American Ballet Theater's premiere of "La Bayadere," being featured at the Metropolitan Opera until the season ends on July 12, was probably the most eagerly awaited event of this busy dance season.
Created in 1877, "La Bayadere" is one of the masterpieces of Petipa's enormous canon and is still in repertory in the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. The West is familiar with the spectacular Kingdom of the Shades scene, where 24 ballerinas in white descend a ramp in grave ritual and eventually fill the stage with the austere splendors of classical technique.
But how does that scene relate to the whole ballet? And what, indeed, is that ballet like? Even though Petipa is a hallowed name representing a golden age of dance, he's basically only a name. We know just a few examples of his work -- "The Sleeping Beauty," parts of "Swan Lake," and the rescensions which Balanchine has mounted to Glazounov and Tchaikovsky.
The Petipa mystique is further compounded by revisionism: So many Russian hands have revised his work that authentic Petipa is pretty nearly buried.
There is a Petipa spirit and aesthetic, however, and that is what one can hope to experience. This "La Bayadere," conceived by Natalia Makarova, looks right and feels wrong.
The libretto, which travels from a simple Indian temple in a sacred forest to the Radjah's palace and gardens, from the mysterious underworld of the Shades to the imposing temple of the Radjah, has inspired the scene painter to go to town with landscapes, architectural design, and archaeological detail.
Yet if one is more engrossed in set design than in the characters populating it, something is haywire. The ballet itself does not support its glorious scaffolding. Presumably in the interests of modern taste, much of Petipa's mime is eliminated. Yet mime develops character, enriches the dance fabric by offering contrast. It's clear that "La Bayadere" is about rivals for the heart of the warrior Solor, but all the ambiguities in the plot are pushed under the rug rather than explored as interesting complexities.
Some of the basic events are hazy, too. Just why, for example, doesm Solor marry the Radjah's daughter rather than remain true to the temple dancer Nikiya? And why does the temple collapse (with wonderful stage effects) when the marriage takes place? And why is solor rewarded for his fickle heart? The ballet ends with Solor and Nikiya reunited in heaven.
Like the narrative, the dancing is somewhat threadbare, too. The only scene to attain scope and grandeur is the one we already know -- the Kingdom of the Shades. It is the nature of Petipa's art to include many such extended divertissements, at many levels of expression. He contrasts the spiritual nature of the Shades with the brilliance of the palace scenes, contrasts strictly classical variations with character dances, contrasts solos with ensemble numbers. And that's just the most fundamental element of his design.
The choreography for the nuptial rites is thin. One misses technical complexity, length and breadth, and finally, sheer manpower. If spectacle is in order, then, by golly, one wants a stage picture larger than life. The choreography that Makarova originated herself, without using Petipa as a model, is in a romantic vein diametrically opposed to Petipa's hard-core exploitation of academic vocabulary.
Aside from scenery and the Shades scene, what saved the day was Makarova's dancing as Nikiya. Every bone in her body speaks. As a dancer she shows an extraordinary sophistication in the ways of classicism. Thus her "La Bayadere" is a disturbing irony. How can the same person be at once so knowing and so off the mark? Her body speaks a thousand words; her production speaks about four.