Whether it’s the Teutonic Giselle peasant girl or the Indian sub-continent’s Nikia temple dancer, the plight of the village virgin has held audiences in its thrall for nearly three centuries. That’s impressive when one takes into account the number of disputed borders that sparked two world wars, multiple revolutions and counterrevolutions, and a thirty years’ undeclared imperialist war over that period. Then lest we forget, there’s the tinder-level dyspepsia of the 1970s that has escalated into full-bore culture wars. Such enduring fascination is what makes it possible for the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Ballet (formerly Leningrad’s Kirov) to take Marius Petipa’s “La Bayadère,” restaged by Vahktang Chabukiani on a U.S. tour. What’s more, it finds an audience at the UC Berkeley campus, of all places, mere baby steps from the eponymous free speech battlement, Sproul Hall, which could on any given day etch over its portals, the words: “Do not enter here, anyone whose thoughts or speech don’t meet our standards of rectitude.” We’re grateful for the respite and dispensation, because La Bayadère is many things, but only in its spirit is it politically correct.
To note that this three-hour production is a pastiche of ups and downs is not necessarily to detract from its stunning sets (Mikhail Shishlianikov), and danced splendor. The best of the “ups” have to do with choreography ranged on multiple levels, whether it’s The Slave crab-walking Untouchably yet spunkily, bidden by one Brahmin or another; the bayadères in sequined bras and harem pants (Yevgeny Ponomarov) who sensualize as they speed the action along, or their spear-carrying galumphing warrior counterparts, who slow it down; the wilding knee-slapping Fakirs, bounding up and down as they run circles around a sacred fire; or the virtuosic Ekaterina Kondaurova, as Nikia, the temple dancer who stands bolt upright in a lift by her equally astounding Solor, Andrei Yermakov. This is a society where rank, station, and caste determine destiny, even when they are sieved through 19th-century faux-folkloric stereotypes that have managed to survive impeachment by the correctness gendarmes, or worse.
The “downs” collect around an unevenness in portrayals, divertissements, and the ensemble quality of the corps de ballet. These include a Golden Idol (David Zaleyev) who waxes more brassy than golden. His brief appearance leaves little to idolize: pas de chats go rangy, and any sense of station is left on the conveyance he came in on. The Jug Dance (not identified as such in the program) is a disappointment, not because the dancer lacks the chops, but because of staging that veers more academic than funny. In other interpretations, comic relief intent is crystal clear, the jug made to look precariously perched and about to spill its contents. In this one, the jug seems pretty secure, and the expression on the dancer’s face is steely rather than ditzy, with any comic result dulled and dilute. The foursome who dance The Dance of the Bayadères (Act II) Svetlana Tychina, Svetlana Ivanova, Anastasia Miikheikina and Laura Fernandez are sometimes in step with one another, and look quite amazing. At other times in in other divertissements, one or two of them is out of sync, late, or off the music.
The magnificent sets with their distressed veneer, in which some structures are pitched life-like on the diagonal, place us as proximate to South Asian architecture as one can hope for on the stage. A trompe l’oeil folded into the most breathtaking ever black, white, and grey, cloud-enhanced Kingdom of the Shades set, plants a wide decorative pilaster along the dancers’ flat path. It serves to obscure our view, so that we cannot see them fully in sequence as they enter, and not descending a ramp, but from the wings. It’s an otherwise gossamer rendering, the dancers outfitted in white, where generous, transparent sleeves make port de bras even more celestial. Unfortunately, hinging the sleeves to the back of the neck ends up leaving the suggestion of a dowager’s hump, which interrupts and distracts from the continuity of an otherwise exemplary line.
Second Soloist Yekaterina Chebykina cleans up theatrically as a plausibly haughty, or petulant Gamzatti, Nikia’s rival for Solar, a prince victimized by a pending pre-nup. Yet, despite her pretty face with its frozen smile, Chebykina lacks many of the prerequisites of facility, placement, mastery and musicality, to furnish a finished and fully articulated antagonist.
Ekaterina Kondaurova’s Nikia is the best in memory. She is wholly at one with her character, her physicality a happy coincidence of the androgynous with an unselfconscious feminine delicacy and lightness. Those paired qualities bring to mind the 1960s Modern Dancer, Cora Cahan, who was in her day possessed of the same artistic complexion. In Kondaurova’s case, every step, each enchaînement, is rooted in her nature, rendering moot even the grossest of libretto gaffes. Andrei Yermakov is the perfect partner. A substantial virtuoso in his own right, he delivers flawless, powerful manège, tour jeté, and planted multiple tours. Yet, in the pas de deux, he opens a sumptuous swath to her. It comes without exaggerated ceremony or mawkish deference. Soslan Kulaev as The High Brahmin, draped in carmine, stewards the story’s conflict with a pithy yet bountiful presence. Magedaveya, the Fakir, whose facility is rapt, wrapped, and rapturous at every plot turn, wins our collective hearts to the right side of history from the moment we meet him.