THE Royal Ballet's new production of Marius Petipa's ``La Bayad`ere,'' staged by Natalia Makarova, is a big attraction this spring at Covent Garden. For two performances the excitement rose even higher, with the appearance of Altynai Asylmuratova and Sylvie Guillem as the rival ballerinas. Asylmuratova is perhaps the finest young star of the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, while Guillem has joined the Royal as a principal guest artist from the Paris Op'era Ballet. They were partnered by Kirov principal dancer Faroukh Ruzimatov. Makarova has made a few choreographic additions and changes and some clarifications of action that brought the plot into focus. ``Bayad`ere'' is one of the more interesting of the 19th-century vehicles for Imperial Russian classicism, with its psychological twists and theatrical variety. Set in a mythical kingdom somewhere in deepest Asia, the plot concerns Nikiya, a temple dancer, ostensibly consecrated to her religious vocation and, by class, only a little higher than a slave.
After spurning the advances of the High Brahman, she reveals her love for the warrior Solor. Although he swears his devotion to Nikiya, in the very next scene Solor agrees to marry the beautiful Gamzatti, daughter of the Rajah. Everybody thus is mad at everybody else, except Solor, who's confused, and by the time the first act is over, Nikiya has been fatally bitten by Gamzatti's gift of a poisonous snake.
So the plot gives plenty of opportunity for dramatic contrasts - between sacred and profane love, between innocence and wealth and power - and for dancing that illustrates all sides. In the famous second act, a repentant Solor escapes in an opium dream to the Kingdom of Shades. In this divinely ordered realm, he and Nikiya dance an idyllic pas de deux, attended by 24 corps de ballet maidens and their leaders, young Royal Ballet soloists Karen Paisey, Darcey Bussell, and Viviana Durante.
Upon awakening, however, Solor submits again to the worldly attractions of Gamzatti. As they take their marriage vows, the ghost of Nikiya appears, to preside over the destruction of the temple. For poetic if not dramaturgical reasons, Solor is rewarded and goes off to the Kingdom of the Shades with Nikiya in an apotheosis.
EXAMINING the theatrical logic of these old plots isn't fair, but Asylmuratova brought such unusual depth to the character of Nikiya that I began to see her almost in realistic terms, and to wonder about the other characters, too. Her initial dances suggested that eroticism wasn't so far from godliness; perhaps it wasn't only her chaste status that made her turn down the High Brahman. Her sensuous attraction for the handsome, amoral Solor contained a spirituality to which he proved unequal, as played by the passionate, intense Mr. Ruzimatov. The High Brahman was the superb dancer Anthony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet. His jealous fury and later his monumental grief at Nikiya's death made this character believable to me for the first time.
Of course, at the heart of ``La Bayad`ere'' is the contrast between the two ballerinas, and in style Guillem and Asylmuratova are totally different. Asylmuratova is classically magnificent and dramatically gifted. Guillem is a modernist - not strong in classical technique but endowed with long, flexible limbs. Her acting seems to be all on the inside, with only an attitude of icy grandeur showing, except when she offers one of her split extensions to the audience. Then she looks quite pleased. The audience ecstatically approved Guillem's tricks. Her coming to the Royal has been a coup of sorts, giving a boost to the company, which has been badly in need of some glamour.
``Bayad`ere's'' designer, Pier Luigi Samaritani, was also responsible for American Ballet Theatre's production of the work in 1980, but there's very little resemblance. The Royal's production looks Victorian, with Yolanda Sonnabend's lush, cumbersome costumes and Samaritani's d'ecors dissolving in a brownish, Pre-Raphaelite gloom.