Three looks at The Royal Ballet in La Bayadère

Royal Opera House, London
November 1, 2018 (Nuñez/Muntagirov/Osipova)
November 3, 2018 (Takada/McRae/Naghdi)
November 5, 2018 (Osipova/Corrales/ Nuñez)

Joy Wang X.Y.

On paper any show with Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov and Natalia Osipova on the same stage should be special. And in reality, in La Bayadère, it didn’t take long before you realised that you were indeed watching something just that.

That realisation comes in the very first moments of Nikiya’s opening solo. There is a moment when, with her back facing us and her torso pulling upwards, she draws into a retiré. Nuñez lingers and it is so musical and so well-judged that someone behind me lets out an audible sigh. And then there are these other moments when she pulls into fifth position and pivots around herself. Most dancers, even the best of them, often compromise by bourrée-ing out of it but Nuñez is completely, transportively still. And when that stillness explodes into the delirium of love every molecule in her body, every fibre of her being, every bend and every arch expresses Nikiya’s ecstasy.

As Nikiya’s spectral vision coils and uncoils around Solor, Nuñez is almost wraith like. When she returns to haunt him and Gamzatti, you sense it is not revenge that she wants but the fulfilment of a vow. She brings to the temple scene a profound spiritual graveness; a weighted sense of destiny. Destruction may not be what she wants but this is what it has to be.

Marianela Nuñez as NikiyaPhoto ROH/Bill Cooper
Marianela Nuñez as Nikiya
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

It helps that Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov are aesthetic soulmates who share a similar taste for beautiful geometry. Muntagirov’s Solor is more princeling than warrior, a romantic who does not quite have Nikiya’s moral sense of the sacred. There is a vulnerability, a weakness perhaps, that lies at the edges of his noble mien; and which makes his betrayal of Nikiya logical. As Gamzatti, Natalia Osipova is pure evil; a dazzling, brilliant shade of evil. She knows how to stalk the stage.

Osipova’s Nikiya is an earthier alternative, with a distinctive touch of wildness. But while the force of her presence alone can compensate for much, her occasional looseness and improvisatory impulse is not always a virtue in Act Two. Here, her tendency to tense her shoulders in turning sequences or the way she skids through certain steps detracts from its pure classicism. She races through the final diagonal of pique turns in a blizzard of speed but there is no pull up through the knee. It is an uneven performance. Osipova thrilling but without finesse, Corrales leaping mightily but without the same deftness of touch in character.

La Bayadère, which veers between pastiche and poetry, demands of its ballerina an exquisite sense of dramatic balance. Saturday night saw debuts from Akane Takada as Nikiya and Yasmine Naghdi as Gamzatti and you could see that both dancers are still trying to find the right narrative axis.

The Royal Ballet in La BayadèrePhoto ROH/Bill Cooper
The Royal Ballet in La BayadèrePhoto ROH/Bill Cooper

In the first act, Takada seemed to be dancing a version of what she feels Nikiya should look like; grand, sculptured, overtly emotional, rather than letting the character emerge from within. She made effects without quite giving them an emotional interiority. Soon, perhaps, she will find her own Nikiya. Already, she seemed much more at home in Act Two, where the diamantine brilliance of her and Steven McRae’s (as Solor) technique glittered with particular polish. If Naghdi seemed tentative initially (the confrontation scene felt like two simultaneous monologues, neither dancer quite ‘hearing’ the other) her Act Three solo with its swooping arabesques had moments of real beauty. Her dancing also held a note of tenderness. You imagine she would make a good Nikiya.

If there is a moment that captured the subjective difference between the performances it would be in the last few passages of the Shades scene. The ballerina does a series of rapid soutenu turns downstage and then travels upstage with a series of hops which ends with her poised in arabesque. On Thursday, Nuñez held it while opening her entire upper body to the heavens. On Saturday, the younger Takada held it and looked straight at us. On Monday, Osipova missed it completely (or perhaps, chose to eschew it). If Takada was dancing for us, Osipova for herself (and there is nothing wrong with either of that), Nuñez was, you sense, dancing for the gods, for a higher classical ideal.

In that devotion, Nuñez reminded me of another priestess of classical dance, the former Mariinsky ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina. Every step, you feel, is a hymn to her art. There is no ego. It is all art.

And ultimately La Bayadère for all its curious notions of the orient is exactly that. It is, in that treacherous, winding sequence of lilting arabesques, an anthem of classical dance. On all three nights, the company’s female corps danced it with heart and steely nerves.