Dance at the Music Center closed out its season last month with American Ballet Theatre’s La Bayadère. A classical war horse by Marius Petipa, it has had a long history with ABT beginning in 1974 with Natalia Makarova’s excerpted staging of The Kingdom of the Shades and eventually her full length ballet from 1980. Based on generations of hand-me-down Russian productions, the ballet was first performed in 1877 at the Mariinsky Theatre, the same year that Swan Lake premiered with the Bolshoi.
Of all the great ballet classics it is one that has proved the most resistant to updating and other kinds of production tinkering. I suspect we owe that mostly to Ludwig Minkus and his music which remains stubbornly based on 19th century European heraldic models, wanly conceived orientalisms, and forgettable entr’acte music. Restaging it as some kind of modern political/romantic drama in another kingdom seems an unlikely proposition.
ABT has recently been heavily invested in big time ballet strictly as entertainment. Their productions of Sleeping Beauty, Harliquinade, this La Baydere, and especially Whipped Cream have all steered well clear of the kind of thought provoking content regularly put forward by big classically rooted companies such as The English National Ballet who have taken on themes of displaced populations, and rebooted Giselle in a striking, modernized new production by Akram Khan.
But other dangers abound in this ballet’s exotic narrative with its tone deaf concoctions of 19th century thinking. We tend not to see the character of the High Brahmin for who he is: a sex trafficker under the cover of religion. The roles of the Fakirs, respected mystic mendicants in Hindu society, are here reduced to scuttling, ash covered, half-human troglodytes. Women are pushed around by men until they willingly expire. Kingdoms burn leaving nothing left to rebuild. Foreigners: what a mess!
Yet amidst the Disneyfication of it all as a desperate love story for the ages there are some bright spots. PierLuigi Samaritani’s airy sets and Toshiro Ogawa’s dusky lighting created a lofty space around the dancers giving even the big production sequences plenty of room to dance. Theirs is a successful recreation of an opulent Raj. The central trio of Nikiya, Solor and Gamzatti (Isabella Boylston, Jeffrey Cirio, and Misty Copeland in the Friday cast) delivered a shared and well-balanced ensemble. They were more effective in the actual dancing than in the often stodgy pas d’action sections. The opening of the Act II Kingdom of the Shades was full of its own peculiar beauty. Minkus captures the required sublimity with his music but can’t hang on. By the end the oom pah music is unrelenting. It’s an act that begins far better than it ends. And lastly, the smoking vastation of the collapsing temple plays like the concluding ten minutes of an Indiana Jones epic. It would have been a convincing ending on its own save the redundant final appearance of Solor and Nikiya as ghosts on a smoking pile of rubble.
Special mention goes to conductor Ormsby Wilkins for making the most out of the often trivial music. The brass section especially shone with big-voiced, often menacing playing throughout.