Thursday, October 31, 2019

Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra - "La Bayadère"

Mariinsky Ballet in La Bayadere
Photo Natasha Razina

Cal Performances presents
Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra
La Bayadère
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
October 30th, 2019

La Bayadère isn’t a ballet you go to for the story, at least I don’t. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1877, with additional material added mid-20th century, the full-length work is plagued with some tough narratives, especially viewed through a modern lens. On the surface, the ballet follows the complicated triangle of Nikia, Solor and Gamzatti (and a huge cast of characters surrounding them), with all of its passion, entitlement, jealousy and revenge. But look deeper. It’s also impossible to ignore La Bayadère’s gender dynamics, socio-economics and cultural appropriation. Some versions, like the Mariinsky Ballet’s, which just began its Cal Performances’ engagement on Wednesday night, even cross into some challenging terrain with animal props (references that aren’t necessary for communicating the story and should have been re-thought long before now).

I go to La Bayadère to see the dancers - to witness their incredible technique and artistry. And the entire Mariinsky Ballet was phenomenal. In the span of three hours, so many instances of physical wonder unfurled. As Magedaveya, Maxim Izmestiev’s double attitude jumps were out of this world. Over and over again, he leaped extraordinarily high, nearly making contact each time with the back of his head. David Zaleyez’s Dance of the Golden Idol similarly defied gravity with its bravura and ballon. And it was no surprise that each of the three principals shone throughout. Ekaterina Kondaurova’s (Nikia) series of solo arabesque developpés en pointe was completely amazing. And Act II’s pas de deux between Gamzatti (Yekaterina Chebykina) and Solor (Andrei Yermakov) proved layered and nuanced. As they began their choreography, it seemed like they were struggling to connect, to find their timing as a pair. Though as I considered the narrative, it stood out that perhaps this was purposeful - they were never meant to click as a couple.

As wonderful as all of these performances were, La Bayadère belongs to the women of the corps de ballet. From their first appearance in Act I with a group dance delightfully focused on the parallel positions of the body to the extreme technical prowess in the next scene’s scarf variation. From the sheer volume of different Act II divertissements to the iconic Kingdom of the Shades scene, it was these women who stole the show. Precision and specificity was paramount in every moment: unison arabesque hopping turns, an abundance of identical front attitude positions, perfectly timed pirouettes from fifth, entre chat quatres in complete synchronicity and of course the transcendent sequence of arabesques and tendus from upstage to down front in Act III.

La Bayadère is a longer ballet, though the action moved along quite swiftly, including in the beginning moments, which have a lot of gesture and pantomime. Often such sections can tend to drag a bit, but not here. While I did love all the corps’ dances and enchaînements at the celebration of Gamzatti and Solor’s wedding, this middle Act could be trimmed significantly without much, or any, effect on the story. The number of internal applause breaks (those that happen during the scenes as opposed to at the end of an Act or the end of the entire ballet) also can present challenges - there are a lot of them in La Bayadère and each one is fairly lengthy. These internal bows are extremely well deserved, no question. Though, an unintended side effect can be taking the audience out of the story and breaking the flow of the evening. But then again, with such a story, maybe being taken out of it periodically is not a bad thing.