Review: In Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Bayadère,’ Mostly Good Revelations

BERLIN — What’s a classic and why? The Russian ballet “La Bayadère” (1877) was largely unknown in the West until the 1960s, when its Shades scene was danced, out of context, by the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) and then the Royal Ballet.

The scene builds cumulatively, beginning with a slow, hypnotic, single-file entrance by the female corps de ballet, 32 women dressed in identical white tutus. In unison, these women — the Shades — dance the same to-and-fro phrase: a zigzag walk punctuated by a linear gesture forward into space and then a stretch back with arms making a halo around the head. The scene seems plotless, timeless, placeless, an Elysian echo-chamber: the 19th-century prototype of the 20th century’s many non-narrative classical ballets.

The choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of “La Bayadère” for the Staatsballett Berlin, which had its world premiere on Sunday night, is the latest in a series of Western full-length “Bayadère” productions that, since 1980, have shown how the Shades scene fits into this stylistically patchy ballet’s melodramatic story of love, politics and religion set in pre-British India.

It’s also the latest in a recent series of Ratmansky reconstructions of late-19th-century Russian ballet classics. Like his “Sleeping Beauty” (2015) and “Swan Lake” (2016), it’s often revelatory. It does much to strip away the Soviet Russian distortions that have laden this classic with showy dance tricks, while significantly enriching our understanding of the art of its original choreographer, Marius Petipa (1818-1910) — mainly to the good, but not all.

The Shades scene was the centerpiece of Petipa’s third act. During his day, the fourth and final act was often thought to surpass it. Today, however, there are large gaps in the historical sources for that act’s choreography; and tastes have changed. That conclusion’s intense drama makes a lighter impression than the Shades scene, which still seems astonishingly imaginative.

Where Petipa’s original allows, this Ratmansky “Bayadère” is a tightly coherent narrative drama. The Shades are the opium dream of the hero Solor — they multiply the essence of Nikia, his newly dead beloved — but it has seldom been so clear as here that they’re descending from the slopes of the Himalayas. The designer, Jérôme Kaplan, even makes the Shades, their arms swathed in cloudy white net, seem a continuation of the mists on his moonlit mountains.

These Staatsballett Shades enter fluently, faster than any other “Bayadère” corps I can remember (this tempo feels right for the music), and with wonderful phrasing. The ensuing scene makes more dramatic sense than ever: In one telling touch, Nikia and Solor simply walk together around the space, each holding both of the other’s hands, echoing an earlier walk they took in the temple.

Elsewhere Mr. Ratmansky restores a wealth of detail to Nikia, the title bayadère (or devadasi, a female temple dancer), who’s consecrated to the temple and its rituals. She also plays a lute, and must, at the ballet’s tragic crisis, dance while playing music in honor of Solor’s betrothal to the Rajah’s daughter Gamsatti. Solor, however, has sworn to love Nikia over the temple’s holy flame. This oath, like Nikia’s artist nature, has never been more potent as a motif.

Several other features make this production uneven. And some of these are surely the fault of Petipa and Ludwig Minkus, the original composer. (Minkus’s score, which has several trite passages, has been arranged here by Lars Payne and Gavin Sutherland.) Mr. Ratmansky, having unearthed several unfamiliar musical passages, fits the stage action to them felicitously. But the betrothal and wedding scenes are both bogged down by divertissements that are quaint at best. And the final scene’s score gives no support to Nikia as ghost. When she interrupts her rival’s wedding, the brass-heavy music makes no differentiation between her and Gamsatti.

At first viewing, there’s so much to see in this “Bayadère” that you can forget about this ballet’s central problem today: a cultural imperialism that, despite sumptuous scenery and costumes, gives us a coarse cartoon idea of Indian culture. Petipa’s four acts are played with just one intermission, but some scene changes necessitate uncomfortably long pauses. Though Mr. Kaplan’s backdrops are splendidly picturesque, the stage’s wings are designed like tawdry interior décor. Solor’s opium chamber works poorly as a place either to receive Gamsatti or to envision Nikia.

These flaws do not keep this production from being fascinating and impressive. This production, nonetheless, cannot solve the unevenness of “Bayadère” itself.

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