up in the ‘You tantalise me’ and ‘I will not surrender’ passages, offering glimpses of what the production could have been: an exhilarating portrait of the ecstasy and despair of star-crossed love. Then it’s back to wafting. ‘God, what torture! What agony!’ cries our heroine. You and me both, Layla.