LA BAYADERE (PA Ballet): Overcoming criticism

LA BAYADÈRE is one of those ballet that is well-known but not performed as frequently as the other popular ballets.  Composed by Ludwig Minkus and choreographed by Marius Petipa, the ballet was applauded by critics for its masterful choreography when it premiered in 1877 in St. Petersburg. One of the most famous scenes, the Kingdom of the Shades, is the icon of ballet blanc and often performed by ballet companies around the world. However, the full staging is not seen so often, except by the well-established companies.

Pennsylvania Ballet’s Artistic Director Angel Corella selected La Bayadere for the current 2019-2020 season for the first time and would have never done so unless he felt the company was now up to the standard of the world
best.

Although it is a gorgeous and beautiful ballet, it contains some controversial aspects from today’s standard.  It is set to a kingdom of ancient India, but the music does not have a single element of India. The choreography, though it has been elaborated since the premier, has developed simply to present more grandiose physicality and artistry of the dancers while ignoring the authenticity of the culture and history.  As it may have been expected, the company has met rather intense criticisms for staging this ballet.

Pennsylvania Ballet sincerely accepted those opinions and was responsive to such criticisms, taking extra steps to make this experience more inclusive for those who want to be involved.  Pallabi Chakravorty, professor of dance at Swarthmore College and Phil Chan, co-founder of the Final Bow for Yellow Face, were invited to amend some of the mimes and gestures for enhanced authenticity and inclusiveness.  They also held open discussion forums at the Pennsylvania Academy of the FIne Arts and at the Guggenheim in New York City for sharing a deeper understanding of the historical background of the ballet and their visions for the future of the classical ballet.  Although some may say it was not enough, it matters that the company made extra efforts with an open mind to be better and more progressive, instead of dismissing the opinions or caving in and choosing not to put such ballet on stage out of fear for criticisms at all.

Showcasing this in the theater gives opportunities for everyone to experience it, including someone who criticised the company at the forum for using a “yellow-faced” white male dancer on the poster, without even knowing what his character actually was.  A criticism without an accurate knowledge is rubbish, and it would be fantastic that they finally get a chance to see a full staging of this ballet so that they can have a real experience for constructing meaningful opinions.

The performance on opening night certainly proved that Pennsylvania Ballet is now one of the top ballet companies in the world.  The iconic scene of the Kingdom of the Shades by Corps de Ballet was a perfection.  Oksana Maslova’s Nikiya introduced a whole different side of the principal dancer.  She has been always outstanding and beautiful in any of the previous rolls. In LA BAYADÈRE, she was poetic and graceful as usual, passionate and authentic as ever, depicting a woman with a strong will that chooses her own destiny under uncontrollable circumstances due to the classism. Zechang Liang was stunning in his role of Solor. His stunning techniques depicted the warrior with formidable power, his gestures a humble and obedient side of the role. Which made it at least a little more convincing why he easily betrayed Nikiya over the daughter of Rajah. Gamzatti. Charles Askegard’s portrait of Brahman was complex and very humanly. Bronze Idol (the face of the poster) is another iconic roll of this ballet. In most cases, a rising-star of a company is given this technically demanding solo. Albert Gordon performed this challenging solo supervely.

Personally, I always had a difficulty to be fully involved in the ballet towards the finale.  The scores and the choreography may be beautiful and exhilarating in the Kingdom of the Shades, but they have no feeling of despair and anguish that Solor should be feeling from Nikiya’s death caused by his betrayal.  In most of the full-staging productions of the ballet, the last act is a wedding of Solor and Gamzatti, where Nikiya’s vision appears and confuses Solor.  As Solor and Gamzatti say their vows and are blessed by Brahman, the temple is struck by a lightning of the vengeance of the gods and Solor and Nikiya are united in eternal love in heaven.  The ending is hard to comprehend. How come being united with a man who betrayed her until the end can be a happy ending for Nikiya?   Pennsylvania Ballet skipped this version of the finale and Solor killed himself with a poison instead before the wedding, being united with Nikiya in heaven.  Not so dramatic as the temple being struck by the lightning. But it feels more poetic and sense of closure by Solor choosing his own destiny by himself as well.

This will certainly not be the last occasion that the company is exposed to some opinions and criticisms.  The diversity that the company has gained in the recent years has been and continue to be a big force to push themselves further and to be more inclusive and significant to the community.

[Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street] March 5-15, 2020; http://paballet.org/programs/la-bayadere/

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