United Kingdom Prokoviev, Bayadère – The Ninth Life, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Royal Opera House (Linbury Studio Theatre), London, 28.3.2015 (J.O’D)
Avatâra Ayuso, Richard Causer, Nathan Goodman, Sunbee Han, Noora Kela, Davin King, Emily Pottage, Sooraj Subramaniam, Teerachai Thobumrung
Choreography: Shobana Jeyasingh
Gautier’s voice: Benedict Lloyd-Hughes
Set and Costume Designs: Adam Wiltshire
Lighting Design: Fabiana Piccioli
Video: Ravi Deepres
Video Interaction Design: Fahrudin Nuno Salihbegovic
Dramaturgy: Richard Twyman
The young man typing words into his tablet with a Styrofoam cup beside him is not sitting in the audience, waiting for the performance to start. He is sitting on the stage, waiting to take part in it. When the house lights go down, the blogpost he writes is displayed on a screen behind him. It is to a friend, about La Bayadère, the late-nineteenth century, India-set ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa, he has recently been taken by another friend to see.
It is a ballet which choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh herself first ‘encountered’ in the early 1990s, and with which, she told Sanjoy Roy in an interview in The Guardian last week, she has had a love-hate relationship ever since. Bayadère – The Ninth Life expresses both aspects of that relationship in choreographic form. But what really made this work possible was the reaction of the dance critic, Théophile Gautier, forty years before the Petipa ballet was created, to the arrival in Paris of a troupe of devadasis (real temple dancers) from India. ‘Gautier’s writings were a godsend,’ Jeyasingh told Roy in the interview. ‘He wrote the story for me, in a way.’
The result, I think, is an underlying split. Warmly applauded it was (so warmly that its dancers applauded back), strong though it is in terms of its performances and choreography, of Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting and of Adam Wiltshire’s design, Jeyasingh’s work seems to be two, even three, dances: one (more superficial, or bitter) about La Bayadère; one (more alive) about Gautier and the devadasis; the third a piece of contemporary dance that goes on too long.
‘Pure Bollywood,’ is how the young man (Sooraj Subramaniam) first of all describes the Petipa ballet. As he gives details dancers behind the screen, which has now become a scrim, represent through mime and poses from the ballet nearly all the characters in it: Nikiya, the temple dancer, or bayadère; Solor, the warrior she loves; Gamzatti, the princess he marries; Aya; the dancer with the pot of water; the dancer with the ribbon; the Bronze Idol, the holy man. They do this well. But Jeyasingh might be unfair on Petipa, and on nineteenth-century ballet, to present La Bayadère in such a way. It is difficult not to agree when he writes, about the writhing: ‘I have never seen a holy man move like this.’ But is he right to describe the Kingdom of the Shades as ‘Heaven’? Is heaven, not the Himalayas, the place in which Solor sees the dead Nikiya during his opium trance? I suppose it depends on which production you’re watching. ‘LOL!’ is the young man’s verdict on the one he saw.
The choreographer then veers away from La Bayadère to the Paris of forty years earlier. This section conflates issues of gender and race by turning Sooraj Subramaniam into Amany, the eighteen-year old devadasis whom Gautier, in the form of a voiceover, extensively and rapturously describes. After being ogled, admired and imitated by the other dancers as Parisians, the bejewelled Subramaniam suddenly begins to dance in the classical Indian, and in this context very ‘real’ seeming, style of Bharata Natyam.
The point at which these two worlds come together is the one at which the dancers around Subramaniam adopt once again the comparatively rigid-looking postures of Western classical ballet, their arms raised en couronne. They do this to express the Parisian public’s loss of interest in the devadasis, its eventual preference for the ersatz to the real. Subramaniam, having left the stage, returns in his contemporary clothes. As the other dancers begin to move like Nikiya in the Kingdom of Shades, he holds up his tablet to film them.
Instead of ending here, as it could, Bayadère – The Ninth Life moves on to the third section of rather William Forsythe-like dance: dancers walking on to the stage as if to carry out a task; one dancer moving off stage slowly while two others perform a duet. When those who had mimed the characters from La Bayadère all turned to face the audience for a few moments, I thought again that the dance could end, very effectively, here. Shobana Jeyasingh, the dramaturg Richard Twyman, and the Creative Producer David Micklem will have had their reasons for thinking otherwise.