Set at the heart of prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova’s crowning UK season as Odette, the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, was a two-night run of the rare, exotic, but by no means flawless jewel, La Bayadère. The first of its two performances would provide me with an impressive first glimpse into the world of professional ballet.
La Bayadère is a tale set around the tragic love between the beautiful temple dancer, Nikiya (Kolesnikova) and Solor (Denis Rodkin), who himself has been promised to the daughter of the Rajah. Minkus’s music is mysteriously pretty: fluid and never settling. Its themes are almost consciously complex, like an anachronistic confluence of modern mazurka-esque rhythms with rich tones and flourishes that give an ambiguously ancient and eastern feel. It is set in a time of magic in the distant lands of the Himalayan foothills. Sail further east and you would reach the margins of a map onto which it is scrawled: ‘here be dragons!’
Reading-up on this ballet, I was given the impression that it was better-known for exuberant scenery and costumes rather than its choreography or dramatic substance. Soon after the curtain rose, it became apparent why this was the case.
It was as if there was a whole act missing from the beginning. Absent, for instance, is the first meeting of the forbidden lovers, and the moment when their doomed fate is sealed by the loyal Solor’s pledge of allegiance to the Rajah – a scene surely necessary for any significant audience empathy with Solor’s plight. What melodrama we were left with was provided by two mime-heavy scenes involving grumpy old men (a high-priest in love with Nikiya and the Rajah himself), getting angry at the news of Nikiya and Solor’s secret love.
This was compounded by the fact that the first act was almost entirely exposition and was, to be frank, a little dull. Were it not for the polite ripples of applause by the connoisseurs among the audience, the introductory entrances of the principal female and male would have slipped under the radar.Of course, whatever holes were to be found in the plot of La Bayadère were no fault of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre. Kolesnikova was flawlessly elegant and I was in awe of the sheer power of Rodkin, whose brutalist and gravity-defying leaps would have stolen the show had they not been so few and far between. The strange structure of the story does, however, afford a very interesting scenario for the couple’s grand pas de deux. By the end of act two (spoiler alert) Nikiya has already been murdered by the high-priest. The third act begins with a grief-stricken Solor retiring to bed alone (presumably to the displeasure of his poor bride). Thus begins a mystical dream sequence, containing a mournful procession of spirits of former dancers, who arabesque onto stage in perfect unison. This sequence culminates in twenty-four perfectly synchronised, perfectly aligned dancers, signifying the timelessness of love, beauty and heartache and forms a potent backdrop for Solor to dream of a last dance with the spirit of his true love.
Yet still, the most enjoyable sequence of the whole evening was also the most gratuitous. Framed by the simple premise that it was a royal wedding and there was to be much dancing, the scene comprised almost half an hour of dazzling individual and ensemble routines. The highlight was a spectacularly innovative solo by a dancer representing Buddha, who was painted all in gold and contorted his body mid-flight into variations of Buddhist poses, or asanas.
My preconception of ballet, and I suppose dance as a whole, was that it is a medium that paints in primary colours; by appealing directly to the passions, it is more effective when it is at is biggest, boldest and most flamboyant. Of course, when these moments came they were as fantastic as I had expected, but I hadn’t anticipated the power, nuance or contrast afforded by the gentler sequences. There is little room for subtext when a piece’s dialogue is written in body-language, but there is room nonetheless. If conveyed well, even the simplest of actions or emotions can produce art of the utmost beauty. Ultimately, La Bayadère reinforced this notion more positively than negatively, but only because the production was strong enough to overcome the piece itself.