It is pure Orientalist fantasy that remains at the heart of the Royal Opera House’s production of La Bayadère, and with little regret, too. First choreographed by the legendary Marius Petipa in 1879, we are privy to a world of deception, heartbreak and revenge over the course of four acts and seven tableaux.
The ballet’s title is, like many others in this art form, derived from French, and refers to an Indian temple dancer, this in turn originating from the Sanskrit ‘devadasi’. While the conception of such a work today would undoubtedly be met with backlash – and rightly so – La Bayadère has endured, endured the years of growing cultural awareness, and of colour consciousness.
Artists of The Royal Ballet in La Bayadère © 2018 ROH. Photographed by Bill Cooper
Nikiya and Gamzatti, played by Akane Takada and Yasmine Naghdi respectively, rival one another in both love and lyricism – the latter proves alluring with her sprightly fouettés and pure sensuality, while the willowy former is skilled in channelling raw emotion. Steven McRae plays Solor, the women's sole source of contention, and perhaps the most ineffectual character in La Bayadère. It is arguably his fickleness that leads to the death of his lover, the temple dancer Nikiya, and his later loveless (albeit short-lived) union with the high-born Gamzatti. Nevertheless, his character's romantic flaws do not reflect on McRae’s obvious technical mastery in the slightest. The court’s High Brahmin covets Nikiya (and unlawfully so). Rage ensues at her rejection of him, and he plots to murder his rival, Solor. An unfortunate – at least, for the victim – mix-up involving a basket of snakes results in Nikiya’s death. Truly resplendent in its last despairing moments, it is drawn out by a ghunghroo-bedecked Takada in an unforgettably expressionist manner. Triggered by feelings of guilt and loss, Solor conjures up the ghostly Kingdom of the Shades in Act III, all in an opium-induced haze. The result is one that is both aesthetically and technically brilliant, and no doubt served as an inspiration back in the day, to the equally-as-iconic ballet-blanc of Swan Lake and Les Sylphides. We are treated to a display of unearthly havoc as the unseen gods of this mythical land right the wrongs of the court’s corrupted, allowing Nikiya and Solor to finally reunite in the afterlife.
These everyday happenings are framed by the glorious imaginings of Pier Luigi Samaritani, whose sense of mysticism permeates the dusky Himalayan peaks and rose-tinted vistas of Act I, while Boris Gruzin leads the orchestra to Ludwig Minkus’ rousing score. If life at court, as it appears in La Bayadère is one wherein giant gold chess is played and stuffed tigers of considerable dimensions are the norm (with the odd betrayal and consequent murder here and there), then I am all for it.
The question of cultural appropriation comes to mind when analysing La Bayadère, however polarising. Indeed, certain aspects of the ballet are undeniably antiquated in the age of political correctness, of identity politics, and of inclusion-turned-division. It can be at times jarring to see prancing fakirs, a ‘bronze idol’ of kitsch design, and a peculiar amalgam of various Asian religious motifs to create perhaps more than just a whiff of exotica. In spite of this, it seems highly improbable to me that much of the ballet’s content would be taken at face value, if at all. I would in fact argue that contemporary performance of La Bayadère serves as recognition of this country’s colonial past, very much like the countless dusty relics that take residence for years to come in a museum.
La Bayadère is redolent of a time that never was — not in the real world, at least. Indeed, its existence lay solely in the heads of a handful of overexcited, fanciful academics of the Occident, later manifesting in widespread mania throughout the European continent. Although the ballet’s overriding themes may be lost to another era, its quaint charm today can be appreciated all the same.