LA BAYADERE [the temple dancer]
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev (1992) after Marius Petipa (1877)
Music (not that bad, if not lazily played) by Ludwig Minkus
L’article en Français…
Even before he would create the great trilogy with Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker – the French-born choreographer Marius Petipa produced several classic ballets in Russia all using the same formula: an exotic setting, a dramatic love triangle (as in most operas), and an acclaimed “dream scene” (which the French call a ballet blanc) where the hero sees his beloved multiplied into 32 ballerinas clad in identical tutus. This particular ballet had never been shown outside of Russia until the Kirov troupe brought its production to Paris in 1961 (along with Rudolf Nureyev).
Try to not take the “orientalist” aspects of this melodrama too seriously. Let yourself enjoy this fruity depiction of “local color” set in some kind of fantasy India, created by artists who had never been there except in their imaginations. Get swept away by passion as it was experienced in the 19th century!
ACT I (48 minutes)
SCENE 1: AT THE TEMPLE OF FIRE AND WATER
The noble warrior Solor sends his companions off to catch a tiger for the Rajah. It’s only an excuse to be alone, for Solor summons the Fakir and orders him let Solor’s beloved, the virginal temple dancer Nikiya [aka LA Bayadère] know that he will be waiting for her in the garden. Their love is secret and forbidden: they belong to different castes.
Solor hides and watches the entry of the Grand Brahmin, keeper of the sacred flame. He summons the priests and the bayadères (dancers of the sacred temple), as the fakir and fire-worshippers lacerate themselves before the altar. Finally, Nikiya performs her ritual dance. When she and her sisters bring water to the exhausted faithful, the Fakir passes along Solor’s message.
But first…the Brahmin corners Nikiya. He offers her his crown (and, yuk, the bald head beneath it). She uses the excuse that they are of different castes to try to get him to go away: she is only a lowly servant (pantomime gesture of lifting a water jug to her shoulder). But finally she has to just push him away.
When all depart, the lovers can finally meet and dance ecstatically. Unaware that the Brahmin is spying on them, Solor swears eternal love and fidelity on the sacred fire. The Brahmin clenches his fist and swears to crush his rival.
SCENE 2: AT THE PALACE OF THE RAJAH
Less sacred girls dance to please the Rajah and his court. He calls for his daughter, Gamzatti, to tell her that she is to be married, if she agrees, to the handsome man in a portrait on display: Solor. Gamzatti likes what she sees and exits. Solor enters, but is horribly surprised by the news. He cannot admit that he is already betrothed to another (to a dancer, no less); nor can he bring himself to disobey his sovreign. Nodding, he decides to figure this one out later.
Nikiya has been summoned to perform her usual ritual dance to bless an event at court. Carried about by the Slave (in the pas d’esclave), she strews flowers upon the princess. Neither Nikiya nor Gamazatti realizes that she is facing “the other woman.”
The Brahmin arrives and demands to see the Rajah. He spills the beans, as Gamzatti eavesdrops: Solor is in love with…that dancer. To the Brahmin’s horror the Rajah clenches his fist and pushes them downwards. He still wants Solor as a son-in-law, so Nikiya must be crushed instead.
Gamzatti, toying with her bridal veil, summons the impertinent dancer. After first pretending to be her new friend she gets into action: “see that portrait of Solor? Well he’s mine now! Take this necklace, you pathetic worm, it’s worth more than you could earn in three lifetimes! Leave him to me!” Nikiya cannot believe that the love of her life could betray her like this and finally explodes. Just in time, the nursemaid grabs the knife from Nikiya’s hand. Gamzatti clenches her fist and swears to crush her rival.
INTERMISSION (20 minutes)
ACT II (43 minutes)
THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY AT THE PALACE
Grand pageantry. All make spectacular entrances, especially Solor on an elephantine contraption (less spectacular is the droopy stuffed tiger his companions carry in). The conceit of a party allows for a series of colorful dances: with fans, with parrots, by the bridesmaids; by the airborne Golden Idol; by the Manou who balances a water jug on her head; by the “Indian fire dancers” who do a kind of can-can
…and finally it’s time for the:
Grand Pas de Deux, the celebration of Gamzatti and Solor’s engagement. It is a chance for the audience to enjoy glorious unabashed pyrotechnics. (Originally in Act IV, see note below)
Their dance just ended, Nikiya arrives to do her duty: yet another dance to consecrate a festive event. Distraught, she, keeps trying to catch Solor’s gaze. “Can this really be true? Can you abandon me just like that?” Gamzatti’s ayah gives the girl a basket of flowers – “from him.” The poor girl’s joy – he still loves me! – is shattered when the serpent hidden amongst the flowers bites her. Gamzatti sent the flowers, after first placing an asp in them. The lovelorn Brahmin offers Nikiya an antidote to poison, but Nikiya finally understands that Solor will never dare to renounce his caste and position for her sake. She prefers to die.
Only now does Solor realize what he has done.
INTERMISSION (20 minutes)
ACT III (40 minutes)
IN A PERFUMED GARDEN
Distraught, ashamed, still in love, Solor takes a giant dose of opium.
As he drifts to sleep the vision of an infinite number of idealized Nikiyas, clad in pristine white tutus and chiffon veils, waft into the garden. They are the Shades, bayadères who died for love and are fated to wander between this world and the next. You should be as stunned as Solor by the corps de ballet: dozens of soloist-caliber women sublimate their egos in order to achieve this kind of kaleidoscopic harmony. (Watch for three solos, given to the most talented young dancers). When Solor dances with the ghost of Nikiya each touch, each turn, brings them closer together. At one point, a long veil stretched between them symbolizes their connection. Solor literally jumps for joy in his solo. The act ends in triumph: Nikiya has forgiven him, therefore they shall never be parted.
Act III — “The Kingdom of the Shades” — serves as a starter or touring version for many companies. Boiled down and sans elephant, all you need are: a ramp, a guy, a gal, and 24 to 32 pairs of thighs topped by white tutus ready to plié until they « feel the burn. »
Originally, there was even an Act IV! In it, Solor returns to earth and marries Gamzatti after all. This makes the gods angry, who then bury the entire wedding party under the the rubble of the imploding palace. This Samsonesque act has rarely been staged since WWI. Dramatically, let’s be honest, anything is a letdown after Act III. Solor comes off as a real creep for going back to his fiancée. But most of all, a collapsible set costs a fortune!