Sadler’s Wells, London
October 17, 2017
Shobana Jeyasingh admits to having long been fascinated with Petipa’s 19th century classic, La Bayadère. In her Bayadère – The Ninth Life, she casts an eye over its excesses, searching for the roots of the exotic temple dancer, a fundamental figure in the orientalist obsession of the nineteenth-century West. It is, though, an Orientalist fantasy. If you are looking for enlightenment about the bayadère’s true nature in Hindu tradition and classical Indian dance, you won’t find it here.
Bayadères were girls, trained from a young age for lifelong service associated with the worship and service of a deity or temple, undergoing a dedication ritual similar to marriage. Originally, they learned classical bharatanatya and odissi dance and had a high social status.
They had long inspired plays and operas before, in 1838, a French impresario brought a troupe of south Indian temple dancers, aged 6 to 30, to Europe for eighteen months. In Paris, they caused a sensation and were showered by gifts from King Louis Philippe. In Britain, they appeared at the Adelphi Theatre and Egyptian Hall in London, and in Brighton.
Detailed descriptions survive from the writings of Theophile Gautier, who may as well have been describing livestock at a market as a woman, and it is to him that Jeyasingh turns for inspiration. But apart from extensive and repetitive citing of his writing, that is where the link ends.
Bayadère – The Ninth Life opens in a hotel room, location unspecified, where a bored boy is shifting restlessly. Eventually he starts surfing the television channels, then turns to his mobile telephone. Unfortunately, instead of just showing us that her character is bored, Jeyasingh manages to bore the audience. The telephone conversation is projected onto a screen but is difficult to read, even from the middle of the stalls.
I gather that our protagonist discusses a performance of La Bayadère that he saw the previous night, excerpts of which are projected onto the screen, framed by an Indianesque arch. After what seems like an age, he gets sucked into the frame and transported into his own Orientalist fantasy as he is transformed into a bayadère by the removal of most of his clothing and the donning of a flashy pair of pantaloons.
Now, while men did dance in temples, the bayadère as epitomised in Europe is exclusively female. What are we expected to learn by watching a man instead? Sooraj Subramaniam is a lovely dancer, but he rarely gets to dance. He makes feather-soft landings, has a gorgeous line and ballon to die for, given that Indian classical dance is so rooted in the earth. What a pity that in almost 90 minutes, he gets a fraction of the time to actually show us what he can do.
I got no sense that he was questioning the role of the bayadère or subject to being looked at in the same way as, not only the genuine temple dancers, but the generations of women who have portrayed bayadères ever since. In any case, the concept of the male gaze loses all its intended meaning when applied to a man. Eventually, he swaps his pants for a more traditional loincloth which is initially branded as the scarf so prevalent in Romantic ballet. Perhaps this is meant to symbolise his transition to ‘authenticity’. This would have been a good place to stop.
The remainder of the cast, clad in grey and black, presumably represent the shades. They are given very little of interest to do save the odd moment when a pairing here and a trio there produces an interesting balance or shape.
Tom Piper’s designs are very pretty but what they are meant to represent is elusive. The frames used in the first section suggest a gallery (as does the score) when some of his copper scribbles descend to be (eventually and with much fiddling) unhooked by the dancers and left on the stage. The dancers then meander in and out for an eternity to no obvious purpose and, having dispensed with our hero fairly early on, the piece finally fizzles out.
Gabriel Prokoviev’s electronic score is dull and sounds oddly dated, much of it reminiscent of a 1980s British gangster film soundtrack with the odd nod to low budget sci-fi along the way, underscored by thumping bass chords of doom from a piano. One section of percussion even sounds like a 1960s British thriller and weirdly conjures up monochrome streets and a murky, dockside air. It is meant to be a mash up of Minkus’ score played at the wrong speed. Minkus deserves better.
I can’t help feeling that he and Petipa have won the day.