Royal Ballet Conjures Up the Mysterious Orient

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Minkus (orch. Lanchbery) , La Bayadère: Dancers and Orchestra of the Royal Ballet / Valeriy Ovsyanikov (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 5.4.2013. (JOD)

Nikiya: Roberta Marquez
Solor: Federico Bonelli
Gamzatti: Marianela Nuñez
Bronze Idol: Alexander Campbell
Members of the Royal Ballet

Choreography: Natalia Makarova after Marius Petipa
Set designs:Pier Luigi Samaritani
Costume designs:
Yolanda Sonnabend
Lighting design:John B Read
Revival staging:Olga Evreinoff

An air of gloom pervades this story of love between a temple dancer and a warrior, set in the India of late-nineteenth century, orientalist imagination. The writhing movements of the Head Fakir as he dances around the sacred flame in the opening scene seem to serve as a warning of twisted emotions to come. Solor, the warrior, asks the fakir to arrange a meeting for him with Nikiya, the dancer. Before this can happen, the High Brahim of the temple has seen and fallen in love with her, too. Federico Bonelli brings a delicate and expressive port de bras to the role of the brave Solor, but his character is quick enough to forsake Nikiya when the Rajah later offers him the hand of his daughter, Gamzatti, to reward his bravery.

The gloom is temporarily dispelled during the celebration of this betrothal. Marianela Nuñez, as Gamzatti, is an imposingly haughty presence against the background of the corps de ballet on the brighter lit, brighter coloured stage. Not sufficiently imposing, however, to prevent Solor’s thoughts from wandering to Nikiya at one point during their pas de deux. (The sight of a ballerina almost having to tap her partner on the shoulder to make him resume his dance with her is remarkable in itself.) When Nikiya is brought on by the High Brahim to perform for the betrothed couple, Roberta Marquez imbues the forward-backward motions of her dance with all the conflict and unhappiness her character is feeling. The dance ends with her death, from the bite of a snake that the Rajah and Gazmatti have hidden among the flowers she holds.

Gloom is replaced by hallucination in the second (and famous) ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ act, which is devoted to Solor’s opium-induced vision of the dead Nikiya. Only, it is not one Nikiya he sees, but thirty. As if looking through his eyes, the audience sat enraptured, some of them leaning forward in their seats as each identically dressed dancer appeared one by one on the black, bare stage to join the others in the extremely slow, forward-backward (arabesque/cambré) movement to music that is very different from the heavy, martial rhythms of Act One. This almost endless repetition of her figure suggests that it is not Nikiya that Solor loves, but the idea of her. What is more, immediately after inhaling the opium Solor himself feverishly executes this forward-backward dance, as if everything about his relationship with Nikiya really was projected from inside his own head. Strangely, once assembled on the stage the Shades perform dances that are among the most joyous of the evening – joyous perhaps because they are about dancing and nothing else.

Act Three, which returns to the temple, begins with an astonishing solo performed by a Bronze Idol (Alexander Campbell), the purpose of which might be to shake the audience out of its opium induced trance. But nothing that happens in this act can match the impact of the one before it, not even the sight of Solor and Nikiya, rather awkwardly reunited in heaven after the gods, angry (or perhaps just impatient) at so much gloom and forward-backward human emotion, have destroyed the temple and everyone in it.

John O’Dwyer