LA BAYADERE, MARIINSKY BALLET Russians save the best till last in parade of delights
There are half as many performances of La Bayadère in this Mariinsky tour as performances of Swan Lake (four vs eight). The preponderance of Swan Lake is driven by audience demand, but if audiences knew what was good for them, they'd demand more Bayadère: this lavish, thrilling production catches the spirit of the Mariinsky far better than their rather pallid Swan Lake. And, as the audience at the Royal Opera House last night will attest alongside me, it's a fabulous, satisfying evening at the ballet.
If you want to see ballet mime done competently, look to the Mariinsky Bayadère. Several encounters are almost pure "dialogue", but here they are far from being the awkward interludes one sometimes sees at the Royal Ballet, when the dancers look faintly embarrassed at having to say, "and then she hit the mouse with her shoe" in mime. The talking scenes in Bayadère, by contrast, are life or death exchanges, fraught with power. The High Brahmin abuses his position to try and tempt the beautiful temple dancer Nikiya into marriage and she rejects him, her languid brush-off an act of both integrity and courage in the face of the Brahmin's towering height and social status. In a splendid scene, the Rajah and the High Brahmin establish half the plot between them entirely in mime: I warn you, the temple dancer loves the warrior to whom you want to betrothe your daughter – well, the dancer must die – the gods will punish you for this. Sweeping around the stage, eating up space with their extravagant hand-gestures, Dmitri Pykhachov and Soslan Kulaev (unrecognisably different from his languid Don Quixote) bristle and posture, looking the risk of hamminess in the face and pushing on through regardless. Bravo.
The corps de ballet shine in a symphony of movement that reminds you why ballet is a truly wonderful art form
As for costumes and sets: just sit back and enjoy a parade of delights. Of course it's orientalist as heck, and indiscriminately mashes up architectural and clothing styles from across the Indian subcontinent, with tutus on the side for good measure. But look at that splendid Mughal hall, painted in sideways perspective! Those 16 dancers in yellow chiffon salwar with parrots on their hands! Two dozen-plus spear carriers! A full-size plaster elephant has travelled all the way from Russia for a 10-second appearance on stage – there is some serious dedication to spectacle here. And of course, the Golden Idol: the sight of Filipp Stepin completely smothered in gold paint would satisfying even without his neat execution of a challenging solo. Andrei Repnikov and the orchestra put their backs into pleasing, with a vibrant account of Minkus's colourful, atmospheric score.
Vladimir Shklyarov as Solor, the warrior, knows how to give a performance, too. Solor swears eternal fidelity to one woman, then is forced to marry another, and Shklyarov vibrates with mute, dignified misery as he accepts that fact, then realises he must watch the beloved dancer perform for him and his new fiancée. Shkylarov's generous emoting carries the thread of the story, but he doesn't skimp on displaying his dancing guns either, throwing off huge, beautiful jumps and ending two variations literally bending over backwards to please. The audience went wild for him, and quite rightly.
Anastasia Matvienko as Nikiya isn't in the same league. Last time I saw her I felt she was schoolgirlish next to the aristocratic Viktoria Tereshkina, but even without Tereshkina's otherworldly dignity baside her, Matvienko still looks a bit like somebody's understudy. She's doing the role all right, but she isn't really it, the thing we came to see. Elena Yevseyeva as Gamzatti has a little more spark about her acting, but she like Matvienko is let down by a dancing style that insists on indiscrimately throwing up a leg too high behind, or shoulders and head too far back. When made as artistic choices these huge Russian extensions can be devastatingly powerful, but if not driven by the desire to tell a story they turn into sophomoric posturing, as here, that spoils line and rhythm for no good reason.
Still, the great thing about La Bayadère is that the text is so rich, it can carry you on despite mediocre central performances. Nikiya's flower solo in Act II is a tragic oration in dance form, with the suffering temple dancer pouring all her pain and all her pride into a performance for her lover and his other woman, all set to an elegy voiced by solo cello. And the exchange between Nikiya and the princess in Act I is one of my favourite scenes in ballet, an actual substantive exchange between two women (okay, about a man) in which both do their damnedest to control their own destinies.
To crown it all, after the histrionics, threats, suffering and murder/suicide, the last act comes along to cleanse our eyes, cool and restful as mountain snow. Here the corps de ballet shine, pure and clean in simple white tutus, their lines forming and reforming to frame the central pas de deux in a symphony of movement that reminds you why ballet is a truly wonderful art form – not a poor cousin to opera, not a mute substitute for drama, not a very expensive kind of circus, but its own glorious tapestry of music, movement and story given life by human bodies at their most artistic and expressive. They saved the best till last, but the Mariinsky have shown London, yet again, that they are still special. Until next time.