Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

A rare treat

West Australian Ballet, La Bayadère ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 9 May ·
Review by Amy Wiseman ·

La Bayadère or The Temple Dancer is not widely known; curious perhaps, considering the 1877 ballet was originally choreographed by none other than Marius Petipa – of Swan Lake and Nutcracker fame. The universal themes of love, betrayal and redemption combined with an exotic setting, lilting music by Ludwig Minkus and technically challenging choreography meant the ballet became a revered hit in Russia, and eventually in Europe when it was finally staged in full, late in the 20th Century.

This co-production between West Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet sees the classic story modernised by choreographer Greg Horsman, injecting Petipa’s original choreography with new sequences and setting the story in a more “real” India, in 1855. Die-hard ballet fans will still recognise Kingdom of the Shades (Act II, Scene I) repertoire and many of the solos, which are regularly performed as competition or gala excerpts around the world. This version’s story, however, hinges on a political treaty to bring an end to hostilities with an arranged marriage and, as a result, a tragic love triangle.

On opening night, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was in excellent form under the careful guidance of conductor Judith Yan. Nigel Gaynor’s musical arrangement, with its initial strum of a sitar, instantly gives the ballet a sense of place. Visually, too, the production is striking with sumptuous sets and luxuriously detailed costumes – both designed by Gary Harris – complemented by Jon Buswell’s glorious lighting, which features rich dramatic sky-scapes that stain the stage pink and orange. While a spectacle for the senses, aspects of the design and direction waver dangerously into religious ambiguity and clichéd “exoticism” – a detail that, one would hope, would be considered in a modern re-telling.

Kaleidoscopic images. Pictured front is Carina Roberts. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Despite a lengthy three acts, the story moves swiftly, thanks to considered scene changes and clarity of story-telling, assisted by strong character roles. Seasonal Artist Andries Weidemann, as the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, and Company Ballet Master Craig Lord-Sole, as the Governor-General of India, are noteworthy in reinforcing the themes of familial honour and obligation with appropriate sobriety and concern. To keep the peace, a marriage between their children, Prince Solor (Matthew Lehmann) and Edith (Chihiro Nomura), is arranged. In secret, however, Solor has already declared his undying love and devotion to Nikiya, a temple dancer, played by recently appointed Dayana Hardy Acuña.

Lehmann’s trademark ease in partnering and accomplished acting were evident in this challenging role, that demands prowess and stamina. Acuña also shone as Nikiya, with beautifully articulate port de bras, breath-catching control and graceful expression. The stand-out performance on opening night, however, was Nomura, who not only excelled technically but captured Edith’s full emotional gamut, from comic cheek to furious rage, gushing fiancée to wilful seductress.

Acts I and III blend genres of dance, from kaleidoscopic images of a Hindu deity, to vast ballroom scenes incorporating waltzing tuxedos and turbans in equal measure. But it is Petipa’s famous Kingdom of the Shades scene in Act II that is a particular highlight.  This is ballet at its most exposing. Mesmeric sequences of arabesques performed slowly, carefully one-by-one down a moon-lit ramp and across the stage require exceptional focus and strength from the corps de ballet. Exacting formations and vulnerable balances felt both artistically ethereal and technically rock solid in the performance viewed – the choreography bold in its simplicity and precision. Special mentions to Candice Adea, first to enter, for her poise and control and to soloists Carina Roberts, Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Polly Hilton, for demonstrating immense skill and generous artistry in their difficult solos. Opening night jitters or perhaps a slippery stage created a few tense moments for Lehmann and Acuña, though they remained composed and recovered swiftly.

Despite some issues in this re-telling, La Bayadère has something for ballet fans and the uninitiated alike. It is a rare treat to see this technically challenging production in Perth.

La Bayadere plays until May 25. 

Pictured top is Alexa Tuzil as Nikiya (photo is from a different casting, due to unexpected cast changes). Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

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