La Bayabore, uh, I mean Bayadere

Olga Smirnova as Nikya
Is it possible to love a ballet to death? Because every time the ABT trots out Natalia Makarova's La Bayadere, I think the great Russian ballerina adored this ballet so much that she killed it. The La Bayadere that the Mariinsky/Bolshoi/Paris Opera Ballet do is a piece of East-meets-West exotica. Productions call for: a stuffed tiger, an elephant, girls who dance with birds attached to their wrists, kids in blackface (ugh), dancers in "brownface" beating wildly against a drum, and a woman balancing a jug on her head. In between all that schlock there's one of the greatest scenes in classical ballet ever choreographed (the Kingdom of the Shades).

Natalia Makarova in her version (staged for Western companies) did away with all that exotica and kept the classical set pieces. She of course preserved the great Kingdom of the Shades. She also attempted to reconstruct a final act that the Mariinsky/Bolshoi discarded a long time ago (although the Mariinsky did try to reconstruct the full Petipa version about 15 years ago -- the reconstructed version ran nearly four hours and was dropped from the repertoire as quickly as it arrived). Makarova's intentions were absolutely noble, but the overall effect is rather enervating. It also exposes the very thing the ABT lacks, which is classical dancers trained in a uniform company style.

It's not surprising that the ABT's Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie looks to Mother Russia for solutions. This week he imported four Russian guest artists. I attended the 5/28 and 5/29 performances. The 5/28 performance starred the Bolshoi dancer Olga Smirnova and Vadim Muntagirov, who used to dance with the English National Ballet and now dances with the Royal Ballet. The 5/29 performance starred the Mariinsky principals Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov.

Both Tereshkina and Smirnova were trained at the Vaganova Academy, and you can tell: both have that ultra-flexible back and rippling arms and the easy, free high extensions. But they are very different ballerinas. Smirnova is one of those lyrical ballerinas with the china-doll face and tapered, slender wrists and ankles. Those ballerinas just seem to waft onstage in a cloud. Everything she does has an enchanting, silky smoothness. She was most effective in the Shades scene. During the scarf variation when many sopranos come to grief with the clockwise, then counter-clockwise, then clockwise pirouettes in arabesque, Smirnova just floated through them so you barely noticed when they were over. Her tour jetes had a beautiful lightness. She's such a lovely dancer. What she does need in a desperate way is more personality onstage. Right now Smirnova's a dancer who is all about beautiful shapes and pristine cleanness. But there was almost nothing that characterized Smirnova as a proud temple dancer. She was just Beautiful Russian Ballerina.

It didn't help that she probably met her Solor a few days ago. The lack of rehearsal time and rapport was obvious. Their lifts were tentative, their chemistry non-existent. Muntagirov is a great cavalier-type dancer, with some textbook clean positions. But he can't really light the crowd on fire. The Gamzatti of the performance, Hee Seo, is also a lyrical, low-impact performer. The performance overall was so, so beautiful and so, so boring. No wonder the principals during the curtain calls got a smattering of golf clapping.

Tonight's performance was considerably more high-voltage. Tereshkina and Shkylarov are frequent partners at the Mariinsky, and it shows: during their Act One duet, he lifted her overhead, and then he lifted her even higher, to show off. That's the sort of thing only dancers really familiar with each other will try. Tereshkina doesn't have the lyrical prettiness of Smirnova. She's the kind of ballerina every company needs at all times: a strong, sturdy technician with broad shoulders, muscular thighs, even more muscular calves and ankles, and an ability to churn out 32 fouettes night after night without injury. You can see that throughout the generations companies have had these Wonderwoman dancers. At the New York City Ballet, Ashley Bouder is that dancer. At the Mariinsky, Tatiana Terekhova used to be that dancer. At the ABT, Gillian Murphy is that dancer. They're not the prettiest dancers, they're not the hot ticket items, but when everyone else falls to injury, they're usually the Last Woman Standing.

Tereshkina seems to have legs and feet of steel. She performed almost the entire betrothal variation on pointe. When she lifts her leg in attitude or arabesque, it always shoots up like an arrow. She has such a strong core that partners don't seem to lift her -- she lifts herself. To complete the Amazonian look she often has her arms carved in the air of in a series of poses that exude Proud, Unshakeable Confidence. You can actually hear the whip/snap movement as she cranks out triple pirouettes. It's not the most beautiful interpretation, but it is exciting. Shklyarov doesn't have her diamond hard precision, but he does have beautiful ballon and a really flexible, almost feminine back. He also is able to achieve that trick of making each successive double assemble soar higher and higher in his variations. He's a crowd-pleaser, and more vivacious than the stolid Muntagirov. The Gamzatti, Isabella Boylston, is a sloppy careless sort of ballerina with somewhat poor posture and wild flapping arms. But she's way more of a vamp than Hee Seo. As I said, the beauty meter went down but the excitement factor went up.

The ABT corps situation is what it is -- the 24 shades did a decent job staying in sync, although you wished they could all lift their legs to the same angles and hold their arms in the same style. Watch a video of the Mariinsky or Paris Opera Ballet do this scene and the ABT Shades look ridiculous. But whatever. They're a chronically under-rehearsed touring company for most of the year, and turnover rate is very high. There is an air of sadness when you watch them though -- tonight, the Third Shade was danced by Stella Abrera, a beautiful dancer who was once being primed for principal status. But year after year passed, and she never did get to dance that Giselle or Aurora. It was so sad seeing her plug through her variation -- a bit like watching a Mizoguchi film of a heroine whose fortunes in life tumble in those interminable, uninterrupted takes.


  1. a very strange vision of both smirnova - just a manneristic doll - and tereshkina - one of the greatest ballerinas of our time :((


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