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#Throwback Thursday: La Bayadere

It's #ThrowbackThursday, and today we're talking about La Bayadere.

Sylvie Guillem as Nikiya, 2004

La Bayadere, meaning 'The Temple Dancer', is a ballet in four acts. The story follows the temple dancer Nikiya and the warrior Solor, who have sworn eternal love to each other. However, the High Brahmin is also in love with Nikiya, and attempts to corrupt her relationship with Solor. Solor, meanwhile, has been selected by the Rajah Dugmanta of Golconda to marry his daughter Gamzatti (originally called Hamsatti). Unaware of the betrothal, Nikiya agrees to dance at the celebrations.

Dutch National Opera & Ballet

The jealous High Brahmin attempts to have Solor killed by telling the Rajah of his oath to Nikiya. The plan backfires when the Rajah decides Nikiya must die instead. Gamzatti, who has eavesdropped on their conversation, summons Nikiya to the palace. She attempts to bribe the dancer into giving up her beloved, but Nikiya becomes angry and attempts to kill Gamzatti with a knife. Gamzatti is saved by the arrival of her aya (her nurse), and Nikiya, horrified by what she has almost done, flees. Gamzatti vows that Nikiya must die.

Svetlana Zakharova as Nikiya, Bolshoi Ballet

During the betrothal celebrations, Nikiya performs a slow dance while playing her veena. When she is given a basket of flowers that she believes are from Solor, she breaks into a frenzied dance of joy. But the flowers are actually from Gamzatti, who has hidden a venomous snake in the bottom. When Nikiya holds the flowers too close to her face the snake bites her on the neck. Though offered an antidote by the High Brahmin, Nikiya chooses to die rather than live without Solor.

Roberta Marquez as Nikiya, the Royal Ballet

Act III begins with a depressed Solor smoking opium. He goes into a trance, believing he is witnessing Nikiya's shade dancing in a nirvana in the Himalayas called 'The Kingdom of the Shades'. He and Nikiya reconcile among the shades of other dancers. In the original 1877 production, this took place in a palace in the sky. When Solor wakes up, he finds himself in the middle of preparations for his wedding to Gamzatti.

The Kingdom of the Shades, Boston Ballet

The wedding is underway in the temple, but Solor is haunted by the shade of Nikiya even as he dances with Gamzatti. When the High Brahmin joins the couple's hands in marriage, the gods destroy the temple and everyone inside in revenge for Nikiya's murder. An apotheosis occurs, in which the shades of Nikiya and Solor are reunited in death.

Solor and Gamzatti, Paris Opera Ballet

La Bayadere was created by the dramatist Sergei Khudekov and the choreographer and ballet master Marius Petipa. The music was composed by Ludwig Minkus, who served as the official Ballet Composer to the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre from 1871 to 1886. The ballet was staged as a benefit performance for the prima ballerina Ekaterina Vazem. It premiered in St. Petersburg on 4 February 1877, performed by the Imperial Ballet at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. Ekaterina Vazem played Nikiya. Lev Ivanov created the character of Solor, but his classical dances were performed by Pavel Gerdt. Maria Gorshenkova played Hamsatti (later Gamzatti), Nikolai Golts played the High Brahmin, and Christian Johansson (previously a premier danseur and an influential teacher) played the Rajah. The various sets were created by Mikhail Bocharov, Matvei Shishkov, Ivan Andreyev, Heinrich Wagner, and Piotr Lambin.

Ekaterina Vazem as Nikiya, 1877

Lev Ivanov as Solor, 1877

Rehearsals for La Bayadere took almost six months. Petipa clashed repeatedly with Ekaterina Vazem over her entrance for the final Grand pas d'action, and experience repeated problems with the many complicated special effects the ballet required. In addition, he feared the ballet would premiere to an empty house (ticket prices had been increased, to the point where they were more expensive than the Italian Opera). But the ballet proved a success, particularly The Kingdom of the Shades scene. Petipa staged this as a Grand pas classique, completely devoid of any action. His simple choreography became one of his most celebrated pieces.

Solor and Nikiya in The Kingdom of the Shades

Petipa's final revival of La Bayadere came on 15 December 1900, as a special benefit performance for Pavel Gerdt and the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinskaya. For this performance, Petipa changed the set for The Kingdom of the Shades from a sky palace to the peak of the Himalayas. The number of Shades (corp de ballet dancers) was increased from thirty-two to forty-eight. This made the illusion of the descending shades in the famous Sortie des bayaderes even more effective. The earliest known performance of The Kingdom of the Shades came in 1903, when it was given as a gala performance at Peterhof Palace, in honour of a state visit from Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The Kingdom of the Shades, 1900, Petipa's final production

The ballet was not performed again until 13 December 1932, when Agrippina Vaganova staged her version for the Kirov Ballet. The lead role was revised for Vaganova's protege Marina Semenova; though this version did not stay permanently in the repertoire, her changes to Nikiya's role became standard.

The High Brahmin with the bayaderes

In 1940, the Kirov Ballet began plans to restage La Bayadere. This time it was staged by the ballet master Vladimir Ponomarev and premier danseur Vakhtang Chabukiani. This version became the basis for almost every modern production since. It premiered on 10 February, 1941, and was a huge success. Chabukiani danced Solor, and Natalia Dudinskaya danced Nikiya. Revisions to the choreography for Nikiya have changed permanently thanks to changes made for Dudinskaya. Chabukiani's choreography for the role of Solor have also remained standard.

The Kingdom of the Shades

Although La Bayadere was by then a classic in Russia, it was unknown in the west. The first performance of The Kingdom of the Shades in the west was staged by Eugenia Feodorova at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 12 April 1961. It starred Bertha Rosanova as Nikiya and Aldo Lotufo as Solor. The ballet didn't take off until the Kirov Ballet performed The Kingdom of the Shades at the Palais Garnier in Paris on 4 July, 1961. Two years later, Rudolf Nureyev staged The Kingdom of the Shades for the Royal Ballet in London, with Margot Fonteyn as Nikiya. It was a resounding success. The first full-length ballet was staged by Natalie Conus for the Iranian National Ballet Company in 1972.

Svetlana Zakharova as Nikiya

Natalia Makarova staged The Kingdom of the Shades for American Ballet Theatre in 1974, followed in 1980 by a full-length production based on the Kirov version. The company has performed the ballet ever since. Makarova has since staged her production for the Royal Ballet, Ballet of La Scala, the Australian Ballet, and the Royal Swedish Ballet. Later productions include the 1991 production staged by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet. It was Nureyev's last work and proved a great success.

Natalia Makarova's production for the Royal Swedish Ballet, 2007

In 2000, the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet mounted plans for a revival of the 1900 Petipa production. Choreographer Sergei Vikharev resurrected the choreography from notations in the Sergeyev Collection. The ballet included parts of the previously deleted final act, including the lost Danse des fleurs de lotus (Dance of the Lotus Blossoms) and the original Grand Pas d'action. Despite being billed as a reconstruction, Vikharev retained nearly all of the Soviet-era choreography. The score was also restored, despite being thought lost; the Mariinsky Theatre had two forgotten volumes of Minkus' handwritten score from 1877. The ballet is only performed on special occasions.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in The Kingdom of the Shades, 1963

Here's Nureyev's production performed in 1992, by the Paris Opera Ballet, starring Elisabeth Platel as Nikiya, Laurent Hilare as Solor, and Isabele Guerin as Gamzatti:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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