Cultural appropriation is a thought-provoking issue, not least in terms of today’s relevance to a multi-cultural society. It’s a factor that weighs heavily on the creation of La Bayadère, one of the great nineteenth-century ballets to emerge from the Imperial Russian Ballet of St Petersburg; telling a tale of love, intrigue, death and the afterlife, set in an ancient kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas. The bayadère of the title is the temple-dancer, Nikiya, and her illicit love for the warrior prince, Solor, provides the narrative essence.  Based on a fifth-century Sanskrit masterpiece (Sakuntala), the ballet was conceived and choreographed by an émigré Frenchman, Marius Petipa, to an exotic score by the Mariinsky’s house composer, Ludwig Minkus (an émigré Austrian). I’m willing to wager a pound to a penny that none of the people involved with the creation and performance of this powerful ballet, at its première in 1877, had ever set foot in India.

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in <i>Bayadère - The Ninth Life</i> © Jane Hobson
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in Bayadère - The Ninth Life
© Jane Hobson

Its an issue that underpins the rationale for Shobana Jeyasingh’s mesmerising new dance theatre – a reworking of a slightly smaller piece, shown in the more intimate setting of the Linbury Studio Theatre, in 2015 – that segues between modern-day India, thoughts about the classical ballet, itself, set against the reality of a contemporary description (by the French critic and writer, Théophile Gautier, whose ballet immortality is assured as the librettist of Giselle) of a touring company of bayadères, performing in Paris, in 1838. These elements fuse together in a radical deconstruction of the essence of La Bayadère, which dominates the final part of this seventy-minute work.

The idea is fascinating, the characterisations are strong and Jeyasingh’s choreography achieves heights of arresting beauty. The opening sequence has two young Indian men (brothers?) conducting a digital conversation on WhatsApp (as I recall, the 2015 iteration, had just one young British Indian blogging about his own experience of seeing the ballet). One is in an Indian hotel room (overlooking a gridlocked urban highway) and the other – in London – has just – the previous evening – gone with his girlfriend to see La Bayadère. He describes the ballet’s story to the brother in India and as the speech bubbles of WhatsApp text appear on a screen, so the essential characters of La Bayadère materialise for brief vignettes that capture the well-worn familiarity of character, movement and pose that make this particular ballet so unique.

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in <i>Bayadère - The Ninth Life</i> © Jane Hobson
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in Bayadère - The Ninth Life
© Jane Hobson

Gautier’s obsessive diary descriptions of the temple dancers are repeated many times, betraying a barely concealed lust that oozes through his illustration of their ‘tawny skin’, unfamiliar piercings, the sensual gaps between their toes, blue gums and strong white teeth (which one bayadère uses to bite the glass cherries from his friend’s bonnet)! This combination of alienness and exotic sexuality clearly fascinated Gautier; and Jeyasingh matches his words (read by Benedict Lloyd-Hughes to great impact) with a tumultous flow of co-ordinated individual movements from her eleven-strong cast, enriched through layers of repetition juxtaposed with new movement. 

The hotel-bound Indian (Sooraj Subramaniam) somehow morphs into an exotic male bayadère, Gautier’s obsession with piercings emphasised by a pearl chain fixed from nostril to ear, as he becomes this object of fascinating intrigue. The cross-references between the fanciful allusion to the imagined purity of the ballet’s bayadère and Gautier’s earthy descriptions of the real deal are clear and performed by a strong cast, bringing the experience and depth of dancers such as Subramaniam, Avatâra Ayuso (essaying a rich evocation of the essence of Gamzatti in just a few poses), Sunbee Han and Noora Kela together with some powerful new additions, notably Fabio Dolce (well-remembered from recent performances with De Nada Dance Theatre), Jack Thompson (Inala) and Andre Kamienski (Gala for Grenfell). It’s a strong ensemble that delivers challenging choreography, spreading across flavours of contemporary styles, ballet and bharatanatyam to emerge into something borrowed but also distinctively and refreshingly new.

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in <i>Bayadère - The Ninth Life</i> © Jade Hobson
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in Bayadère - The Ninth Life
© Jade Hobson

Gabriel Prokofiev’s score, much of which is 'sound-sourced' (his words) from Minkus’ composition and stretched electronically to provide a more exotic – and strangely Indian – soundscape, adds significantly to the overall impact.  

Despite all that is good, the work needs tightening in terms of its direction. The sections don’t segue seamlessly into one another and there is a loss of momentum at the joins; some sequences (especially towards the end) might benefit from an edit and there is an intermittent lack of clarity in pulling these very interesting themes together. Nonetheless, this (long overdue) very first performance by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance on the main stage at Sadler’s Wells has continued to occupy my thoughts, long after the curtain call.     

***11