Tradition is a good thing — but Bolshoi’s ‘Bayadère’ is out of touch

By on February 2, 2019

CHICAGO — With Bolshoi in Cinema, American audiences get the opportunity to witness live performances from the Bolshoi Theatre, simulcast to U.S. movie houses approximately ever other month. I first attended the series in November, with the Bolshoi Ballet’s “La Sylphide,” and honestly loved the opportunity to see this legendary company presenting an extraordinary ballet preserved as no other company can.

January’s offering, which I viewed at the beautiful new cinema in Lincoln Park’s New City complex, was “La Bayadère,” the Russian Imperial Ballet’s homage to India. Choreographer Marius Petipa finished the ballet in 1877 to music by Ludwig Minkus. Critics immediately praised it, particularly the iconic “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, which is universally acknowledged as the most challenging “white act” in the classical canon for the corps de ballet. It requires fatiguing repetition and exacting precision as 24 women (though it’s been reported that Petipa’s original had 64) zig-zag their way downstage, stepping forward into a perfect arabesque and then lilting back into a tendu over and over — 39 times, to be exact.

The tiniest wobble or bobble in this scene can spoil the whole thing, so it’s almost unfair to watch the “Kingdom of the Shades” in a movie theater, with cinematic camera angles panning feet away from the dancers. It leaves even less room for error, taking the role of opera glasses and zooming in on the feet and legs of the dancers. For me, I’d rather have had a full-stage view of this scene to preserve a bit more of the magic.

But I think I’m getting ahead of myself. The shades, like the sylphs, swans and wilis of other famous white acts, are ghost-like maidens. Among them is Nikiya, a temple dancer who fell in love with a warrior, Solor, who is betrothed to another woman. Nikiya must dance at the wedding feast of Solor and Gamzatti, his fiancé, who tricks Nikiya with a basket of flowers containing the poisonous snake that kills her.

Nikiya performs her solo in the second act of the Bolshoi Ballet’s “La Bayadère” | photo by Damir Yusupov

For this production, the Bolshoi Ballet performed Yuri Grigorovich’s 1991 staging of the ballet, after the 1941 Kirov version which reduced the original four act ballet to three. And it goes without saying that Bolshoi dancers Olga Smirnova as Nikiya, Artemy Belyakov as Solor and Olga Marchenkova as Gamzatti offer inspired performances of these treasured roles.

It’s also important to remember the time in which “La Bayadère” was created. Imperialist Europe and Russia created a thirst for Eastern cultures in the West. Arts and culture often tapped into the “exoticism” of this fascination for India and South Asia, and questions surrounding cultural representation in Petipa’s ballets are just now starting to be addressed.

This, apparently, was not on the mind of Yuri Grigorovich or his design team in 1991, so sitting in an American movie theater watching this production in 2019 I found it riddled with jaw-dropping problems. One can argue for or against the value of continuing to perform updated versions of ballets with tricky histories surrounding cultural appropriation; putting a children’s cast of temple servants in black face and posing loin-clothed men in long, scraggly wigs representing the native Indian hunters as barbarians is beyond reprehensible and completely distracted me from what is, otherwise, a relatively benign story.

Petipa is not known to have talked much about “La Bayadère,” leading some to think he didn’t consider it among the caliber of his other ballets like “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” And many purport the true magic of this ballet is seen only in the third act “Kingdom of the Shades,” which is often performed as a stand-alone piece. Walking out of the movie theater three hours after I arrived, I wondered the same thing. But I also find the nuances of Nikiya, Solor, and Gamzatti’s love triangle really beautiful, and like many old ballets, the story presents opportunities to talk about class, race, and learning from history. It is, perhaps, why it’s so en vogue these days to create new stagings of Petipa’s ballets, extracting antiquated trappings from timeless tales.

Upcoming Bolshoi in Cinema presentations:

  • March 10: “The Sleeping Beauty”
  • April 7: “The Golden Age”
  • May 19: A double bill of the “Carmen Suite” and “Petrushka”

Check movie theaters in your area for availability; for show times and tickets, visit fathomevents.com/series/bolshoi-ballet-2018-2019-season

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, IL, specializing in dance and cultural criticism. Lauren is the dance critic for the Chicago Tribune, editor of See Chicago Dance, and founder/editor of Art Intercepts, with bylines in Chicago Magazine, Milwaukee Magazine and Dance Media publications, among others. Holding degrees in dance and kinesiology, Lauren is also an adjunct instructor in the dance and exercise science programs at Loyola University Chicago.

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