Correction to This Article
- A photo caption with a Jan. 20 Style & Arts article implied that Kirov Ballet dancers were shown performing in "La Bayadere." The photo showed dancers from the American Ballet Theatre.

A Pipe Dream That's a Hit

The Kirov Arrives With 'La Bayadère,' the 1877 Ballet That Has Proved Addicting

The version of
The version of "La Bayadere" that the Kirov will dance at the Kennedy Center ends with "Kingdom of the Shades," nearly three dozen corps de ballet dancers moving as one in synchronized beauty. (By Gene Schiavone)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008; Page M01

Opium, psychedelic of centuries past, the original antidepressant, bringer of bliss! If it held untold numbers in the clutch of addiction, it also midwifed countless artistic creations. We owe one of the most enchanting scenes in all of ballet to the drug: the "Kingdom of the Shades" act from "La Bayadère," which unspools as its hero's opium-aided hallucination of infinitely replicated beauties, 32 dancers as light as smoke and moving as one.

With opium the LSD of the romantic era, think of the 1877 "La Bayadère" as its "Easy Rider." Sex, drugs and death were as potent a formula in the mid-19th century as in the 1960s counterculture. And as in the iconographic hippie film, Marius Petipa's "La Bayadère" rides on references to popular interests: a fascination with India, where the ballet takes place, and Buddhism; the sensuality of scantily clad temple dancers (the "bayadères" of the title), a yearning for perfect love and the view of death as the ultimate freedom. And until then, there's solace in a chemical utopia. (We're not saying Petipa inhaled, but he would have been well aware of the opium vogue.)

Beginning Tuesday, the Kirov Ballet, for whom Petipa created the work, will perform "La Bayadère" at the Kennedy Center Opera House, through next Sunday. This is the first time the company has ever danced its full-length version here -- an event that has had ballet fans salivating for months. This is not only because the deeply respected stars Diana Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina will lead separate casts (as will three other ballerinas), but because of the crucial part played in this work by the lowest-ranking dancers.

The corps de ballet is truly the star of the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene -- nearly three dozen corps dancers, performing as an exquisitely coordinated unit, draw the audience in to a supernatural world. Fed by the graduates of its world-renowned Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, the Kirov arguably boasts the strongest and most stylistically complete corps in the world.

One needs both strength and style to carry off the ethereal Shades segment, which, as Kirov Artistic Director Makhar Vaziev describes it, "expresses the maximum of what [the Kirov] can do."

"They say that 'Swan Lake' is the brand of the Kirov Ballet," Vaziev said in a recent phone interview, speaking through a translator, "but I think 'Bayad¿re' represents the artistic face and identity of the Kirov."

The Shades scene is one of unequaled classical purity and profoundly moving simplicity. It stands in stark contrast to the stock characters, high color and melodrama of the rest of the ballet, which tells of a love triangle -- two women devoted to the same man -- that goes awry. The parallels to "Aida," Verdi's Egyptian-themed opera which preceded the ballet by just a few years, are clear: "Bayadère," too, turns on class conflict, jealousy, betrayal and a three-way tangle involving Solor, a warrior, who loves Nikiya, a temple dancer, yet is betrothed to Gamzatti, the spoiled and scheming daughter of the rajah. When Gamzatti murders her rival by tucking a poisonous snake into the dancer's flowers, the shocked and remorseful Solor reaches for his hookah.

As fellow 19th-century users Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Baudelaire and Hector Berlioz knew, why suffer when you can self-medicate? We glimpse Solor inhaling in a corner; a harpist decants a delicate, rippling cadenza. With the stage now darkened, and a worshipful mood established with that heavenly harp, we see Solor's transported imagination take form, as dancers dressed in ghostly white, seemingly poised in midair, begin to pussyfoot down a winding ramp in single file. With careful deliberation, they move through the same few steps -- a lunging arabesque, melting into a backward stretch with the arms raised heavenward, and a quick strut forward into another lunge -- over and over again.

The incline represents the Himalayas, and the dancers are its clouds, or the smoke from Solor's pipe, or an intoxicated vision of his lost Nikiya. When they reach the flat stage, the dancers continue their winding daisy chain until the women have arranged themselves into rows for another slow, controlled sequence, unfolding their legs high, holding each pose as if the limb were floating in mist. At this point, the dancers will tell you, their calves are cramping from that descent down the ramp; one thigh is in spasm (all those arabesques were balanced on the same leg), and spotlights angled up from the wings have blinded them. But Petipa doesn't let them rest; massed together, they begin a light adagio, each step reduced to its essence so the clarity of the form -- and any wobbling -- is plainly evident.

A spectral Nikiya appears, and Solor enters his dreamspace to dance with her; three soloists offer up crystalline demonstrations of classroom technique turned to champagne. Through it all, the tone the corps set at the start of the otherworldly harmony endures. It is a triumph of group dynamics, and when performed at its best, it looks as natural as breathing.

As grand and important as this ballet is, however, it was unknown in the West until well into the 20th century. Perhaps this is because, unlike Petipa's better-known ballets -- "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker" -- "Bayadère's" music is not by the masterly Tchaikovsky, but by workaday ballet composer Ludwig Minkus. Its plot was not drawn from popular literature, and it is more complicated to present than other evening-length ballets.

There is the corps dancing, as well as "grotesque" dancing for clomping brutes and faux Indian classical dance. There is call for an elephant and children in blackface. (Its politically incorrect details are many, but that's the 1800s for you.) In the original conception, there were also special effects, with Solor's wedding to the hateful Gamzatti ruined when the temple crumbles to rubble in the last act.

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