writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, international edition


La Bayadère
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London, U.K.
21 October 2003

La Bayadère
Mariinsky Ballet
Detroit Opera House
Detroit, Michigan
2 November 2003

By Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2003, Leigh Witchel

It’s been a busy year for La Bayadère. The Royal Ballet opened its season in London with Natalia Makarova’s Soviet influenced version, but with the final act restored. Londoners got to compare it with the Mariinsky’s (called the Kirov on tour for familiarity’s sake) historically reconstructed version earlier this year (see the print edition of Dance View, Autumn ’03 for a report by Jane Simpson). New York has already seen this restored production, but on the Mariinsky’s current tour to other parts of the United States, including the Detroit Opera house, they are bringing the previous Soviet version of the ballet that omits the destruction of the temple.

Even with her restoration of the final act, Makarova’s production resembles the Soviet version of the ballet; it’s what she knew and brought with her to the west, and Mariinsky ballerinas could be seen in both versions. The Royal Ballet imported Daria Pavlenko as Nikiya for few performances in October, and at the Michigan Opera House she was scheduled to perform on the same night as scheduled in London in what was a remarkable act of bilocation, wishful thinking, or the usual cavalier attitude of the Mariinsky management towards reporting casting. A performance allotted to Pavlenko ended up being danced by Diana Vishneva, with Igor Zelensky also listed as her partner. Of course, it wasn’t Igor Zelensky dancing; that would have been too simple and unconfusing. Andrian Fadeyev danced Solor unannounced and uncredited.

Makarova’s production was revived for the Royal Ballet in 2002 is rescaled necessarily from the 1980 production she staged for ABT at the Metropolitan Opera. Pier Luigi Samaritani designed sets for both productions and those for the Royal Opera House are scaled down to its size. La Bayadère feeds on excess, so it’s a shame to see it cramped. At her opening entrance from the temple, Pavlenko had only three or four steps to walk down (at the Met in New York in May with ABT, Alina Cojocaru might as well have been descending down one of Busby Berkeley’s staircases) and barely a few steps to center before her unveiling by the High Brahmin. The stage affects other blocking as well; the Brahmin also has to observe Nikiya and Solor swearing their love “unobserved” in what seems like full view of Nikiya. She has to willfully not notice him. In Detroit, Vishneva had five steps to walk down, but a great deal more width to traverse to get to center stage. She took the stairs quickly and emphasized the slow walk on the ground to center stage with her back foot pointed on each crescendo.

The Makarova version follows the Soviet version closely in Act I with a few alterations. She puts the temple dancers on pointe instead of in soft character slippers, but the Mariinsky corps makes high half-toe as expressive as pointework. Makarova brings a stuffed tiger out during the opening hunting mime; the Mariinsky saves the poor beast for the triumphal processional that opens act II. Theirs is quite robust and fuzzy, and looks more like an oversized plush toy, which inspired laughs.

The biggest choreographic difference between the two productions in this act is the inclusion in the Mariinsky production of an introductory pas de deux in the Rajah’s palace. With the Rajah and Gamzatti in attendance, Nikiya and an unnamed half-naked slave dance a pas de deux as entertainment. It’s impressive, but Makarova may have chosen to cut it because its points are made in other places in the production. It opens with Nikiya being unveiled once again; this time in a full length blue-gray silk by her partner. It ends with her being held aloft by him scattering lilies in a gesture that seems to be from Act II of Giselle. Solor is present but hidden for this dance and for the High Brahmin’s entrance and mime denouncing Nikiya and Solor. In fact, almost everyone but Nikiya is skulking about during that scene listening unobserved as if it were a Feydeau farce. The Mariinsky production does connect the pas de deux to the rest of the action. The High Brahmin uses that veil, which was left behind, to indicate Nikiya as Solor’s lover; in Makarova’s version he uses the “water carrier” mime. Moments later Gamzatti enters with yet another veil, her white bridal veil and crown. I rather like the dance, but if something had to go . . .

Smaller acting and blocking details differentiate the productions as well. Vishneva rebuffs the High Brahmin more naturally; her mime doesn’t seem to refer to her purity or status as a temple dancer. When Nikiya does this in other productions, she ends up undercutting herself in the very next scene by sneaking out of the temple to a tryst with Solor. Vishneva doesn’t offer excuses; she just says, “NO”.

Vishneva has a different temperament than Pavlenko, but their leg proportions give their arabesques a similar sweep. Pavlenko dances solidly with centered turns, and with her expressive and beautiful pale face she plays Nikiya silent movie star big. She dances and acts like a ballerina as well with a Russian extravagance of line and attack, adopting the swayed pelvis one sees in Nikiya. Pavlenko is almost too authoritative to be innocent; her regal bearing is slightly remote and makes one think of Gamzatti; when Vishneva entered for her first confrontation with her Gamzatti (Elvira Tarasova) she managed to convince one she had no idea why she’s been called; Pavlenko seemed to know and was steeling herself for the fight.

Both productions had fine Gamzattis. The conflict between Gamzatti and Nikiya is what makes La Bayadère interesting and difficult to stage; Gamzatti and Nikiya are not polar opposites; good and evil or innocent and sinful. It’s a cracked mirror; Nikiya may be wronged, but she comes at Gamzatti with a knife and in death, she is her own Myrtha, presiding over the destruction of the temple. One guesses that setting the ballet in a pagan country gave the librettists the freedom to have the heroine not be superhuman perfection.

In the Royal Ballet production, Zenaida Yanowsky and Pavlenko were two long limbed beauties in a catfight par excellence. Yes, it was like watching Joan Collins and Linda Evans with the coloring reversed. Yanowsky was forceful and malicious in the role (a man next to me whispered at the close of the scene in Solor’s bedchamber where she advances threateningly towards Solor as the curtain falls, “She’ll eat him alive.”) but she was also thoughtful; you could see her sizing up Nikiya when they met, examining her beauty, mentally weighing their rivalry. Yanowsky is a specialty dancer; broad-shouldered, long-limbed, not really classical but she’s got authority. In the right hands and the right repertory she’s part of the constellation of ballerinas that makes a company.

Tarasova was smaller in physical scale, but even if her mime predicting Nikiya’s fate at the end of Act I (a closing of the fist) was very simple, it was awful in its portent. Of all, though, Vishneva had the hugest scale for her acting in the confrontation. Her great moment when came when she rebuffed Gamzatti with her mime, “He swore by the sacred flame that he loved ME!” Even with such a small excuse in the face of Gamzatti’s wealth and power, it was so forcefully inspired in her own imagination that you understood why she acted invincible. Vishneva throws the necklace Gamzatti desperately bribes her with (pearls at the Mariinsky, gold at the Royal) and attacks Gamzatti with a knife she sees on a table as if protected by her certainty. Makarova coaches her Nikiyas to discover the knife as if by accident, pick it up and come at Gamzatti almost as if in a daze. The only threat is the knife itself. This works for physically delicate women like Makarova or Cojocaru, but the Mariinsky production tops the Makarova production in nerve. In the Mariinsky version, Gamzatti also bars the exits before this point, trapping Nikiya and that helps give motive to her attack.

Of the Solors, Igor Zelensky has perhaps never looked or danced as well as when he was played by Andrian Fadeyev. Fadeyev gave a marvelous performance; well acted, well partnered and marked by the elevation of his cabrioles and other jumps. Pavlenko’s Solor, Roberto Bolle, is even more handsome than Fadeyev. Bolle has movie star looks, with one of the most beautiful faces in ballet and greyhound legs. If only his partnering were as beautiful as his face. Admittedly, he probably had very little time to rehearse with Pavlenko from the time she arrived in London until performance but still, Pavlenko had to save the landing out of an overhead lift by grabbing Bolle’s shoulders on the way down and he threw Yanowksy off her pointes in several of her turns. Alone, Bolle was a decent turner and could just manage the standard tricks needed to do the variations but was careless about character details. Would Solor actually cross his arms in front of the Rajah? At another time he ended up confusing how to bow, using a single hand to the chest. That’s a generic bow from some other ballet. The bow in La Bayadère takes one hand to the forehead and the other to the heart. And these details matter.

The major cuts in the Makarova production are the large corps dances in Act II, the pageantry of the ballet. Ladies with fans, ladies with parrots, the character danse infernale and the children’s dances, these may be divertissements incidental to the action but they have other effects. They round out our picture of the court society the ballet portrays but more subtly and perhaps more importantly, of the institution behind this production and one that mirrors the society it portrays. No small part of the glory of works like Sleeping Beauty or La Bayadère is in having the organizational strength to do them properly.

I’ve heard reports of inconsistency in the Mariinsky corps, but I have always been lucky with them in New York City and I was lucky again in Detroit. Even after weeks on tour their seemingly unshakeable professionalism was bedrock on which an edifice is built. Every corps number looked not just beautifully drilled, but well performed. The djampé in Act I provoked spontaneous applause during the simple act of rotating in arabesque. Like precision gearwork, all the women moved not only at the same angle, but the same height and speed. But a Rockettes trick is not what makes a world-class company. The dancers are schooled in the same style. It’s the difference between the Mariinsky and American Ballet Theatre. The Mariinsky corps doesn’t just dance together; they dance with the same brain.

The Royal Ballet corps is also an institution, but one in recession if this performance is a guide. Like the Mariinsky; they do the same things in the same way. If only they did them at the same time. The pas d’action was studded with signs of underrehearsal. Both companies do the entrée to the Kingdom of the Shades well; but the Detroit performance gained power in additional size, of the stage and entry ramp and of the corps with an extra row of shades. It’s not fair to ask the Royal Ballet to be the Mariinsky; its lyric gifts were not formed the same way as the Mariinsky’s expansive ones and both are reflected by the society that made them and the very theaters in which they perform. The Royal corps de ballet shows its greatness in places you don’t expect it; a beautiful performance of the dance immediately after the pas de deux where the leading shadows returned or in the corps’ ghostly salute in unison to the couple before the scarf dance. But Makarova was a product of her Mariinsky training, and if the Royal Ballet is going to keep importing her productions in favor of ones in their own tradition they are going to be judged on alien standards.

It’s fascinating to contrast this with the Nureyev production of the Shades scene only, which premiered in 1963 and became a staple of the repertory. In The Royal Ballet, the First Fifty Years, Alexander Bland states “The whole company absorbed the Russian style with extraordinary skill.” I’d posit that there was more stylistic unity in Nureyev’s single act than in Makarova’s reconstruction, which oscillates between sections driven by dance logic and sections driven by psychological logic. Certainly, so do Nureyev’s later productions of the classics, but it’s the dance sections that enabled the Royal to find its own way to the work. It sheds light to note what was happening at the Royal during the same season. Ashton had just begun his tenure and revived Swan Lake shortly after this as well as creating The Dream. The company would then acquire Serenade. There is something to be said for fertile soil.

Pavlenko was less convincing as Nikiya the Temple Dancer and more so as Nikiya the Shade and by extension the Ballerina. She had some problems with the scarf variation bobbling the turns. It isn’t as if Bolle could help (he’s at the other end of the scarf), but it’s also not as if he was giving her any feeling of security leading up to it. The situation reverses for Vishneva, who throws off more heat and excitement in performance, some of it misplaced. When she runs at Fadeyev and charges into the air in a lofty split à la seconde in her pas de deux in the Shades scene, she’s the liveliest dead woman ever. The same in Act II in her allegro variation with the basket of flowers; we can blame some of this on Minkus and his later arrangers for placing a beer garden tune exactly at that point in the action, but here we have Vishneva tearing into this zesty allegro right before she dies. It’s Death by Oompah. All the same, I love her for her energy even in its vulgarity. It’s jarring and wrong, but she does it so well. With a vial of antidote to her fatal snakebite in hand, she looks at Solor heartbroken as he leaves with Gamzatti and lets the vial fall, uncaring. She dies huge.

Makarova moves the Bronze Idol variation from the middle of Act II (punctuated by entrées for children) to being viewed unadorned at the beginning of her restored Destruction of the Temple. Of the two dancers, the Royal’s Ivan Putrov was marginally better and his version is harder because it’s performed without interruption. Interestingly, he’s a softer dancer than what we might see in the ABT production but everything is harder edged there. Makarova’s final act is an improvement dramatically over the truncated Soviet version but many of her ideas seem oddly Freudian. An example is a second pas d’action where she inserts a double pas de deux bringing the Rajah into the picture partnering his daughter. This makes sense neither as an idea nor as a dance.

The Mariinsky brought the restored version to New York last summer and it made a good deal more dramatic sense, even more than Makarova’s version, but you could sense they didn’t like dancing it. Dances that had become part of their current tradition like the Bronze Idol were erased; others like the pas d’action moved from Act II to Act IV. It was like a room where the furniture had been rearranged and they kept banging their shins irritatingly on the coffee table. Even with the incomparable historical value of the restored versions, one could see their bodies rebel. Good, bad or indifferent, by asking them to revert to pre-Soviet versions one is asking the dancers to reverse more than half a century of accreted learning built into their repertory, their teaching and their muscles and it’s a painful process. Like yellowed varnish that becomes part of our knowledge of a painting, that accretion becomes tradition. The dancers in the Mariinsky have their Soviet versions under their skin. A truncated Don Quixote with all the mime erased from it but wave after wave of high-voltage character dancing was the dance event of their last New York season; while searching to find the heart of the mammoth restored Sleeping Beauty at the Met in ’99 they performed their Giselle with casual expertise. Even when their version is choreographically weaker than the alternative, they bring the force and strength of their institution to it. The Soviet Mariinsky version of La Bayadère may make less sense then either the Makarova version or even their own reconstructed version, but they make more sense out of it.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 8
November 17, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by
Leigh Witchel



Back issues

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs

About Us
Contact Us


This weeks' articles


Mindy  Aloff's Letter from New York

The Balanchine Celebration
New York City Ballet:
A Veteran and a Raw Recruit
by Mindy Aloff

Heart and Soul
by Mary Cargill

Kid Stuff
Cas Public's If You Go Down To the Woods Today
by Susan Reiter

San Francisco Ballet:
New Wheeldon (Rush)
by Rita Felciano

New Tomasson (7 For Eight)
by Paul Parish

Possokhov's New Firebird for OBT
by Rita Felciano

Moscow Festival Ballet and Scott Wells
by Paul Parish

Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky:
Nijinsky—Lost in the Chaos
by Clare Croft

NijinskyMadness and Metaphor
by Alexandra Tomalonis

Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes
by George Jackson

Batsheva: Breaking Down Walls
by Lisa Traiger

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
by Clare Croft

Choreographers Showcase
by Tehreema Mitha

Zoltan Nagy
by George Jackson






Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Clare Croft
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
Rachel Howard
George Jackson
Gia Kourlas
Jean Battey Lewis
Alexander Meinertz
Tehreema Mitha
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
Susan Reiter
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis(Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Meital Waibsnaider


The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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


Copyright ©2003 by by DanceView
last updated on October 20, 2003