The CultureMap Review
Bollywood-inspired La Bayadère expands the myths of ballet
I was worried about Houston Ballet’s world premiere of Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère. Advance press included invocations of Bollywood, unfortunate local commercials with sitar music distant from the Minkus score, and press photos of what appeared to be generously spray-tanned ballerinas with live snakes. It seemed the snakes were the stars of the publicity campaign.
To be clear, I’d love to see a Hillcroft-inspired La Bayadère, but I feared this would be a 21st-century version of 19th-century Oriental fantasy. And the rubber snakes on sale in the lobby for $6 were of little comfort. But Welch and his company provided a decorous and mostly disciplined revival of an important moment in ballet history, and they did so with a keen sense for spectacle.
Upon entering, viewers are treated to a gorgeous painted backdrop: A palace on water with domes reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. This characteristic visual elegance is important throughout the night as the gorgeously detailed scenic and sexy costume designs of Peter Farmer never let us forget that ballet takes place in a land of fantasy. This change in garb and décor gives fresh eyes on the world of ballet and the bodies of dancers now revealed in glittering, diaphanous fabrics.
But we’re soon reminded that fantasies can be dark and deadly. The lights come up on Solor—flawlessly if not always passionately performed by Connor Walsh—slaying a tiger threatening a village, which leads to a jungle meeting with his Nikiya. If your true love is a temple dancer consecrated to the gods and you meet her over the corpse of an animal, what kind of relationship will ensue? Sara Webb, a potent Manon earlier this season, was an engaging Nikiya and shared palpable chemistry with Walsh. Of course, in the world of ballet, nothing ever does go right when it comes to love.
The heroism that brings Solor and Nikiya together draws the attention of the Sultan, who offers his daughter, Gamzatti, in marriage. An offer from a Sultan isn’t really an offer, and Gamzatti, deviously portrayed by Kelly Myernick, was as imperious as her father in solos that balanced the lack of magnetism of her pairing with Walsh. Perhaps Solor already intuits the doom to come. His fiancé will get her closest confidante, Jessica Collado’s Ajah, to murder his beloved with a basket of snakes. What else are friends for? And if one love triangle isn’t enough, the High Brahmin, deftly danced by James Gotesky, pines for Nikiya; his pent up frustration seals their doom.
La Bayadère isn’t a familiar work, but the ballet balances twisted love plots with engaging spectacle. The first act treats us to the fire god Agni, a role Jim Nowakowski clearly reveled in as he danced like a flame leaping, spinning, and flickering over the stage. In the third act, as Solor sinks into a depressive dream (aided by a nice hit of opium), and the bird god Garuda dazzles with the virtuosity of the talented Joseph Walsh, who leads Solor to his most famous encounter, known as the Kingdom of Shades, where he sees the dead Nikiya and a host of 24 attendants in tutus. This is supposed to be the visionary moment, but alas the corps, as it entered dramatically down a ramp backstage, seemed often imperfectly aligned, thus ruining the visual illusion, and there were too many wobbly legs and feet in view.
La Bayadère could only end in an orgy of violence. Spoiler Alert: The High Brahmin kills Ajah, Gamzatti kills Solor, and the gods bring the temple crashing down magnificently. Amidst the wreckage, it was hard not to think that in spite of the complicated legacy of works like La Bayadère, Welch has done very well to expand the body of myths available to ballet.
And if that’s not of interest, you can always take home one of those rubber snakes.