Dancer: Ivy Amista, Osiel Gouneo
Photo: Wilfried Hösl
Despite or maybe because of its seeming absurdity, La Bayadere, in both its literal (libretto) and figurative incantations, has often been political theatre. As Christina Ezrahi recounts in Swans of the Kremlin, the Soviets took issue with the Kingdom of the Shades scene – soulless, bourgeois formalism according to the politburo. If once the Shades scene was an act of subversion, today its depictions of the orient have come under increasing scrutiny. Not least because both India as exotic other and India as eastern Disneyland, the cosmos between which most versions move, are problematic imaginative concepts. Tomio Mohri’s set design with its references to phoenixes, pagodas, lotus leaves, even kabuki (in the dénouement) is closer to the second.
By embracing its own myth, Patrice Bart moves the ballet towards orientalist fantasy, reducing the distance between the mystical and exotic, the mythic and the profane. That is fine but the lack of narrative clarity, the choreographic debt to the 1992 Paris Opera Ballet version, Bart’s alma mater, comes with the charge of pastiche. Preserving the fourth act restores moral equipoise but other versions, Natalia Markova and Sergei Vikharev’s come to mind, have made more elegant sense. It falls then to the ballet and the dancers to mount its own defense — La Bayadere for all its bucolic excess can be a serious work. Would you have known that from the Bavarian State Ballet’s performances? Yes and no.
Since Igor Zelensky’s directorship, the Munich company has undergone a personnel overhaul. Casting in Hong Kong was a mix of the old and new. Of the new, Vladmir Shklyarov, a Mariinsky principal, must be the starriest. Part of Solor’s enigma is the combination of the would-be prince with the predator-warrior. Shklyarov, who has danced Solor many times, has always understood the character’s animating principle, its virile brilliance and sheer spectacle. On the 18th, Osiel Gouneo too captured Solor’s raw power if not quite the character’s Daedalian sweep. In Hong Kong, Shklyarov found an added gravitas. His dancing still beautiful, felt necessary. You sensed beneath his distinguished carriage, free of tension but immovably noble, an ocean of secrets. Secrets that with Nikiya became a tidal wave of tragic love. There was devotion and something else; an understanding, perhaps, of darkness’ lacerating complexity.
Dancer: Ivy Amista; Photo: Wilfried Hösl
We forget sometimes how hard it is to portray darkness, to find evil’s Nietzschean logic. Prisca Zeisal’s polite, pretty, ineffectual portrayal in the role of Gamzatti reminds us. If Zeisal seemed singularly incapable of violence, Tatiania Tiliguzova in the same role, was more intriguing. Tiliguzova, another Mariinsky import, exudes the power of manifest authority. Shoulders fold into the spine and arms expand from deep within the back. Anatomically, she moved as a complete organism, slithering feminine, then menacingly, grandly calm. You see her thinking, a cool rational utilitarianism but never feeling. There was, even in moments of high drama, a ritual extravagance to her pantomime. Gamzatti here is decidedly, glitteringly unromantic; the sunburst to Nikiya’s lunar splendor.
Actress and abstraction, spiritual and sensual, victim and destructor; Nikiya is fatally vulnerable to secular power struggles but terrifying in executing sacred vengeance. That the ballet’s dramatic precipice is also a formal transition demands mastery of almost two separate physical registers. The broadness of the role – the dancer as actress and then the dancer as virtuoso – means it is difficult to go completely wrong yet difficult too for a ballerina to embody all its alterities. Both Ivy Amista and Ksenia Ryzhkova embody parts of it – Amista her vulnerability Ryzhkova her emotionality – but not all her dimensions. Ryzhkova, whose dancing has moments of brilliance, comes closer.
But Rzkhkova also show us what we are missing. Bayadere’s heart, its soul, its claim to seriousness lies in the imaginative expanse of the Himalayan kingdom. When the ballerina hoists her leg into écarté while the violin trembling in the still night air traces a modulating musical ascension; we hear exactly what the sight is denied. And when a collective tremor ripples through the rows of opium shaped maidens, it becomes a reminder of prosaic mortality.
That we feel this as keenly is also testimony to the quality of the orchestra's playing. The Hong Kong Philharmonic led by an attentive, generous Michael Schmidtsdorff, was admirable.
reviews dance for SeeingDance. She has also written for Bachtrack, CriticalDance and dabbles in script-writing for television. Based in Singapore, she tries to catch performances around the Asian-Pacific and beyond.
Choreographers: Marius Petipa and Patrice Bart
Performance: 17 Feb 2017 19:30 & 18 Feb 2017 14:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre