Sunday, May 16, 2010

Natalia Makarova and La Bayadère

Mariinsky Ballet La Bayadère Alina Somova as Nikiya in Act 2 scene 5 ‘the Kingdom of the Shades’

The New York Times
May 10, 2010

The Eternal Godmother of ‘La Bayadère’

ONE by one, clad in diaphanous white, they enter to a flowing adagio musical phrase. One arm is stretched forward toward infinity, one leg stretched back to create a glorious arabesque line; then each ghostly figure arches backward, arms framing the head like a halo. The phrase is repeated over and over, the line of dancers winding across the stage in seemingly never-ending serpentine progression: a poetic image of eternity, of order, symmetry, harmony, of classical ballet itself.

This famous sequence is the opening of the Shades scene in “La Bayadère,” originally choreographed in 1877 by Marius Petipa for the Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg. The ballet — a tale of a young Indian temple dancer, or bayadère, betrayed by her warrior lover and poisoned by her rival —was an immediate hit. Through various stagings and revisions, it remained a Russian repertory staple over the next century, as familiar to audiences and dancers as “Swan Lake” or “Giselle.”

When American Ballet Theater gets its Metropolitan Opera House season under way with “Bayadère” on Tuesday night, the audience might well feel the same way; the ballet (and a one-act version, “The Kingdom of the Shades”) is danced by so many major ballet companies that it has become part of the pantheon of 19th-century works that, for many, define an idea of classical dance.

In fact it has been just 30 years — almost to the day on Tuesday — that the full-length “Bayadère” was seen for the first time in the West. It was staged for Ballet Theater by Natalia Makarova, the great Russian ballerina who defected to the West in 1970. Like Rudolf Nureyev before her, she brought not just her inimitable dancing but also a heritage: a trove of knowledge of the classics that she had danced throughout her Kirov career.

Remarkably, since Ms. Makarova’s sole experience of staging was setting the “Shades” act for Ballet Theater in 1974, she mounted the elaborate production for Ballet Theater, where she was a principal dancer, almost single-handedly.

On the opening night she danced the main role of the bayadère Nikiya for the first time, with the British dancer Antony Dowell as Solor, the warrior who loves her but is compelled to marry the Rajah’s daughter Gamzatti.

“When I was dancing in Russia, I never prepared for this,” Ms. Makarova said this month after rehearsals at Ballet Theater’s studios near Union Square.

“But I had come to America, I was dancing all these modern works with Ballet Theater, and I looked at the company, at the people, that eclectic repertoire. At that time dancers didn’t know the differences in port de bras, épaulement, the right line, using the whole body in harmony. I had a desire to give to them what I know.”

Ms. Makarova, has lost none of her stringency about that heritage over 30 years of Bayadère rehearsals. (Her version is by far the most popular, with 14 productions worldwide, including the Royal Ballet, the Ballet de Santiago, the Australian Ballet and the Tokyo Ballet. But there are others, including Rudolf Nureyev’s lavish 1992 production for the Paris Opera Ballet and stagings by Vladimir Malakhov, Patrice Bart, Florence Clerc and Stanton Welch.)

“No, no, no,” she said, shaking her head during a rehearsal of the corps dancers, as they began a phrase for the umpteenth time. “Don’t like.” The pianist stopped abruptly, the dancers slumped, looking weary. Ms. Makarova walked over to the first row. “You are doing too much,” she said, imitating an overly lifted chin as she framed her head with circled arms. “It should be spiritual, not emotional.”

They tried the phrase again. “Better,” she said. “But not good yet.”

As the dancers filed out, she explained: “I don’t want to be too hard on them. They have just come back from a week’s break.”

Later Ms. Makarova, who at 69 still looks every inch the ballerina (and who casually lifted her leg above her shoulder while demonstrating in rehearsal), recalled how hard it had been to teach the dancers the nuances of the style she wanted. “We really started from the beginning,” she said. “How to hold a finger. It wasn’t a technical issue, but one of expressiveness. It was a revelation for them, the moment they got it. Of course there was a lot of emotion, because I demand a lot.”

Cynthia Harvey, who danced Gamzatti at the premiere, remembers Ms. Makarova as a tough, but inspiring coach.

“There were times when I wanted to burst into tears, but I understood that this was an education of a whole new kind,” she said, speaking from her home near Norwich, England. “How she used point work was a revelation to me, the way she rolled through her feet both up and down. How you carry your arms, where the head goes. It was a whole other level of refinement that isn’t even necessarily appreciated today.”

Ms. Makarova based her “Bayadère” on the original Petipa production, which included a final act that showed the gods’ destruction of the temple as Solor and Gamzatti are married. The 1941 version that she had danced at the Kirov, staged by Vladimir Ponomaryov and Vakhtang Chabukiani, had omitted this scene, as had all post-Petipa stagings.

“From my point of view there was not enough logic and conclusion without the final scene,” she said. “There is a crime, and there must be punishment, dramatically it must work that way.”

Her research on the ballet was hampered, she said, by cold war politics; she managed “with great difficulty” to acquire the Minkus score (later arranged by John Lanchberry) and found reviews of the original ballet in the Sergeyev Collection at Harvard, which gave her an idea of the atmosphere of the Petipa era.

Ms. Makarova was no purist, however. She pared away a number of dances, moved the Bronze Idol solo (a post-Petipa interpolation) to the last act, and choreographed a new solo for Gamzatti, and a new scene for Solor, just before he sees the vision of the Shades.

“Sometimes those old war horses need adjustment,” said Mr. Dowell, in New York to rehearse the company last month. “Natasha’s version really works because of its economy — the scene changes, the way it moves. She used what she knew, but she was able to let go of the past too.”

“La Bayadère” was a huge popular success at its May 18, 1980, premiere. “La Bayadère,” Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Post, "is the culmination of Ballet Theater’s 40 year-old history.”

Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times that it was “a superspectacle in the grandest of grand opera house traditions.” She didn’t mean this in an entirely positive way. “This “Bayadère” sets ballet back by 70 years,” Ms. Kisselgoff commented later in the review.

Critics have continued to feel the same mixture of love and annoyance with “Bayadère”: “No matter which production of this full-length ballet you see, at least 60 percent of it is trash,” Alastair Macaulay wrote in The Times in 2008. “Alternately entertaining and pompous, invariably spectacular, generally formulaic, musically trite and (the setting is India) an anthropologist’s nightmare.”

Audiences apparently don’t care. And Ms. Makarova offers a spirited argument for why not.

“The story is Shakespearean,” she said. “About eternal things: love, jealousy, betrayal, retribution, the choice between love and duty. As humans, we are always interested in this.”

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I'm a classically trained dancer and SAB grad. A Dance Captain and go-to girl overseeing high-roller entertainment for a major casino/resort