Throughout much of the 19th century, when romanticism was in full swing, the Hindu temple dancing girl – the bayadère – was a common motif. The French composer, Charles-Simon Catel composed Les Bayadères in 1810 that reflected a music and design spectacle that emerged with Napoleon’s consulate. Another French composer, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, composed Le dieu et la Bayadère in 1850. The Bayadère was a symbol of exotic India.

Dancers of West Australian Ballet. Photograph © Sergey Pevnev

The first dance interpretation, in 1858, was Théophile Gautier’s Sacountala a ballet-pantomime in two acts, based on the 4th century play, The Recognition of Shakuntala, by the classical Sanskrit writer, Kālidāsa. It is considered one of his best works, and the one that influenced Marius Petipa—another Frenchman – via Gautier, in his The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862). With dramatist Sergei Khudekov, their La Bayadère, premiered in St Petersburg in February 1877.

Visually inspired by Gustave Dore’s 1832-1833 designs for Dante’s Divine Comedy, it was immediately recognised as a masterpiece, particularly Act III, but the ballet was not seen in the West until the Kirov Ballet unveiled The Kingdom of the Shades in the Palais Garnier in May 1961. In the role of Solor, it was Rudolf Nureyev’s first, electrifying appearance outside Russia. He defected shortly after. Natalia Makarova created a full production in 1980 for American Ballet Theatre, and Nureyev did the same for the Paris Opéra in 1992.

Greg Horsman’s La Bayadère is a co-production between Queensland Ballet (it premiered in Brisbane in March 2018), West Australian Ballet, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, onstage in October 2019.

The Kingdom of the Shades is the most faithfully kept act in the Horsman version. It is the pulse-quickening heart of the ballet and has been frequently performed as a stand-alone piece. The sight of a corps de ballet of some 20 or more dancers, in white, slowly descending to the stage down a set of inclined planes in an arabesque penchée must have been heart stopping in 1877. It usually is today.

Visually there is much to admire in this production – Gary Harris’ curtain, costume and stage design, and Jon Buswell’s atmospheric and theatrical lighting, for example; the ensemble of wedding guests, the entry of the shades, for another. Nigel Gaynor has augmented Ludwig Minkus’ score with tinctures of Indian musical instruments, and the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Judith Yan, is impressive.

West Australian Ballet has long had a fine company of female dancers, but until recent times the male side has lacked weight, maturity and technical strength. That has changed. This is a balanced, exciting troupe that will hold its own with companies of similar size. This production is worth seeing, despite Horsman’s clumsy story told through the prism of a cliché-ridden, culturally insensitive, cartoon view of a colonial world.

His setting is India, in the British Raj of 1855, when the British East India Company was most powerful. To seal a peace treaty between warring parties, a marriage is arranged between Prince Solor, son of the Maharajah of the kingdom of Cooch Behar (Andries Weidemann), and the daughter of the Governor-General of India (Craig Lord-Sole), renamed Edith (Chihiro Nomura). But Solor (Matthew Lehmann) has promised himself to Nikiya (Dayana Hardy Acuña), a temple dancer.

Solor is supposed to be a Hindu Prince but in this characterisation, there are no princely qualities. He is boorish, gets hopelessly drunk at the wedding, and beats his new wife before strangling her to death. It makes the Apotheosis scene immediately after, meaningless, despite its visual opulence. Why, one might ask, would any woman, real or imagined, fall in love with him? Except that, in Lehmann’s case, he can dance.

Edith comes across as a vulgar, wilful, opportunistic brat, who will stop at nothing to get her way. Her emotional range, however, demanded acting as well as dancing skills and Nomura triumphed on both counts.

In the Temple of the Golden Idol, with beautifully orchestrated arm movements, nine female devotees paid tribute to Shiva, the cosmic God of the dance. It was a memorable moment. Julio Blanes, who joined the company last year, is a powerfully built dancer. His solo as the Golden Idol was also impressive.

But the focus of attention was on Acuña; like Blanes, Cuban-trained and a recent addition to the company. She was simply beautiful to watch. The fluid control of her movements, the elegance, poise and balance of her attitudes were breathtaking.

The slow entry of the 16 Shades and the waltz that follows – about 10 minutes in all – was a delight. Soloists Carina Roberts, Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Polly Hilton showed their special attributes in their variations, but the scarf pas de deux between Solor and Nikiya, usually an intimate highlight, was a wasted opportunity; he dutifully held one end while she turned about at the other.

The evening was long – two hours with two 20-minute intervals – but it was a dancing triumph for the company despite the simplistic narrative.

La Bayadère plays at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth until May 25

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