A Study in Contrasts: “La Bayadère” at ABT

Friday night’s performance of “La Bayadère” at ABT was a battle of the Russian women: the impossibly long-limbed Veronika Part (replacing Diana Vishneva) as Nikiya, the temple dancer, and the inimitable Natalia Osipova as Gamzatti, the Radjah’s daughter. The juxtaposition was most striking when the two ballerinas fought it out over the warrior Solor (Marcelo Gomes) in Gamzatti’s room: Part was the tall, womanly, and sensuous temple dancer to Osipova’s precise and fiery princess. Their stark differences highlighted the very different worlds to which their characters belonged.

Osipova’s acting, as an entitled, haughty princess, was pitch-perfect, from the lift of her chin to the arch of her eyebrow. The subtle sidelong glances at her distracted fiancée while the two watched Nikiya perform her tragic dance were the only hint of her vulnerability. Every time she felt Solor was slipping from her grasp, she amped up her regal air, hiding her doubts behind the façade of confidence created by her crystalline technique.

Despite her tiny frame, Osipova effortlessly matched the height of Gomes’ jumps. In the finale of their pas de deux, her series of Italian and traditional fouettée turns were a dynamic force that seemed to set the entire colorful scene in motion. While I agree with many others that “home-grown” ABT dancers should be getting more shots at principal parts, I can’t deny the pleasure it is to see this astonishing artist perform.

What’s interesting about the first act divertissements is that, being set in this “exotic” location of India, the character dances no longer have to be ethnically specific as in other ballets of the period—no character shoes here! (I’m not at all saying that character dances always reflect their purported culture, but mazurka and czardas are actual dances.) By placing the ballet firmly in a location that is not-Europe, it becomes fine to have the “locals” dancing very classical ballet, in sparkly tutus, with a few broken-wrist, upturned palm gestures to add “exotic” flavor.

That said, the dancers in these groups took these absurd opportunities and ran with them. The women in purple tutus in particular (Yuriko Kajiya, Sarah Lane, Luciana Paris, and it looked like Nicola Curry although Misty Copeland was listed?) were exquisite. The d’jampe dancers, with scarves attached to their pants, foreshadowed the shades who would arrive in the second act, with scarf-like arm adornments, as well as the scarf that connects the lovers parted by death, Nikiya and Solor, in their opium-induced reunion. These scarves also seem related to the veils that Nikiya and Gamzatti wear in their first entrances—symbolizing the mysterious exoticism projected onto India in a colonial era.

The first act’s only flaw was the inability of the dancers, from principals to corps, to finish on the music (this may be partly attributed to the orchestra). Osipova in particular finished out more than one set of partnered turns to a few counts of silence before the concluding beat.

From that famous scene when the Shades descend down the ramp in hypnotic synchronicity, the second act belongs to the corps de ballet. What struck me watching this scene was just how hard it is. Take away the tutus and scenery, and this could be a class at the Vaganova academy: développé side…and hold; precise directional change, développé arabesque…hold again. That the scene transcends its academic bones and becomes something dream-like is a testament to the alchemic power of classical ballet at its best.

Part exuded an otherworldly sort of languor in her second-act pas de deux with Gomes. The passages where she executed a series of turns, in arabesque and then passé, while holding a scarf above her hand, held at the other end by Gomes, were breathtaking. Gomes was, as usual, fantastic: regal lines, buoyant jumps, and attentive, selfless partnering. He went from ecstatically passionate lover in the first act—exemplified by exuberant variation-ending backbends—to entranced cavalier in the second. His Solor was unable to comprehend the forces in play around him, making his bewildered shock at Nikiya’s death all the more poignant.

In the final act, Osipova revealed her desperation in a dramatic departure from her first-act persona. No longer confined to sidelong glances, her insecurity about Solor’s devotion to her was evident in the way she carried herself and danced with him, now colored by submission and deference. In the “candle dance” section, in which she and Solor are separately encircled by two groups of temple dancers, their reactions to their impending nuptials were telling: her glances at him illustrating her fear of losing him, his indicating his panicked, claustrophobic realizations: “How did I end up here? Is it too late to escape?”

It is, of course, too late to escape. Part returns once more as a spirit, interrupting the wedding proceedings with her luxurious saut de chats (big leaps), just before the entire temple comes crashing down. In the wake of this destruction, we are left once again with that symbolic scarf, as it connects the two lovers, Nikiya and Solor, in the afterlife.

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2 thoughts on “A Study in Contrasts: “La Bayadère” at ABT

  1. Great review. As the person who saw this with you, I think these observations are spot-on. Although I would like to say that as a first timer of this ballet, I was expecting the opium act to be slightly more opium-y. Oh well. Osipova was mesmerizing. Her athleticism is just unreal.

  2. Pingback: Meredith Benjamin on American Ballet Theatre’s ‘La Bayadère’ | Collective for Dance Writing and New Media

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