Rudolf Nureyev's version of La Bayadère (1992) is distinctively opulent. Set designs by Ezio Frigerio give off a concern for good taste,  but Franca Squarciapino's gaudy costumes lack colour harmony. Had a chameleon walked on the stage, it would have died of exhaustion within a minute! When the ballet premiered in 1877, it somehow read like an ode to the Napoleon III style – frequently referred to as eclecticism – depicting a multilayered Orient in a classical ballet. Last Friday, the Paris Opera Ballet revived such eclectic trends with ups and downs. The performance fell short of the colourful magic La Bayadère traditionally surrounds its audience with. The vast and icy Bastille stage was surely to blame. But an artistic issue is at stake as well; the POB obviously struggles to connect to the Nureyev legacy, which has seemingly become a foreign language to the company. Overall, disenchantment struck this long-awaited holiday blockbuster.

Dorothée Gilbert (Nikiya) © Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris
Dorothée Gilbert (Nikiya)
© Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris

Dorothée Gilbert and Mathias Heymann danced like perfect ambassadors of sober French elegance. They both offered rapturous moments in their solos.  Heymann has been one of the POB calling card over the years. His technique is delicately tricolore with high elevation, soft landing and poetic port de bras. His absent-minded Solor isn't total testosterone; Heymann's sensitivity invested the Indian warrior with an unexpected lyrical tone.

Gilbert, slim and graceful, moved her arms like swan wings. Her Odette-like Nikiya wasn't entirely irrelevant in Nureyev's swansong (the choreographer died a few months after the première of his Bayadère). The basket of flowers scene grew intense through Gilbert's oriental inflections on a weeping violin sound. Sadly – or amusingly – the tragic status she had just reached collapsed when she ostentatiously brought the asp to her throat, giving the impression that she was actually taking her own life. Later, her spectral Nikiya in the moonlit act – Solor's vision under the effects of opium – lacked vaporous emphasis. Still, Gilbert revealed that she has blossomed into a fine tragedian.

The Kingdom of the Shades © Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris
The Kingdom of the Shades
© Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris

As beautiful as Heymann/Gilbert may have been, they didn't work well as an ill-fated couple. The partnering had little chemistry, to the point where their common apparitions looked like juxtaposed solos.

Among other homegrown talents, Marion Barbeau (recently promoted to Sujet) captured the eye by waving a lyrical aura around her in the First Shade variation.

As daddy's spoiled girl Gamzatti, Hannah O'Neill powered though the steps with glittering pride. An international prizewinner from New-Zealand, O'Neill devoured the space with a stage authority that is unfamiliar to other dancers her age in the company. Her bright technique richly merged within the POB landscape and so did her Far-East temperament.

Mathias Heymann (Solor) and Hannah O'Neill (Gamzatti) © Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris
Mathias Heymann (Solor) and Hannah O'Neill (Gamzatti)
© Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris

Apart from its imaginary Indian settings, La Bayadère stands out for its spiritual invocation. The ballet is not just another love triangle topped with exotic cream. Nikiya is a sacred dancer, filled with humble fragility and constantly reaching into infinite space. That call for transcendance spans centuries, providing the ballet with a universal status. Even the redemptive ending (as chosen in Nureyev's version) is an implicit Christian allegory. Yet the final scene expressed no otherworldly spirituality last Friday night.

La Bayadère can usually rely on a lavish Act II – no matter how outdated it is – to arouse the senses. A few variations, indeed, blew the evening out; Sabrina Mallem and Fabien Révillion in the Indian Dance, wild children as well as Charline Giezendanner's radiant charisma acted like thrilling asides among unfocused ensembles. Act III was uneven, except for the hypnotic sky-high arabesques of the Shades procession. Clearly the Paris Opera Ballet finds difficulty keeping faith with Nureyev's tormented vocabulary any more. Steps were often unmusical, if not cut short, and very few artists gave the choreography the powerful meaning it deserved. "Rudy" might have become a myth of the past on the wall.

Dorothée Gilbert (Nikiya) and Mathias Heymann (Solor) © Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris
Dorothée Gilbert (Nikiya) and Mathias Heymann (Solor)
© Little Shao | Opéra national de Paris

Let's hope the new POB dancers will find their way into their own classical style. There is a tough task ahead for Benjamin Millepied. However, the artistic director hasn't yet shown any great interest in full-length narrative ballet. Standards are high for such a world-renowned company and artists definitely have what it takes to re-enchant their Bayadère before Christmas.