Quaintness and Oriental Charm in St Petersburg Ballet’s La Bayadère

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Irina Kolesnikova London Season – Ludwig Minkus, La Bayadère: Soloists, Corps de ballet of The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre and Orchestra / Timor Gorkovenko (conductor), The London Coliseum, London. 22.8.2015. (JPr)

Kolesnikova La Bayadère
Irina Kolesnikova as Nikiya in La Bayadère
c St Petersburg Ballet Theatre

Principal Dancers:

Nikiya: Irina Kolesnikova
Solor: Denis Rodkin
Gamzatti: Natalia Matsak
The Bronze Idol: Andre Federkov


Choreography: Marius Petipa
Libretto: Marius Petipa & Sergei Khudekov
Staging (2004): Elena Vorontsova & Albert Mirzoyan
Scenery: Semyen Pastukh
Costumes: Galina Solovieva

There is almost an oppressive weight of history when watching a performance of an old warhorse ballet such as La Bayadère. The first question would be what would its 1877 creator, Marius Petipa, think of it now with all the choreography it has accreted over the intervening years; and the second question, as always, is how does it now compare with what has been seen before. The former is impossible to answer of course and the latter is something I genuinely try to avoid doing either when I am in the theatre or composing a review. Suffice to say looking back at the few records I have from the time, I first saw the Act III ‘Kingdom of Shades’ on its own in 1982 as part of a double bill with – of all things – The Two Pigeons and with Rudolf Nureyev as Solor. When I saw the full ballet for the first time in 1989 Sylvie Guillem was almost luxury casting as Gamzatti. Enough said!

This was now presented by the constantly touring St Petersburg Ballet Theatre as almost an afterthought to their extended run of Swan Lake performances. I revisited La Bayadère after several years and despite all the overweening orientalism, the ludicrous miming and some OTT acting, two risible rubber snakes and a strange almost perfunctory ending – there was a quaintness and immense charm about it all that won me over in the end.

La Bayadère is one of a number of similar nineteenth-century orientalist ballets which allowed for exotic locations and possible allusions to even more exotic behaviour from the characters we see. The story is a simple – and familiar – one: Nikiya is a temple dancer and a young warrior, Solor, in service to a tyrannical Rajah (Dmitry Akilinin) swears his eternal love. Of course it can only go downhill from here for the two lovers as the High Brahmin (an overwrought Dimchik Saikeev) is infatuated with Nikiya and soon Solor will be betrothed to Gamzatti, the Rajah’s daughter. So far so Giselle! However in La Bayadère Solor doesn’t encounter Nikiya’s spirit but in Act III he smokes opium to assuage his guilt and dreams that they are reunited in that splendid Act III. Unlike Giselle, instead of going mad at her betrayal and dropping dead, Nikiya won’t accept Solor’s impending marriage to another woman, and when Gamzatti, gloats to her about it there is a bit of a cat fight, and she attacks her rival with a knife. The Rajah orders Nikiya’s death and it is left to a poisonous snake hidden in a basket of flowers to do the deed. The High Brahmin – who is ready to abandon his holy vows – offers Nikiya an antidote to the snake venom on condition that she will be with him but she would rather die. They don’t write them like that anymore … and apparently Petipa was also influenced by Verdi’s Aida!

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s 2004 production is by Elena Vorontsova and Albert Mirzoyan in better-than-might-be-expected sets from Semyen Pastukh which showcase well Galina Solovieva’s vibrant colourful costumes. For Act I there is a lot of two-dimensional pseudo-tropical vegetation, a backdrop of the Himalayas and part of a temple which has seen better days. Later, there is an ornate palace and its grounds which for its Act I Scene Two interior reminded me strongly of Sir Horace Jones’s Leadenhall Market in London. The Act III ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ is the expected jewel in the crown of this ballet and here gets a suitable moonlit vista. Only in a drug-induced dream could 24 women in white tutus enter down a ramp at the rear one at a time and meander slowly toward the front of the stage, with each dancer repeating the same slow, three-movement phrase again and again. Some difficult balances follow before they take their places at the edges of the stage and frame the ensuing dancing of the principals. One major wobble I saw at the back notwithstanding, the unison was more than acceptable and the three soloists (Anna Samostrelova, Ludmilla Mizinova and the particularly appealing Miho Naotsuko) performed their individual variations with aplomb.

La Bayadère has three demanding roles and on this occasion – unlike in Swan Lake (review) it was not all about Irina Kolesnikova as Nikiya and indeed, for me, Denis Rodkin as Solor and Natalia Matsak as Gamzatti were her equal. Kolesnikova is never less than watchable of course and dances here with an almost feline subtleness. She is a very musical ballerina and using floaty, rippling arms to excellent effect she spins out Ludwig Minkus’s lines a way that flatters his waltzing score (competent played and sensitively conducted once again) with a fullness that not only flattered the music but gave her steps a grandeur they possibly don’t really deserve. To contrast that there was one spinning passage when she was so fast that her image became a blur!

Sadly Kolesnikova’s acting was rudimentary to say the least and – like that of all of her colleagues – reminded me of an ancient silent film on a biblical subject! Thankfully they told the story better through their movement and that is what it is all about I suppose? I thought Denis Rodkin was a revelation as Solor after his dour Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake; when he jumped there was that magical  split-second illusion of stillness that some of the best male dancers can create. Everything he did seemed an eloquent counterpoint to the music and not just pure athleticism. Natalia Matzuk (who had already danced Odette/Odile at the matinee) was a superb Gamzatti and displayed the requisite haughty regalness and the single-minded purpose that she would get her man at all costs. She performed with a serene open-faced lyricism and I was disappointed I had not seen more of her during this visit by the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre.

It all just ends without any sense of an apotheosis – there is some nonsense with a snake charmer’s bag and Solor gets bitten, drops dead, and that is it. The plot really does need more wrapping up and the guilty should be punished; it sometimes gets that when a final final act is restored to productions of this ballet and a temple collapses on everyone as the High Brahmin marries Solor and Gamzatti. The dance of the Bronze Idol (one of those choreographic accretions) that is usually here came earlier in Act II and the leaping and bounding Andre Federkov created a wonderful cameo.

I will certainly welcome the return of Irina Kolesnikova and the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in 2016 and look forward to seeing what they bring us then.

Jim Pritchard

For Irina Kolesnikova’s website visit http://www.irinakolesnikova.com/.


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