"La Bayadere"
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House

New York, NY
May 16, 2007 (evening)

by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2007 by Michael Popkin

Amerian Ballet Theatre is back at the Metropolitan Opera House and kicked off its spring season with “La Bayadere” this week, casting the ballet Wednesday evening with Diana Vishneva as Nikiya, Ethan Stiefel as Solor and Stella Abrera as Gamzatti. “Bayadere” is a ballet that can succeed on the stage in a number of ways. When well performed, it’s at least a brilliant dance spectacle even when you don’t particularly believe in the drama or the characters; more rarely, it can also be riveting theater if the characterizations are particularly strong.  Wednesday night’s performance, however, was flat in both respects: the company neither danced particularly well nor successfully dramatized the ballet.

The flat dancing began with Vishneva, whose performance was emotionally disengaged and distant in a way I haven’t seen from her before.  In Act I, in particular, she seemed to be going through the motions, and this was unfortunate in more ways than one.  As a less than a fully integrated member of the company (she’s a guest artist in the spring and dances perhaps once a week), her distant performance made her foreignness all too evident and also cast her splendid technique in a strange light.  She’s a dancer with more than a few grand ballerina mannerisms but is also an unusually passionate performer and the effect of the passion is to make you less aware of her mannerisms. They then seem part and parcel of the passion.  When she dances without emotion, however, as she did in this performance, the mannerisms are all too visible. Her cool performance was more acceptable in Acts II and III, when Nikiya is a shade and where her emotional distance was at least consistent with her character, although the scarf dance in Act II fell flat without a strong sense of Nikiya’s emotion for Solor.

Stiefel’s performance, on the other hand, fell at the other extreme, as he danced stiffly and laboriously and then oversold his dancing and overacted in what appeared to be an attempt to compensate for his physical difficulties.  Stiefel has returned to the company this spring after losing about a year and a half to a series of knee injuries and it’s to be hoped that this performance is just the start of a long road back to full capacity. As it was, though, it was painful to see his great talent blunted to this point.

Physical stiffness was also the trouble with Abrera’s Gamzatti. She looks the part and has an idea of the character, but it’s a killer role technically and she is not a strong enough dancer for the Act I grand pas de deux and the extended solos. Perhaps if Vishneva and Stiefel had danced at full bore, Abrera could gotten away with her limitations; but with their compromised performances, her lack of facility also became too evident.

Similar criticisms have to made about the corps de ballet’s performance in Act I, both in the temple dances, the famous D’Jampe dance, and the betrothal waltz, all of which were generally heavy footed and poorly coordinated. In Act II, however, the corps improved greatly in a shades scene that achieved some degree of poetry, and where the solos were also well danced by Sarah Lane, Yuriko Kajiya, and Maria Ricetto.

Despite what preceded it, Act III was surprisingly successful from the dramatic point of view. Here, where the requirements of the dancing and the blocking of the action were at their least classical, the company suddenly appeared its best, beginning with a compelling and exciting Bronze Idol dance by Herman Cornejo and proceeding to a dramatically intelligible scene at the wedding between the three principals and a poetic apotheosis for the lovers.  It helped that the production itself proceeds at a more leisurely dramatic pace here — the three scenes in Act I that include all of the rest of the action are very hurried in this staging, with little time allowed for any of the characters to grow or to project their inner conflicts.  In Act III, however, there is time for the characters to develop.

Just seeing Solor and Gamzatti stand at either side of the stage (cut very shallow here) surrounded by the sixteen candle dancers, you had time to experience their emotions:  Solor’s grief at losing Nikiya and guilt at having abandoned her; the hollow nature of the triumph of Gamzatti’s pride when she has her man, but also her guilt, and her awareness that he continues to love another — emotions that were underscored when Nikiya’s shade appeared to Solor at the wedding (as the Sylph appears to James in “La Sylphide” — “Bayadere” is nothing if not derivative). The last act here, with Nikiya’s shade appearing, the temple collapsing and the lovers reunited in an apotheosis, may be a case of “Aida” (the dramatic situation and the tomb scene) meets “La Sylphide” (as described above) meets “Gotterdammerung”  (the temple collapsing in a haze of falling rocks and dry ice smoke): it was effective stagecraft nonetheless. It was, all the same, too little too late to save the performance as a whole.

In the supporting roles, Gennadi Saveliev danced the Rajah; Victor Barbee the High Brahmin; and Jared Matthews the Head Fakir, all in a more or less convincing and satisfactory manner.

The photo on the front page is of Paloma Herrera and David Hallberg in La Bayadère. Photo: MIRA.

Volume 5, No. 21
May 14, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

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