Makarova's Bayadere

It's so strange to have three videos of one production available on DVD, but a third video Natalia Makarova's staging of La Bayadere was released recently by the Royal Ballet. Natalia Makarova was the first dancer to revive the complete La Bayadere in the West (Rudolf Nureyev had staged the famous Shades Scene for the Royal Ballet). At the time Natalia Makarova made her staging for the ABT in the 1970's, most people were unfamiliar with how the ballet was performed in Russia.

Makarova's version remains the most well-known version of La Bayadere to Western audiences, as the Royal Ballet, the ABT, and other companies all dance Makarova's version of La Bayadere. Makarova's Bayadere (and I can never emphasize this enough) is a very different ballet from the version that is danced by the Mariinsky Ballet, Makarova's alma mater, and the Paris Opera Ballet. Nureyev's last project before he died of AIDS was to stage La Bayadere, and his version followed the Mariinsky's to a remarkable degree, to the point where they are for all intents and purposes the same ballet, just different sets/costumes and slight differences in the variations. In 2002, the Mariinsky decided to a "reconstruction" of Petipa's 1900 revival of La Bayadere, with the original fourth act. But the ballet was thought to be unwieldy and overlong, and soon dropped from the repertoire. Both the POB and Mariinsky end La Bayadere after the Shades Scene.

Makarova decided to streamline Petipa's grand, sprawling ballet. For the Grand Betrothal Scene, she cut most of the "character" dances, including the famous Manu dance of the jug, and a grand procession that included an elephant. In other words, she decided to distill La Bayadere to its "pure dance" parts. She even cut Nikya's happy, bouncy dance of the flower basket, which is one of my favorite moments of the ballet. Nikya's happiness dancing with the basket is a great dramatic vehicle for the shock that occurs when she finds out the basket has been planted with a poisoned snake. Makarova also decided to streamline the Shades Act a bit, by cutting the number of Shades from 32 to 24, and by simplifying some of the corps de ballet formations. Makarova then decided to "reconstruct" the fourth act, with choreography that looks bare-bones, but does give the story a closure that the Mariinsky/Bolshoi/POB versions don't have.

The result is a ballet that tells the story in a more linear fashion than the Mariinsky version, but also reduces the ballet's Oriental color and scope. I can see why Western ballet companies would like it -- in general, character dancing is not the forte of Western ballet companies like the ABT and the Royal. The corps de ballet in these companies also tends to be smaller, so reducing the number of Shades from 32 to 24 makes it easier to stage. But every time I watch Makarova's version, I find myself missing certain things, like Nikya's flower basket dance, or the dance of Manu, or even the ridiculously over-the-top drum dance. And I find myself missing the sheer thrill of seeing 8 rows of Shades. Somehow, those 8 extra Shades add an element of grandeur that is missing from Makarova's Shades scene.

So how does this new Royal Ballet video stack up to the other Bayaderes on the market? Not very well, I'm afraid. The performance is perfectly professional, but like many of the other recent Royal Ballet video releases, lacks a truly exciting, definitive performance from the leads. In 1991, the Royal Ballet filmed Altynai Asylmuratova, Irek Muhkamedov, and Darcey Bussell in the Makarova production, and that video is still available commercially. Asylmuratova was perhaps the most complete Nikya on video. She looked the part for one, with her exotic, Asian features (she was born in Kazakhstan). Moreover, she was temperamentally perfect as the passionate temple dancer. She brought some "Kirov-isms" into the performance, like her luxuriously pliant back and beautifully sculpted arabesque. When she danced over the fake fire in the opening scene, she really appeared to be a holy keeper of the flame. She also apparently insisted on dancing the "dance of the flower basket" variation, which the Makarova version otherwise omits. Asylmuratova's Nikya was passionate and vulnerable in the first act, regal and aloof in the Shades scene. But her Shade was also angry and defiant, and her dancing gained fury as the pas de deux progressed. When she grande jeted in diagonal, she pounded her feet onto the floor angrily without any of the soft airy landings balletomanes so cherish. When she lifted her arm in triumph at the sky at the end of the Shades pas de deux, she seemed to be reminding Solor of his broken pledge. Arlene Croce had this to say about Asylmuratova's Nikya and I think it's as good of a description as any:
If she startled me before, she shocks me now with this image of an obdurate, implacable Nikya. She is not spiritual like Makarova, grand like van Hamel, or refined like Fonteyn; she isn't hard or icy. She's simply a killer beast, warm-blooded and deadly. Berezhnoy, her excellent partner, seems to cower when he kneels before her in homage. She never sees him, but as she lifts a long arm on high the hand relaxes, and we know she can forgive. The ideal of a wraithful Nikya is, of course, to be understood in the context of the complete ballet ... But who has ever performed the ballet like this? What Shade, no matter how provoked, would have risked the staccato sweep of the arms, the fierce attack on elance, the hard-edged dead stops in fifth plie that characterize her Nikya?
Irek Mukhamedov, a dancer at the Bolshoi for many years before he defected to the West, shares with Asylmuratova the almost genetic sense of what this ballet is about. His Solor is passionate and impulsive. Bolshoi men are probably the best-trained male dancers in the world -- their strength in lifts and jumps is hard to beat. He and Asylmuratova's chemistry practically sizzles. Darcey Bussell as Gamzatti provided a nice contrast to the intense, exotic Asylmuratova. Bussell's dancing was always technically proficient, but her persona was that of a cheerleader, very sunny but strangely shallow. But the shallowness enhanced the drama in La Bayadere -- this Nikya and Gamzatti were like ying and yang.

In contrast, Tamara Rojo's Nikya distinctly lacks dramatic impact. Rojo is a dancer who has won accolades for both the security of her technique and her acting, and I must admit to being puzzled. On her website, there is actually a page devoted to the accolades she has received in La Bayadere. She does have incredible technique, but her acting? She's the most low-wattage of "stars," and one of the dullest. Her face is an impassive mask for the entire ballet, with no real differentiation between the overly trusting "living" Nikya and the implacable spirit of the last two acts. Rojo actually has a good deal of upper body flexibility that's a plus in this role, but she doesn't use that plasticity to create a more distinct character. It just looks like her stretching her back. When she absolutely has to "act," like the scene where she's bitten by a snake, there is such a lack of conviction that not for a moment does Nikya become pitiable. With some dancers, an impassive mask of a face seems to conceal an inner fire. With Rojo, behind the blankness there is more blankness.

Rojo's dancing is technically extremely impressive -- the endless balances on pointe, the ability to do the "supported" pirouettes without any support from her partner, the strong and steely arabesque. Despite a certain admiration one has to have for a ballerina who can execute a quadruple pirouette in her sleep, her dancing is low-impact and muted. She refuses to employ any devices to create more excitement -- the trick of speeding up pirouettes, or extending the height of each successive grand jete in diagonal. Rojo doesn't elongate or shape a phrase of music, and there is no poetry in her movements. In the Shades pas de deux, the best Nikya's will slowly unfold the leg in the developpe, and then slowly spin the foot on pointe, like a flower petal opening and the stem turning. This small detail makes a huge difference -- Nikya is after all, a dancer, and Solor's dream of her "shadow" is a constant reminder of the inherent sensuality of movement to music. In this scene, Rojo just shoots her leg out like a knife and turns like a top on her steely toes. Everything is danced in the same monochromatic, technically efficient way. When a dancer is that technically impressive but dull, the eye starts to wander, and notice the imperfections, like her short, rather stork-like arms, her clipped, unlovely bourrees, or the hangdog expression on her face. Sometimes I feel like Rojo's dancing is the equivalent of ballet on Xanax.

At the other end of the spectrum of emoting is Carlos Acosta, who was once a dynamo of a dancer, with the great terre a terre technique and bravura style of so many Cuban dancers. But now the age is taking its toll, and all we are left with is a shell of the showboating style, without the technical chops to back it up. His struggles completing a pirouette wouldn't be so noticeable if he didn't punch out his steps in such a "look at me!" manner. His hammy facial expressions are not flattered by close-up. This is also the third Rojo/Acosta pairing on video, and I kind of wonder why, because the two of them do not have much chemistry. Even Rojo's "trick" of balancing endlessly, or doing supported pirouettes without Acosta's support has the unintentional effect of making the two appear more bloodless than ever. This Nikya and Solor do are not particularly connected, in life or in death.

Only Marianela Nuñez as Gamzatti offers a really memorable performance. Nuñez is one dancer whose sunny smile and effortlessly solid technique do give her a personality onstage. Her Gamzatti is charming on the surface, dazzling in her displays of beauty and virtuosity, and spoiled and mean underneath. When she raises her leg up in a perfect 180 degree penchee, or executes an effortless multiple pirouette, it's as if she is showing off to her man. In this video, the chemistry between Solor and Gamzatti is much stronger than the chemistry between Solor and Nikya. It's weird.

The Royal Ballet corps lacks the uniformity of the Mariinsky or POB, and even the discipline of their 1991 counterparts. Their arabesques have become more clipped, without that luxurious stretch upwards for the heavens that the Mariinsky corps does. They don't even have that soldierly discipline that the 1991 Royal Ballet shades had. It's awful to notice these things, but the third shade is having particular trouble keeping up with the endless series of arabesque allongees.

Now watch the Mariinsky perform this same scene. Watch the upwards pull of each leg in arabesque penchee, and the way with which they also lift their arms upwards, as if they were really descended from the heavens. The extra eight Shades gives the scene extra grandeur. It really is a different experience:

La Bayadere is a "difficult" ballet with a small but unexpectedly rich video library. Besides the 1991 Royal Ballet performance, there are other worthy videos. The Kirov/Mariinsky has an old video from the 1970s. The Solor was Rejen Abdyev, who was one of those uniquely bad Soviet dancers who looked beefy and strong, but whose dancing was weak and sloppy. As Nikya, Gabriela Komleva was small, intense and lyrical, and the Gamzatti, Tatiana Terekhova practically tore up the stage. The best part of the video though is the completeness of every single variation as danced by the Kirov/Mariinsky, from the danse of the Manu to the Golden Idol to the Kingdom of the Shades, as well as the expected magic of the Mariinsky corps de ballet as they descended down the twisted ramp. In 1994, the Paris Opera Ballet released a video of the Nureyev production, with his hand-picked dancers -- Isabel Guerin as Nikya, Laurent Hilaire as Solor, Elisabeth Platel as Gamzatti. The POB dancers lacked the exotic fluidity of the Russians, but the video had the added poignancy of being their last tribute to Rudolf Nureyev. They brought their own sense of austere classicism to the ballet, and the results are magical, if a cooler kind of magic. There's another video of Makarova's Bayadere with Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle from La Scala that is undistinguished except for the dancing from the leads. Zakharova and Bolle are a glamorous, if rather chilly, team. But I feel all of these videos provide greater insight into the ballet than the newest Royal release.

Bayadere is in the Russians' blood -- nearly every memoir from a Russian dancer will mention the great sense of history they felt with this ballet. One has a feeling that it's not just the ballet the Russians identify with -- it's the bond they feel as Bayadere being a part of their unique dance experience. Young students dance at the Vaganova Academy danced the young girls in the Manu dance. Being part of the 32 Shades is a corps de ballet ritual. It was ballet that made Anna Pavlova a star, and the last ballet Pavlova danced before she left Russia forever. Alexandra Danilova recalled being the first shade down the ramp. A dying Rudolf Nureyev insisted on staging a careful reconstruction of the ballet that had brought him acclaim before he defected to the West. Tamara Karsavina called it the "holy" ballet. But if danced without total conviction, the ballet can seem hokey. The score by Minkus is only as good (or bad) as the dancers make it -- it has pretty moments, but lacks the symphonic sweep that more modern ears associate with "great" ballet scores, like Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty or Stravinsky's Firebird. Without great dancers, the pretty little violin tunes sound cheap.

Natalia Makarova's simplified, streamlined La Bayadere is her way of keeping the flame alive in the West, in a form that is acceptable to smaller, Western companies. It's an admirable undertaking, but, as someone who's seen Makarova's La Bayadere done by the ABT year after year, a somewhat hopeless task. Every memorable Nikya at the ABT I've seen has been Russian (Veronika Part, Diana Vishneva) or Russian-trained (Alina Cojocaru). The choreography actually seems to demand Russian training. The monastic devotion to dance that begins when those little girls are plunked into the forbidding state-run schools with the notoriously severe Russian teachers echoes the self-sacrificing life of Nikya. But more imprtantly, the famously supple Russian back, the ability to adopt an exotic, Oriental plastique without veering into hokeyness or camp, the balance of character dancing with classical technique, the tendency of the Russian training to exaggerate the sculptural line in arabesque, all these elements breed great Nikyas. This latest Royal Ballet video shows that in the West, the flame of La Bayadere can be very dim indeed.


  1. Dear reviewer,

    I was impressed by your detailed analysis of the Royal Ballet productions of the most wonderful ballet. But I am afraid your whole article falls on the slating of Rejen Abdyev as Solor in the 1977 Kirov production. "One of those uniquely bad Soviet dancers"?? His technique is certainly not great, but if you fail to perceive the enormous stage presence and acting skills of this dancer, I think you have overrated yourself as a ballet critic.

    From someone who has been a ballet dance and a stage and film actor

    1. I agree with you concerning Rejen Abdyev. His solo variation in the last scene was quite good.
      Jozefo fulmo

  2. Thanks for the detailed rundown of the DVD versions. The Paris Opera version is superb - I think their Entrance of the Shades is even better than the Mariinsky's. Based on your review, I just ordered the 1991 Royal Ballet version to see Asylmuratova's interpretation.


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