‘La Bayadere’: should it be cancelled?

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WA principal dancer Dayana Hardy Acuna

For its first mainstage production for the year, the WA Ballet is presenting the lavish 19th century Petipa ballet, La Bayadere. Considered one of the masterpieces of the classical canon, it is one of those ballets that really spells “ballet” – sumptuous costumes, big sets, spectacular dancing, a plotline of love, jealousy and revenge, all set in an “exotic” foreign location.

But like so many of the 19th century ballets, it has been subject to some controversy in recent years. Set in a fanciful Hindu temple, choreographed by a Russian to music by an Austrian (Ludwig Minkus), it is accused of colonialist attitudes and insulting stereotypes.

In particular, an e-mail campaign by one Rajan Zed, a US/Hindu guru, every time the ballet is presented, makes sure the public is not unaware of the offence it is supposedly causing. True to form, as soon as the WAB season was announced, his emails appeared, urging WAB to withdraw the ballet “which seriously trivializes Eastern religious and other traditions . . .

“. . . taxpayer-funded WAB and HMT [His Majesty’s Theatre] should not be in the business of callously promoting appropriation of traditions, elements and concepts of ‘others’; and ridiculing entire communities.” (Extracted from a much longer statement.)

This sort of criticism is having some effect: some companies have dropped their productions, or presented only the famous Kingdom of the Shades scene. Other companies have pressed on and presented the ballet in its entirety, convinced of its inherent merit and beauty, but not without some serious, behind-the-scenes discussions.

In short, La Bayadere is in danger of being cancelled.

David McAllister was appointed the WA Ballet’s interim Artistic Director and stepped into the role when the 2024 program was already pretty much set in place. He is one of those who believes the ballet is worth keeping, while agreeing that some of its more dated aspects need a rethink. “If it was a terrible ballet,” he says, “it would have died long ago. Many ballets have. But there is something beautiful about La Bayadere. Obviously the Kingdom of the Shades is the jewel that has kept that ballet alive. It is contextualising what you do with that act – that’s the debate for me, anyway.”

 

WAB's Adam Alzaim as the Golden Idol. Photo by Sergey Pevnev.
WAB’s Adam Alzaim as the Golden Idol in he company’s 2019 season. Photo by Sergey Pevnev.

And indeed, this particular production has been considerably rearranged by choreographer Greg Horsman, who has updated the story and ditched its old-fashioned aspects. A co-production with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Queensland Ballet, it was first presented by the QB in 2018 and the WAB in 2019, to generally positive reviews.

Horsman has departed from Petipa’s original imaginary setting and planted his version in a historically true time and place: 1855, under British rule. “I did a lot of research,” he explains. “Britain was ruling India for 400 years almost and they were still there when the original Bayadere was created.” So he made the conflict between the British and the Indians central the story.

Horsman’s setting is the kingdom of Cooch Behar. Solor is a prince, rather than a warrior, the son of the Maharajah. He is in love with Nikiya (the bayadère, or temple dancer). The armies of Cooch Behar and the British East India Company are at war, and a treaty is being negotiated to end the hostilities, which includes the arranged marriage of the Solor to Edith, the daughter of the Governor General, to cement the deal. This sets up the romantic and ultimately tragic love triangle.

In addition to adapting the choreographic element, Horsman also worked with musical director Nigel Gaynor on the Minkus score, incorporating Indian musical scales and instruments. 

Before its premiere in Winnipeg, the company consulted with Indian cultural representatives, who gave it the all clear. “I think they were pleased that Indian culture was being celebrated,” Horsman says.

“I doubt very much of Zed is aware of this version of La Bayadere,” says McAllister. “It’s a long way from the original.”

“Dramatically it works,” wrote Denise Richardson of the Queensland Ballet’s season. “In transplanting the story to the period of the British Raj, Horsman has also given himself scope to explore those contemporary tensions of cultural identity, which add subliminal layers to the drama and to the characterisations of the key protagonists.” 

 

Polly Hilton as Edith in the WAB's 2019 season. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.
Polly Hilton as Edith in the WAB’s 2019 season. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

La Bayadere in its entirety is relatively new to the West. Although it premiered in 1877 it took more than a hundred years before it was seen outside Russia, when the former Kirov ballerina, Natalie Makarova, staged it for American Ballet Theatre in 1980. The Kingdom of the Shades scene made its first appearance in the West in 1961, and is justly celebrated, with its extraordinary hallucinatory depiction of a skein of white-clad spirit dancers unravelling like the smoke from Solor’s opium pipe. It is not only a breathtaking vision for the audience, but the ultimate test of a corps de ballet’s unison, steadiness and poise. It is hard to imagine any other art form coming up with such an idea, or doing it better. This is quintessential classical ballet.

Will La Bayadere last another hundred years or should it be allowed to waft away like the smoke from Solor’s pipe? With respectful and sensitive handling, surely such a historical treasure can be kept alive for audiences of the future to enjoy.

– KAREN VAN ULZEN

The West Australian Ballet will present ‘La Bayadere, the Temple Dancer’ from April 12 to 20 at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth. https://waballet.com.au/la_bayadere

For reviews of the earlier seasons of ‘La Bayadere’, go here and here.

 

 





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