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American Ballet Theatre

‘La Bayadere’

June 2008
New York, Metropolitan Opera House

by Eric Taub

© Gene Schiavone

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Even more than ABT's bouncy Don Quixote, its La Bayadere is great fun. In Natalia Makarova's venerable staging, the storytelling's as taut as the plot is silly, with more spying eyes, purloined secrets and sneaky entrances and exits than a Feydeau farce. John Lanchbery's arrangements of Ludwig Minkus' score, evocative of a beer garden on the Ganges, burble merrily along, and Perluigi Samaritani's gorgeous, atmospheric sets and Theoni V. Aldredge's refined, glittering costumes create a colorful Indian neverland. The company strides through through the story's exotic intricacies with the well-oiled precision and vigor of a military drill team, and the dancing's not bad, either. Indeed, the dancing's damn good, and it's what raises La Bayadere from the ridiculous to the sublime.

This year, there's been no ballerina more sublime than Veronika Part. Heroic yet imbued with the restraint of her Mariinsky training, Part could well be a visitor from another plane than her fellow ABT ballerinas. The cantilevered turns and twists of her Vaganova-trained torso are as much an architectural wonder as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Chrysler Building, and her delicate, soft-sell phrasing doesn't detract from the majesty of her port-de-bras. This season, Part's hit her stride as an artist. Hers was the best Swan Lake of the season (better, it saddens me to say, than the fading, Ananiahsvili), and I have a hard time imagining any of ABT's ballerinas coming close in Bayadere. Had she materialized in the midst of the Kirov's recent visit here, she'd have given the great Lopatkina a run for her money. I might even prefer Part; the two are statuesque goddesses of the dance, but Lopatkina's icy cold in her magisterial perfection, Part's all warmth and accessibility.

This night's Solor was the ham sandwich that's Marcelo Gomes. Tall, sturdily built and undeniably strong, he's a perfect partner for Part, not just mechanically, but also in temperament. Seldom have I seen a dancer look so damn happy just to be onstage, making his every second there tell a story. At the beginning of the first act, his Solor demanded that Craig Salstein's Fakir, who's having a very, very bad hair day, fetch Nikiya so that they might ruin both their lives by pledging eternal love before the Sacred Fire (a tricky bit of mime!). Salstein protested, and Gomes replied by raising his pointed finger, ever so sloooowly, towards Salstein's face, as if it were the business end of a .38. It's nice to see a man who enjoys his job so thoroughly, and who wouldn't when paired with a goddess like Part?

One thing I love about Gomes is how shamelessly he plays the enamored romantic. Gomes has been quite public about being gay, and while many gay men partner their ballerinas with an attentive but uninvolved politesse, Gomes plays the part of a raging heterosexual with great élan and perfectly realized detail. In Kabuki, men are famous for their portrayals of women; they're particularly affecting because they're not women their characters are created entirely from art and artifice, and yet they can appear more feminine than "real" women, who don't need to put quite so much effort into being female. Drag queens work in much the same way, and so does Gomes, in becoming, onstage, more blazingly straight than the most studly heterosexual. With Part (as with Herrera or any of his ballerinas), Gomes eyes blazed with ardor, and he was always pressing his grinning face up close to Part's, reacting to her slightest inflection with the exaggerated attentiveness and puppy-dog face of a teenager in the throes of his first crush.

Part played right along, especially in their first-act love duets, which were delightfully over-the-top. At the end of one adagio, Gomes cradled Part stretched out almost horizontally in a swooning backbend, made quite magnificent by the voluminous sweep of her long arms, one of which, at the music's final note, gently pressed Gomes head downward so his cheek came to rest in the not-insignificant pillows of her bosom. Later, while on his knees partnering Part by holding her about the waist, he took a moment to delicately press his other cheek against Part's impressively flat stomach, proudly bared to the world in her two-piece harem-girl, I mean temple-dancer costume. At other times, and with other dancers, such liberties taken with accepted classical deportment might've seemed vulgar, but with Gomes and Part they were one detail among many which described the worshipful, unheeding force of Solor's love for Nikiya. (I was about to use Margot Fonteyn as an example of that deportment with "would anyone have treated Fonteyn thus?" I wonder how I could've asked myself such a dumb question, even rhetorically.)

Despite Part's statuesque beauty (she's quite possibly the most beautiful ballerina extant in New York), she displays none of the hauteur and regality one sometimes sees in beauties, especially on the stage. Even her Odette is more heartsick woman than queen. In Bayadere her Nikiya's completely unaware of her beauty (she probably has no idea why the poor Brahmin would forsake his position for her); if this were a Hollywood movie, there'd be a moment when Solor would snatch away her pointy-cornered librarian's glasses and declaim "but..but you're beautiful!" She's the temple-dancer next door, or the nice girl who sprouts the occasional feather. Those of us of a certain age might say she's Ginger but thinks she's Mary Ann. With many great dancers, you're aware of their artifice even as you allow yourself to be swayed by it (I have always adored Ananiashvili's brilliant stagecraft). It's Part's genius that the slight reticence in her phrasing, the stylistic modesty imbued by her Kirov years, makes her persona all the more accessible. When her Nikiya died, I saw the woman as much as the artist. It's no wonder she's become one of ABT's most popular ballerinas, she deserves it.

Veronika Part in La Bayadere
© Gene Schiavone

In the first act, the hair on Salstein's fright-wig must have come from Samson, as he blasted through the Fakir's double-split jetés and other tricks with punchy bravura. Victor Barbee's High Brahmin seethed with passion for Nikiya, when he wasn't seething with anger. He seethed very well, stumping about the stage like a bulldozer in flowing robes, and turned up the volume of his own searing looks of unrequited love so as not to be drowned out entirely by Part and Gomes.

Michele Wiles has been a more avaricious Gamzatti, if seldom a better-danced one. Leggy and blonde, she might've made a good foil to Part's tall, dark Nikiya, but Wiles wore her role and her gorgeous costumes with a bland prettiness (or pretty blandness), as if she were trying them on for size rather than inhabiting them. In Gamzatti's confrontation with Nikiya after she learns that Nikiya loves Solor, the Battle of the Flowing Organza, Wiles often seemed like a precocious child carefully acting out Gamzatti's fear, anger and power. It's hard to feel anything for this character other than a bemused sympanthy for the fine mess her father's gotten her into. While Wiles was a paper cutout princess, Part was a sea of passions, roiled as throughly as the winds of her passage caused her purple robes to billow like ephemeral, rippling spinnakers. Sarawanee Tanatanit slunk and spied about with great passion as Gamzatti's Aya, while Gennady Savaliev augmented his chin, which can already cut glass, with a trim goatee as the Radjah Dugumanta. (He's got a name? Who knew?) Behind this, Saveliev frowned (I think he was frowning) and mimed "marriage" and/or "death" with great frequency and gusto.

In the betrothal festivities (these dances for Solor and Gamzatti were originally in the fourth act) the fan-girls capered in sprightly unison, the eight demi girls were strong and for the most part together, but as they've been wont to do this season, the demi corps boys almost stole the show with their big leaps and flashing batterie. I wonder how Kevin McKenzie will cope with this embarrassment of riches in the near future when so many will deserve promotions. I suppose there are worse problems an artistic director might have. Speaking of leaps, Wiles and Gomes could've been on flying carpets. In the pas d'action, Gomes again and again held Wiles in that repeated, phrase-ending pose with her right leg raised in a pretty attitude devant. Gomes, as is his wont, had impressive elevation in his solo, although looking a bit tight-hipped and weighty in places. Wiles was technically impeccable in her solos, perhaps trying a bit too hard for multiple turns in places, but her Italian fouettes were big and clean, as were the more conventional fouettes that followed. Wiles has never learned Gomes knack of selling anything to the audience, and they practically sat on their hands for her. Her dancing was clean, but perhaps flatter than when I saw her Gamzatti last year. Part was all you could want or imagine in her benediction dance and death scene. Those plunging balances in arabesque; those heartbroken backbends on the floor, all benefitted from her lush phrasing. Her death scene straddled the border between drama and melodrama, and I won't forget the look on her face when she saw Wiles and Gomes walking away.

Perhaps because Susan Jones had to whip them into shape for Etudes, ABT's corps de ballet has been looking particularly strong this spring. In Swan Lake they put forth the quickest, sharpest, most sparkling little swans I've seen. (If two of your four are Sarah Lane and Gemma Bond your loss; our gain you're already off to a good start.)

In this first Kingdom of the Shades, the corps echoed and mirrored each other in that long walk of penchées off the ramp, with every leg in every arabesque at the same forty-five degrees, and every port de bras full and gorgeous. They don't have the "hatched-from-the-same-egg" look of the big European companies in which all the dancers have gotten the same training at the same school, so you could notice slight differences in epaulement and carriage. it was only in the ensemble's big, unified developpé in second that these differences became troublesome, with unfortunate variations in the height and angles of the girls' legs giving some areas the look of a disheveled picket fence (but at least with precious few wobblies). I expect subsequent performances will have addressed this glitch, otherwise these Shades were indeed magical, and the audience's rapt attention became almost palpable. During the moments when the dancers just stood in ranks, bourreeing together, their legs and feet shimmered beneath their calm, etherial upper bodies, they became an eternity of ghosts floating just above the stage. At the end of their long introduction, the audience roared its approval, as well they should've.

Here were Part and Gomes in their glory. Gomes played the heartbroken searcher to the hilt, and acted his way through steps most men simply execute. For instance, when he sinks to his knee before Nikiya's manifestation, he looks to be lost so deeply in thought that his knee folds elegantly beneath him simply because his mind had drifted far away from mundane verticality. Of ABT's lead men, perhaps only Gomes could imagine Solor daydreaming within a dream; certainly he's the only one who could pull it off. Part simply glowed. In her adagios her grandeur seemed to blanket the stage. I try never to use words like "creamy" and "buttery" to describe a dancer's phrasing, yet they fit here. Her Nikiya's love for Solor was abundantly clear, yet so too her dedication to her religious calling, and her first-act vow. When she strikes again and again that signature pose with one arm and finger pointing heavenward, she's reminding Solor of that vow. She shines with purity, and her technique's the mirror of her soul. If, as Balanchine's famous aphorism put it, dance is a moral question ("La Danse, Madame, c'est une question morale."), Part had an answer. I held my breath when Gomes swung Part back and forth in his arms, building up momentum to flip her to the fish pose on his shoulder, but up she went, and it was glorious.

In his solo, Gomes managed "only" four double assemblés, but finished off with a wonderfully hammy double tour to the knee and almost inverting himself snapping into a big backbend at the very last note. The audience cheered. As for Part, her turns in arabesque holding the scarf were beautiful, but she had to fudge the concluding double pirouettes a bit. She's got a big straight-ahead jeté, but the stage suddenly seemed immensely large when she circled it with a manege of not-very-high grand jetés en tournant. Just about everything else was stupendous. Her slow fouettes from second to arabesque, whether supported by Gomes, or holding only the scarf, were revelations her leg sang.

The demis were lovely, Sarah Lane with dreamy half-turns in releve, Yuriko Kajiya with her frisky releves to attitude devant, and Melissa Thomas all slow control and bubbly effervescent in the last "locomotive-leaving-the-station" solo.

Makarova's odd little wedding scene began with Carlos Lopez' frenetic Bronze Idol. His elevation and turns were impressive, but his footwork needed some more hammering at the forge. In dances reminiscent more of Antony Tudor than they are of anything else in the ballet, Nikiya's ghost haunts the unhappy betrothed couple. In Gamzatti's little solo, Wiles pulled off two beautiful inside quadruple pirouettes, which the audience resolutely ignored. In the psychodramatic pas d'action between Solor, Gamzatti and Nikiya's ghost, Gomes looked beset by heartburn and Excedrin Headache No. 1, Wiles like she was at a picnic rather than a wedding, and Part, splendid in her silver harem pants and top, was both a warning spirit and an intrusive though dead ex-girlfriend from Hell. I've always loved the cheesy "earthquake" that destroys the temple. Everyone tumbles about the stage like the crew of the Enterprise hitting an air-pocket, there's dry ice smoke and flash powder galore, and, my favorite, the slowly descending scrim down the front of the stage covered with pictures of boulders. Oddly enough, this concatenation of effects worthy of mid-Seventies Dr. Who works rather nicely, clearing the stage for Nikiya's leading of Solor towards, well, the light.

Beneath its exotic exterior and bouncy music, La Bayadere is more like a Greek tragedy than any other classic ballet, with tutus instead of togas. As soon as Solor and Nikiya make their vow in the first scene, their fates are sealed, well, everyone's fates are sealed. They just don't know it yet. The only self-affirming thing the mighty warrior Solor accomplishes (aside from his double assemblés) is killing that pathetic tiger, which happens before the story even begins. Solor really has no choice between Gamzatti and Nikiya, even before Nikiya's death. It's just die now, or die later. He learns nothing, even less than that other balletic idiot, James, except about the hallucinogenic effects of a good bong hit. Nikiya has a great transformation, if not exactly a positive one, and the Brahmin, Radjah and Gamzatti are all acting in accordance with their natures. OK, it's a bad Greek tragedy.

But who cares? The story's not there to instruct or enlighten, but to entertain us and take us to exotic places: fantasyland India, and the afterlife. La Bayadere's moral isn't in its story or spectacle. It's hiding in plain sight, in the shimmer of the corps' transcendent bourrees, the arc of Part's admonitory finger and its promise of heaven, and a thousand other places. Une question morale indeed.

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