La Bayadère misfires: Bayerisches Staatsballett in Hong Kong

Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
February 19, 2017

David Mead

La Bayadère has acquired a name for being one of the more preposterous stories in ballet, and let’s face it, it has plenty of competition. But is it really so ridiculous? It is, after all, a classic love triangle, in this case between the rich and noble Solor, a divinely beautiful bayadère (temple dancer), Nikiya who he is in love with, and Gamzatti, daughter of the Rajah, who the Rajah would rather Solor married. And is so often the case in these triangles, no-one wins.

The Bayerisches Staatsballet’s version of the tale is by Patrice Bart. Unfortunately, his dances son not always sit comfortably with the core of the work, by Petipa. Bart certainly crams in the showy steps, but in his urge to entertain loses the essence of the tragedy that’s at the heart of the ballet.

What really caused the ballet to misfire from time to time however, was the acting, however. Bart’s is a solid and easy to follow telling of the story, but La Bayadère is a narrative ballet and the narrative needs to at least start to ring true. Its demands excellent characterisation and interpretation, some decent acting. It struggled.

Osiel Gouneo as SolorPhoto Wilfried Hösl
Osiel Gouneo as Solor
Photo Wilfried Hösl

In the Rajah’s palace, when Gamzatti asks Nikiya to abandon Solor, and the two argue and fight, it was particularly unconvincing. What should be violent tugs looked were rowed back to the point of near-nothingness, and Gamzatti’s slap so obviously came nowhere near Nikiya’s face it was ridiculous.

The mood at the engagement party was odd too. Remember, Gamzatti knows about Nikiya, and her unwillingness to give up Solor. Remember too that Solor has confessed his love for the bayadère. Yet he and Gamzatti not only sit happily side by side, smiling lovingly at each other, but dance so happily too. One could only assume that some great breaking up and making up happened in the background. Then when Nikiya shows up, what’s their reaction? Zero. No surprise, no anger, nothing. It just doesn’t make sense, which even in a ballet like this, it needs to.

The opening has a great deal of walking around by the Rajah and the Great Brahmin, and a great deal of mime of the worst sort – dreadfully wooden and stilted (a problem throughout).

La Bayadère, here with Ivy Amista as Gamzatti and Ksenia Ryzhkova as NikiyaPhoto Wilfried Hösl
La Bayadère, here with Ivy Amista as Gamzatti and Ksenia Ryzhkova as Nikiya
Photo Wilfried Hösl

There was no such problem with the dance, especially from Osiel Gouneo as Solor and Ksenia Ryzhkova as Nikiya. Ryzhkova was as divine as a bayadère should be. She has lovely arms, beautiful technique and, best of all, she makes you want to watch. She gave us an enigmatic bayadère with just the right hint of mystery, which of course makes her all the more alluring. She is graceful and elegant, especially when reunited with Solor in the Kingdom of the Shades, her and Gouneo’s dance there being the pas de deux highlight of the performance. He is not a naturally noble looking dancer, but the choreography plays to his strengths. Always full of energy as leapt and turned effortlessly without ever overdoing things.

Gouneo’s soaring jumps always ended with featherlight landings, which was in rather stark contrast to Prisca Zeisel as Gamzatti, who had some of the noisiest pointe shoes I’ve heard for a long time; and it wasn’t the stage because no-one else made such a racket. When she first appeared, her holding of arabesque on pointe seemed like floating on air, although perhaps it was just that it was a relief from the interminable walking around and dreadfully wooden mime of the High Brahmin and the Rajah. What followed from Zeisel was certainly generally less inspiring. She gave us such a pale character lacking in persona that I simply found it impossible to even start to believe.

As the Golden Idol, Alexey Popov was solid, but similarly left me cool; and I really do not think having his consorts blacked up is appropriate these days.

Bayerisches Staatsballett in La Bayadère Photo Wilfried Hösl
Bayerisches Staatsballett in La Bayadère
Photo Wilfried Hösl

Of course, the highlight of the ballet for many is the Kingdom of the Shades, that grand parade of ballerinas down the slope. Various potential meanings have been ascribed to it: a reference to Solor’s descent into hell, a representation of the smoke from his opium pipe, or maybe just his dream of a bevy of beautiful women. It matters not, it’s a grand sight and the Staatsballett dancers carried it off beautifully with not a limb out of sync (I wish I could say the same for the lines that followed). The whole scene flowed as melodiously as one could wish for.

The Staatsballett’s La Bayadère is certainly a feast for the eyes. Tomio Mohri’s sets are relatively simple and uncluttered. The opening moments in front of the temple, with just a backdrop of two lotus flower-adorned flats that open like huge curtains is especially effective, although as more and more people came on, it did start to feel like he had been given a palette containing every colour under the sun, and felt determined to use them all.

Nikiya gets the final word, of course, her ghostly spirit coming back to interrupt Solor and Gamzatti’s wedding, and quite literally bringing the temple down, killing all those in it. Mohri delivers here too, the building not so much collapsing as descending into a fiery red hell, courtesy of a dramatic falling silk.

And so, to the ghastly apotheosis, where we see Nikiya, Gamzatti and Solor in a heavenly world thereafter, walking amid the clouds. There are so often a problem, and this one is as sickly sweet as it sounds.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Michael Schmidtsdorff gave a grand account of Minkus’ score