writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Svetlana Zakharova in La Bayadère

La Bayadère
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
May 18, 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published 24 May 2004

Svetlana Zakharova’s Nikiya is rather small in stature yet huge in projection of her dance effects—and so brilliant that she seems to come from another planet: effortless ear-high extensions, balances that strike a pose with the authority of a biblical patriarch smiting a rock, multiple pirouettes in which her positions are tantamount to sculpture, grands jetés that seem to get higher as they descend, petite batterie in which each beat can be easily counted, backbends in which her body seems to disappear completely into design. Her arms alone have such vitality that each ought to have its own passport. At one point early on, in the vicinity of the Sacred Fire, she performed a transition step—a glissade, or, perhaps, a précipité—so pristine and exact that it didn’t seem to be a transition so much as a goal. This is ballet dancing that’s as legible to the Family Circle, near the Met roof, as the program one holds in one’s lap, which probably helps to explain the screaming joy that came from the top of the house at several moments in the course of the evening. We just don’t encounter much dancing on this heroic scale, not even from Zakharova’s native Kirov, in whose productions of The Sleeping Beauty and Serenade she made her U.S. debut five years ago. She was recognized then as a phenomenon—physically magnificent in face and attenuated figure, a prodigy in the classical lexicon. Yet she was also willful, adjusting Balanchine’s details to suit herself, replacing Petipa’s orthogonal poses with anachronistically high extensions. How could a ballerina this beautiful and this sensationally gifted be so impervious to choreographic style? The extensions, in particular, affected some balletomanes like fingernails run down a chalkboard.

However, in ABT’s Bayadère, they became something else: appropriate. For this is a ballet in which Nikiya, the heroine, while she lives, expresses her identity as a temple dancer and hopeful lover primarily with her upper body—her braided arms, her manipulation of such props as a dagger or a basket of flowers—while Gamzatti, her rival for the warrior Solor, presents herself to society as a classicist in a tutu. Yet, after Nikiya has been murdered and becomes a Shade in the mourning hero’s opium dream, i.e. a classical dancer in a tutu whose choreography synthesizes both Nikiya and Gamzatti, the world is effectively turned upside-down: Nikiya and her court of Shades become standard-bearers of classical dance, their legs performing the gestures that were formerly given to Nikiya’s arms and their arms carried with Gamzatti’s aristocratic restraint. This is the magic transformation that animates the ballet’s famous Vision Scene, with its procession down a ramp of 24 dancers taking two steps, steadying themselves with a tendu, and then posing momentarily in arabesque, over and over, winding in an “S” curve down to the stage, where, in formations of inexhaustibly fascinating simplicity, they become a human house of mirrors. The basketry image of the corps standing in ranks, girl upon girl, each in a fifth position slightly canted so that the “X”s of their legs read as geometry, rather than as flesh and bone, is one of the glories of the ballet repertory. It is also a multiplication of the living Nikiya’s braided port de bras, displaced from above the waist to below it. The opiated, grief-stricken, and guilt-ridden Solor has refracted impressions from his day and melded them with embodiments of wish in a manner that one might call Freudian, if Petipa hadn’t made La Bayadère nearly 35 years before the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. The choreography for Nikiya’s Shade and Solor, who has plunged into his own dream to find her, is warmer—more humane—than that for the corps, as the choreography for the leads in Giselle’s second act (to which some of the choreography and the music of La Bayadère refer) is warmer than that for the Wilis. Yet the warmth is not a matter of less austerity in the performance of the steps but rather of the way the figures interact and the way their steps and gestures continually refer back to the actions of the previous scenes, when Nikiya was alive. A ballerina has some options for softness and spontaneity, but within a very narrow compass of tone.

When ABT gave the production its première in New York, 25 years ago, Natalia Makarova—who also staged it—retained Nikiya’s twining lyricism, but with restraint. Of the Nikiyas I’ve seen subsequently, the warmest was Alessandra Ferri. Zakharova is probably the coldest Nikiya I’ve seen, but she’s not too cold for the role; she’s an exemplar of one end of the spectrum of possibilities. Earlier this spring, Nina Ananiashvili gave Nikiya yet another very beautiful interpretation, almost like a ghostly child. ABT may also have a great Nikiya waiting in Veronika Part, whose account of the variation for the Third Shade at Zakharova’s performance was exquisitely calibrated in scale and very musical. (Sometimes I wonder if Part is a reincarnation of Tamara Karsavina.) All of this is to say that Zakharova’s dancing is wonderful in its own way.

Two guest performances (I saw the second) aren’t the best circumstances for forging partnerships, and Zakharova’s Solor, Jose Manuel Carreno, while dancing with his customary ease and panache—and characteristic bravura in slowing down multiple pirouettes to a breathtaking balance—looked as if he was seeking to bring her Nikiya as a partner into his law firm. On the other hand, Victor Barbee—whose performance of the mime role of The High Brahmin she spurns—was so passionately engaged, and so interesting in itself, that one wondered why on earth she would turn him down.

The last two acts of this production are performed behind a scrim. It was saddening, when the sun finally came up at the end, to see how many holes that scrim has and also to discover what appeared to be a seam where it had repaired. Pierluigi Samaritani’s magnificent scenery, while still glorious to behold, has also become wrinkled in places. Couldn’t someone who loves this ballet support the restoration of its crucial setting?

First:  Svetlana Zakharova in La Bayadere. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Second: Svetlana Zakharova and Jose Manuel Carreño. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 19
May 24, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mindy Aloff



Back issues

Index of Reviews
Back Issues
About Us
Contact Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs



Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Gia Kourlas
Gay Morris
Susan Reiter
Alexandra Tomalonis(Editor)
Meital Waibsnaider
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan



DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!

DanceView is published quarterly (January, April, July and October) in Washington, D.C. Address all correspondence to:

P.O. Box 34435
Washington, D.C. 20043
last updated on April 19, 2004