Marius Petipa, often called "the father of classical ballet," is considered the most influential choreographer in history and "La Bayadère," which premiered in 1877, his seminal work. Yet the ballet remained vitually unknown in the West until Rudolf Nureyev brought the third act to the U.S. in 1961.
Nureyev's 1993 re-staging of the ballet for the Paris Opera was reprised in a "Ballet in Cinema" performance by that company last year and revealed the Russian's fondness for flamboyance and theatricality. But I preferred the more subtle and refined reading of longtime Bolshoi Ballet director Yuri Grigorovich, created 20 years ago and given fresh costumes and a stellar cast for its filming for a recent broadcast.
Set in then-exotic India, this version of the love between Nikiya, a bayadère (temple dancer), and the warrior Solor, stymied by a rajah's edict that Solor marry his daughter, Gamzatti, was both less elaborate visually and more affecting emotionally. Grigorovich wisely replaced many of the original mime scenes with dance and refrained from definitively clarifying the plot. (Unlike in Nureyev's version, Gamzatti is not implicated in Nikiya's death by poison snake bite.)
Svetlana Zakharova, the Bolshoi prima, is breathtaking as Nikiya, her hyperextended legs lifting as effortlessly as a helium balloon, her languid musicality filling every phrase beyond the count. She has such a lushly flexible and fluid upper body you would think she has no skeleton — were it not for the midriff-bearing costumes, which revealed the lines of every bone in her chest and ribcage. (I felt I should skip dessert for a week — and send it to her instead.)
Though a tad feminine-looking, Vladislav Lantratov is equally impressive as Solor, not only technically, but in artistic interpretation. He is never less than believable, even when appearing to defy gravity. Maria Alexandrova as Gamzatti has a harder edge (as Gamzatti should), full of spunk and determination.
For two acts there is a mix of classical ballet with folk and character steps based not so much on actual Indian dance but an idea of what Indian dance should be (arms akimbo, flexed feet, palms upturned). It's still hard for me not to blanch at the antics of the children dressed in blackface as slaves. But afficionados will appreciate the skill in the familiar Act II variations — the Golden Idol, the Manu (jug) dance and the drum dance — and the understated but fresh costuming (based on sketches from the original production). The corps work, as one has come to expect from the Bolshoi, is nothing less than exceptional.
It is little wonder that the third act "Kingdom of Shades" has often been presented alone. It has, essentially, nothing to do with the previous two-thirds of the ballet, other than the vague suggestion that we are now in Solor's dream world.
The folkloric costumes are exchanged for the stiff white tutus and white arm floats of 32 corps dancers, who zig-zag down a long ramp for almost 200 counts of an arabesque-tendu repetition. In the Paris Opera version this was tedious; here, with a black ramp that disappeared with effective lighting, the dancers seem to multiply as if viewed through a prism, leaving no wonder that this sequence is often referred to as the first instance of neo-classicism.
As Solor and Nikiya shared a long stretch of chiffon in their final pas de deux, I found myself moved in a way I hadn't been before. And I especially appreciated that there was no attempt to punctuate the story by sending the lovers off to eternal bliss in the afterlife. Some things are better left unsaid.
LA BAYADÈRE, Bolshoi Ballet, part of the "Ballet in Cinema" series. Reviewed Feb. 17 at the Royal Palm 20, 5125 26th St. East, Bradenton. Encore performance 7 p.m. Feb. 19. $15. www.balletincinema.com