Until 1980, La Bayadиre, a ballet that was over a century old and had been continuously performed in Russia, had never been seen in the West. Now, 30 years later, Natalia Makarova’s iconic staging of the classic returns May 18-24.
An elaborate, richly atmospheric tale of romance, betrayal, intrigue and vengeance set in ancient India, it remained a chronicled but tantalizingly unfamiliar work by the celebrated Marius Petipa, who followed this 1877 work with such enduring contributions to the classical canon as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Its production was too elaborate to be included in the rare western tours by companies from the then-Soviet Union.
It was thanks to stellar defectors that hints of Bayadere’s wonders first became known. In 1963, Rudolf Nureyev staged its revelatory pure-dance act, “The Kingdom of the Shades,” for The Royal Ballet. In 1974, Natalia Makarova, the great Kirov ballerina who joined ABT in 1970, undertook the challenge of this pristine Petipa jewel for the company. The 24 women dancing as the Shades must move in synchronized unison while evoking an otherworldly, transcendent atmosphere. Under Makarova’s exacting tutelage, ABT’s corps de ballet met this formidable challenge. Within the harmonious framework they created, several ABT Principals achieved glory dancing the lead roles of Solor and Nikiya.
“The ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ act, which is considered the greatest choreography ever created for a corps de ballet, is certainly one of the most important in the history of 19th-century ballet,” Makarova says. “It exemplifies Petipa’s vision of classicism in its eloquence, its formalism, its harmony, its precision, and its crystalline execution. In 1974, I proposed the idea to Lucia Chase, the Director of American Ballet Theatre, that I stage the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ for the Company and she was thrilled with the idea. I wanted to share with the dancers the heritage and knowledge of classical ballet that I had attained through my Russian training at the Vaganova School and my years at the Kirov Ballet.”
But until Makarova undertook the daunting task of staging the complete La Bayadere for ABT, neither dancers nor audiences had any context in which to place this choreographic wonder. La Bayadere had been a constant in her life from an early age, as she recently recalled: “My first memories of La Bayadиre at the Kirov Theatre (my alma mater) in Leningrad go back to my early childhood, my school days at the Vaganova School. We were given tickets to sit up in the very top of the balcony (the galorka) to watch performances when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. It was one of my favorite ballets because it was mesmerizing and exciting to watch with its dramatic, passionate and exotic plot.”
Following the success of her 1974 production of the “Shades,” Makarova took on the challenge of staging the complete ballet. This would include a final act, one that follows the “Shades,” which in Soviet versions had long been the ballet’s conclusion. Since there was no extant choreography to reference, she created her own, drawing on Petipa’s template and her overall knowledge of the ballet. "When I staged my version of La Bayadere for ABT in 1980, I decided that I wanted to restore Petipa’s story as he had originally conceived it,” explained Makarova. “The final act, the apocalypse, had been omitted since 1919 when the scenery was destroyed during the Revolution. I feel the Kirov version, as it exists today with the “Shades” as the last act, has no real ending—crime with no punishment and this is a ballet about betrayal and retribution. I staged my production with a final Act, which I reconstructed and choreographed in the style of Petipa, restoring the original dramatic structure and impact of this early masterpiece. I created my version of La Bayadere from memory, research and imagination."
“In my production, I take the dust out and refresh the presentation while maintaining the integrity of the choreography,” she says of her approach. “I work with the ballerinas to be more expressive to project the story line. I have created more for the leading male (Solor), developing his role and adding choreography. I felt that so much of La Bayadиre as it existed was solely entertainment and the emphasis was not on the dramatic content of the ballet. Petipa had created the ballet as a kind of spectacle, with a pseudo-Indian motif. It contained images that included grand processions and unnecessary diversions from the plot, which I did not feel would work in our time. I wanted to get to the essence of his ballet, to reconstruct it from a contemporary point of view.”
Victor Barbee, who originated the role of the Rajah Dugmanta, Gamzatti’s imperious father, in the ABT production, recalls working closely with Makarova on many portions of the ballet. “We worked out Solor’s variation, the partnering for the pas de trois, pas d’action for Solor and Gamzatti in the betrothal scene, and the mime passages. In retrospect, I think what she was doing was pretty cutting-edge, because she really streamlined what was being done in the Soviet Union at that time.”
Barbee now regularly performs as the High Brahmin, who nurtures a forbidden passion for Nikiya. He has particular expertise in the ballet’s mime and coaches current cast members in those crucial passages. “The mime is the glue that links the dancing together and helps to further the story,” he notes. “Natasha really pushed it along to get from one dance to the next. She made it very clear and concise. It was always mime for the sake of furthering the story.”
Cynthia Harvey was still a Soloist when Makarova chose her for the major role of Gamzatti, which requires not only bravura dancing in the grand betrothal scene, but dramatic conviction for an angry confrontation with her rival, Nikiya. Looking back now, more than the considerable technical demands, she recalls “trying to live up to the challenge of performing opposite Makarova—and playing a character that could be perceived by Solor as somebody worthy of having as an equal.”
Harvey had been dancing in the corps de ballet when the company was performing the “Shades” scene on its own and sensed how that experience had strengthened the ensemble. “I think, by the time 1980 rolled along, there was more confidence in our abilities.” The rehearsals for the full production had a momentous atmosphere. “Mr. [Antony] Tudor came in to watch; Michael Lland was in all the rehearsals, also Elena Tchernichova. Natasha was dancing every single role—which was great for us.”
Makarova’s La Bayadere—which was her first-ever attempt at choreography—seamlessly combined the timeless beauties of Petipa’s choreography with her own dramatic insights, giving the ballet deeper coherence and emotional resonance. In addition to offering the company’s dancers—from leading Principals to corps de ballet—major new challenges, it gave audiences a revelatory introduction to a crucial, nearly unknown gem of 19th-century classicism. It has been a mainstay of ABT’s repertory for three decades, and Makarova has gone on to stage her production for thirteen other companies around the world. A well-kept secret in Russia for so long, La Bayadere has now claimed its rightful place in the ballet repertory.
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Susan Reiter covers dance for New York Press, and contributes to the Los Angeles Times and Dance Magazine.