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'La Bayadére' Takes Flight on the Wings of the Kirov

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Let 100 navels wink in the spotlights, let every forehead bear a spangle bindi, shake out the togas and haul the stuffed tiger out of the attic. The Kirov Ballet's "La Bayadére" may have a 1950s Hollywood-epic look -- the colors a bit too bright, the costuming a bit too bold. But the dancers in Tuesday's opening-night performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House believed in every moment of it, and that's what made it work. A sterling cast led by the ravishing Diana Vishneva as the doomed temple dancer Nikiya proved this sprawling Indian fantasy ballet is all about reconciling perfectionism and schmaltz and spinning them both into gold.

As over the top as it seems, the ballet's stylistic mix is an honest quality. Choreographer Marius Petipa, that exacting sculptor of 19th-century classical ballet, betrays his heavily perfumed soft side in "La Bayadére." His central dance ideas in this 1877 work are firmly classical, predicated on line and uniformity and anticipating his triumphs soon to come in "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty." But "Bayadére's" narrative and emotional sensibilities reach back to the romantic era, with its cult of death, belief in the supernatural and craze for the exotic.

To its enormous credit, the Kirov, performing its full-length version of "La Bayadére" for the first time here, does not play this heady blend as camp. It gives each aspect full credit, braiding a drive for classical perfection with the more mystical and sentimental elements of the work.

Vishneva, a dancer of exceptional suppleness and dramatic power, set the tone for this approach. She conveyed layers of spiritual devotion and sensual abandon.

Contrasts are built in to the theme, with Nikiya's unsullied love for the warrior Solor set against his betrothal to the spoiled and cunning Gamzatti, a politically fruitful union arranged from childhood. Vishneva gave the contrasts added dimension; her dancing changed from scene to scene. She was light as smoke, as if inspired by the sacredness of her surroundings, in the opening scene by the temple flame, where she and Solor (the endearingly boyish and buoyant Andrian Fadeyev) pledge their hearts; in her confrontation with Gamzatti (Viktoria Tereshkina), she was eloquent in her mime passage and increasingly desperate, like a trapped animal.

When she is ordered to dance for Solor and Gamzatti's engagement celebration, Vishneva entwined her long limbs and arched like a serpent ready to strike, foreshadowing the fatal snakebite to come and milking every note of this achingly poignant solo with divalicious intensity. Then, the final transformation: In the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene, the dream of reconciliation that Solor conjures through his opium pipe, Vishneva, now a ghost, made clear that she was utterly and completely above it all. Her cool remove suggested that, in the Hindu tradition from which the ballet's story was drawn, she was already on the path to her next life. Solor could clutch at her, could leap about, could grasp at her veil and kneel at her feet, but she existed on an infinitely higher plane.

What was interesting in this cast was the complexity of the two female leads. Many ballets -- and operas, for that matter -- present a heroine and antiheroine as polar opposites; take "Swan Lake," with good-girl Odile, fluttery victim of trickery, vs. her doppelganger Odette, a duplicitous femme fatale. The two ballerinas in "Bayadére" are more textured than that. Gamzatti, as danced by Tereshkina, is not merely the flip side of Nikiya. She is exquisitely self-possessed, accustomed to getting her own way. When she danced, she made clear just how very pleased with herself she was; she embodied the old-fashioned Russian ballerina tradition of emphatic technique and firmness of character. The catfight with Nikiya unspooled spontaneously, each woman believably unsettled by her own lack of control. For this Gamzatti, slipping a poisonous snake into her rival's flower basket was simply a necessary move, not an evil one.

Among the other soloists, Grigory Popov stood out as a high-bounding Golden God one would freely worship, as did Vladimir Ponomarev as the High Brahmin, who wore an orange robe and strappy sandals with all the majesty of Yul Brynner.

The corps de ballet was a star in its own right in the frequently excerpted "Kingdom of the Shades" scene, for which Petipa elevated perfect academic form into an unmatched vision of eternity. Watch the entrance of the 32 tutu-clad dancers here carefully and you will see the essence of the Russian style. The Kirov dancers are famed for the fluidity of their spines, and this is glowingly in evidence in the single-file line of dancers, each extending a leg high behind her like an arrow poised for flight, without effort, because their backs are so limber and strong.

Watch this act, which so fully explores the distinct aesthetics of ballet, and ponder the infinite. Ponder how Petipa's steps, set down 130-plus years ago, still breathe with abundant life.

Pavel Bubelnikov conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in a full-bodied and gorgeously lyrical account of the Ludwig Minkus score.

Performances continue through Sunday, with cast changes.

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