So often in ballet, the more perfect the heroine, the greater her flaws. I'm talking about relatability. Just how realistic are the incorruptible protagonists of "Swan Lake" and "Giselle," for instance, who'd rather perish than put up a fight when their men prove unfaithful? On behalf of the sisterhood, I plead (in vain): Ladies, stand up for yourselves already!
Happily, we have a champion to cheer in the Mariinsky Ballet's stylistically epic, if only fitfully accomplished, "La Bayadere." This production, which opened Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, centers on one of the most interesting characters in the ballerina canon: brave Nikia, the "bayadere," or temple dancer, of the title. In this 19th-century Russian fantasy of Indian mythology, Nikia is spiritual, passionate and not above attempted murder.
As embodied by Viktoria Tereshkina, the Mariinsky's current prima, Nikia is a keeper of the sacred flame whose most cherished fire burns within her. She's fierce and strong and won't be pushed around. The High Brahmin grabs her; she instantly fights him off. It's a flash of her rebellion to come, when Nikia learns that her lover, the warrior Solor, is a social-climbing weakling who has forgotten his pledge to her and plans to wed Gamzatti, the Rajah's daughter.
Did you think that ballet was all about gracious manners? Nikia learns the bad news from Gamzatti, and the first act ends with a magnificent fight between the two ballerinas. At one point, vain and scheming Gamzatti (Anastasia Matvienko) throws her rival to the floor. In that moment — just as she's about to crash into the furniture — we see Tereshkina's resolve harden. Next thing you know, she's whipping a blade around and seeking blood.
That beautifully played half-second is a highlight of this nearly three-hour spectacle. But Tereshkina has many more gifts. It's impossible not to marvel at the tensile strength of her slight frame, impressively on view in costumes that are skimpy even by "Bayadere" standards. As an old-school ballet heroine, she is fated to die by the mandates of the art. But she won't go easily, and her technical strength underscores this. She has an especially grand moment in her death scene: Tereshkina stands tall and high on her pointes, then unfolds one leg ever so slowly behind her into a soaring arabesque, her raised foot pointing to eternity, all while she's stoically balanced as if nailed to the floor.
Her Solor was the equally virtuosic Kimin Kim, the Korean-born principal whose high, light jumps can lift the air out of your lungs. These two were jewels in a production that otherwise felt artistically slight. This, despite the decorative gewgaws and a second-act crowd of spear- and fan-holders, holy men, warriors, and enough entertainers and stuffed parrots to fill the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.
Marius Petipa choreographed "La Bayadere" in 1877, just a few years after Verdi unveiled "Aida." Petipa probably borrowed from the opera's mighty march when he devised his own processional for Gamzatti's and Solor's engagement. The variously attired Mariinsky dancers share the stage with an elephant on wheels and a stuffed tiger, animals that are so frankly toylike, I'm sure we're meant to laugh at them (as many did, understandably, on Tuesday).
The faux-pomposity of this parade is a fitting counterpart to the strict classicism and purity of the Kingdom of the Shades scene, with its soulful procession of ballerinas in white. They represent an eternal chain of dead bayaderes, whom Nikia has now joined, and this famous scene ends the ballet on a refined note. But in other spots, it appeared the dancers would just as soon get the ballet over with. Soslan Kulaev, as the High Brahmin, looked bored. Matvienko's Gamzatti appeared halfhearted, with occasional smudged footwork and imprecise arms. One dancer accidentally kicked another, some of the scenery got knocked about, and the bows looked uncertain. Just opening-night mistakes, perhaps. But given the sum of the experience, the Mariinsky didn't exactly leave the impression of an artistic superpower.
The Mariinsky Ballet performs "La Bayadere," with a rotating cast, at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.