Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, May 09
Raissa attended her first ballet while floating in her mother’s womb. She was nameless at the time - but that would change as soon as her mother read the Bolshoi Ballet’s program notes. The year was 1960 and listed in the Corps de Ballet was a ballerina named Raissa. The expectant parents took an immediate fancy to this name and decided during the buzz of intermission to name their baby after a Russian ballerina. Although they personally lacked the ambition and fantasy to turn their daughter into a dancer, she would eventually do that on her own, forging a dance career in the same New York City.
Clearly the Bolshoi Ballet wields a great influence on the world, from expectant parents to the unborn. Everything about the Bolshoi is “big” - which is where the company gets its name. And, everything about La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer) is grand. Its sets (based on sketches of the original 1877 production) are MGM grand, its talent otherworldly, its story-telling overly dramatic. Even if you do not care for classic ballet (and there is plenty of argument as to why you would not) it is challenging not to be captivated by “La Bayadère’s” sheer scale, technical precision, and historical endurance – even with a 3 hours and 30 minutes running time.
Few dance spectacles are as quintessential as the “La Bayadère” and few have inspired so many would-be ballerinas and audiences. Its legendary third act, “Kingdom of the Shades,” is the distillation of classical ballet, with its procession of 32 luminous-white ballerinas appearing one at a time out of a midnight-blue void. Why this particular scene gets critically singled out, why it is performed as often as it is by so many dance troupes, could be that its choreography is the simplest of the entire ballet (arabesque penchée), and the score rather uneventful to be so breathtakingly magical. Audiences cannot help but to hope that this procession of identical matching ballerinas will never end, the way one hopes that Pachebel’s spiraling Canon never draws to a close.
Because “Kingdom of the Shades” is so distinguished, it is often extracted from the full-length work. The Zellerbach run of “La Bayadère” launched a national tour for the Bolshoi and gave the Bay Area audiences a rare chance to see it in its entirety. It also afforded audiences the opportunity to behold the extraordinary dancing of Svetlana Zahharova in the role of the ill-fated Nikiya. Zahharova dancing is transformative, her lines fluid, exceeding beyond the physicality of her body, her acting as refined as her extensions, and her hands poetic. She alone brings soul to the entire performance, to the overly technical and somewhat mechanical precision of the other soloist and corps and to the unintentionally comical, albeit, tragic plot set in a very imaginary India. (Nikiya and Solar, the star crossed lovers meet, politics and another woman – Gamzatti, intercede; doomed lover, Nikiya is murdered by a snake bite; tragic Solor takes opium and blurry-eyed sees his true love 32 times in “Kingdom of the Shades” - as all 32 dancers look like Nikiya.)
Dancing as Nikyia’s jealous rival and murderess, Gamzatti, was Ekaterina Krysanova whose energetic performance is also virtuosic yet seldom playful. Similarly, Nikolay Tsiskaridze as Solor remains lack luster despite high competence. Without these subtle refinements among such giants of talent, we are left with technique and the absurdity of operatic story- telling.
By far, the most creative and innovative choreography of “La Bayadère” comes not from the predictability of solo and pas de deux segments, but in the form of the Ivan Vasiliev in a rather throw-away-role as the Golden Idol. Equally impressive in both choreography and movement is Egor Kromushin as the Slave, and the other male fakirs (tantric magicians or sadhus capable of extraordinary feats of sorcery) who muscularly suspend movement in space as if manipulated by special-effects. While beautiful ballerinas create the illusion of flying – floating across the stage and back while suspended on the hands of their male counterparts - the Golden Idol and fakirs defy gravity on their own. Springing into thin air, they strike a pose long enough to suspend time before letting gravity return them to reality.