New York-based Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn and San Francisco-based Carla Escoda debate the merits of the latest Russian star casting in La Bayadère.

Olga Smirnova in La Bayadère © Gene Schiavone
Olga Smirnova in La Bayadère
© Gene Schiavone

CE: Olga Smirnova is a stunningly beautiful creature – and a fish out of water in Natalia Makarova’s staging of the 19th century classic La Bayadère for American Ballet Theatre at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Only 22, she has already performed the titular role of the Indian temple dancer in the Bolshoi’s production; it’s likely that the coaching she has received in that role perfectly suits the Grigorovich staging and the larger scale of the Bolshoi theatre.

From the moment she stepped on stage at the comparatively intimate Met, however, and Roman Zhurbin, in the role of the High Brahmin, plucked the veil off her face, she radiated far too much wattage. For a humble maiden whose main job is to schlep jugs of water to thirsty fakirs, she projected unexplained swells of emotion right out of the opera house onto Columbus Avenue. 

Nikiya became a caricature as Smirnova exaggerated every twist of her wondrously pliant torso, every ripple of her silky arms. Her ravishing suppleness is a joy to behold, as is the way movement emanates from her back and undulates through to her fingertips, feet and head. But lack of restraint weakened the dramatic arc. Until the creepy Zhurbin put the moves on her, and her warrior lover showed up and things started to get complicated, it made no narrative sense to display all that fervor.

AB: Smirnova was emotionally extravagant in razor-sharp contrast to the charisma-challenged Hee Seo in the part of the imperious, scheming Princess Gamzatti. When Smirnova charged Seo with knife in hand, Seo did not seem especially concerned and the moment was lost despite Smirnova’s operatic flailing.

Hee Seo in La Bayadère © Gene Schiavone
Hee Seo in La Bayadère
© Gene Schiavone

CE: In her sinuous dance-with-poisonous-snake-hidden-in-flower-basket, Smirnova gives us a portrayal of an absolutely crazed woman, rather than a naïve girl in despair over a betrayal. She stares out at the audience repeatedly to make sure we get it.

She is most effective in Act III, where she appears only to Muntagirov, a hallucinatory figment of his imagination that presages the imminent destruction of the temple – in which context her over-the-top emoting seems perfectly apropos.

AB: Raised in the Vaganova School and blessed with many of the gifts associated with great Russian ballerinas, she will probably be able to tone down the excesses of emotion but it will take time and coaching. Judging by the full house for this performance, she’ll be back many times and will have plenty of opportunity to work on blending in better.

Stylistic issues aside, Smirnova has what all too many American dancers lack, and that is the ability to move with complete authority and command of the stage. Smirnova is very much aware of the fact that she is there to be the star, and you never forget that as you watch her. This is what stars are made of. Hee Seo, to name one, doesn’t have it. 

CE: Smirnova was blessed to have the noble and unfailingly attentive Vadim Muntagirov as a partner. He has the physique and authoritative presence of a warrior, and soared in his solos. When ordered to wed the Rajah’s beautiful, haughty daughter, he conveyed mixed emotions magnificently. Crushed and soulful in the Act II Shades scene, he knew that he had helped engineer Nikiya’s destruction. And when he wakes from his opium-induced hallucination, he turns frantic, grabbing at the attending soldiers as if pleading with them to tell him what in hell is going on. We feel his pain.

Olga Smirnova and Vadim Muntagirov in La Bayadère © Gene Schiavone
Olga Smirnova and Vadim Muntagirov in La Bayadère
© Gene Schiavone

AB: Hrmph. Smirnova and Muntagirov are not a dream pair like Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. It was solid: Muntagirov is a terrific partner, and most everything was seamless. Clearly the audience loved them. There just wasn’t much heat there. Muntagirov doesn’t have a large bag of dance tricks to throw around. Lucky for him he doesn’t need them. He’s a long limbed, elegant dancer reminiscent of the late, great Ivan Nagy. He was not a trailblazing technician but he was always perfectly clean and a pleasure to watch.

CE: During the Shades pas de deux, she would develop her leg into an exaggeratedly high side extension, which would flip slowly and laboriously into an arabesque as she leaned toward Muntagirov to whisper in his ear.

AB: Forcing those extensions to the side actually results in her arabesque looking lower than it is. She’s displaced her alignment and not for the better. Is it obligatory to have your foot in your ear at the Bolshoi?

CE: This Bayadère abounds in diverse pleasures, starting with the heart-stopping ritual of 24 ghosts processing down a steep mountainside in the Kingdom of the Shades. And those painterly backdrops, marvelously evocative of a vision of the Himalayas that exists only in someone’s fevered imagination.

AB: The D’Jampe dancers costumes are a shade of blue one would find on the sale rack at JC Penney. If this number were cut from the ballet no one would miss it. The temple in the third act looks great but I wonder why they put a statue of Buddha on it. I would have gone for Krishna or Ganesha. Given the ending, Kali the Destroyer might have been a good choice as well.

The second act depends on successfully creating the illusion of the dream world of the Shades. I noticed a number of wobbly legs as the corps de ballet worked its way onto the stage. I wanted to give the third girl in line a pep talk and encourage her to plant that supporting leg and quit the wobbling as she raised her leg into arabesque.

CE: The men were magnificent. Let’s start with Arron Scott – powerful in the Bronze Idol solo that precedes the temple destruction, strapping muscles bulging impressively under that gold body paint. And Alexei Agoudine as the head fakir wowed us with the stunning elevation of his jumps.

AB: Agoudine can really fly. Bet he could go even higher without that silly wig. The fakirs are a throwback and not in a good way. This needs to be scrapped and the whole brown-skinned character/costume concept re-thought. The scampering around on the floor like monkeys doesn’t work for me.

All complaining aside, this is great entertainment. It has beautiful dancing and Smirnova has to be on anyone’s list of dancers to be reckoned with. I believe she’ll continue to get better and will learn how to fit in with ABT. Given that she represents substantial future for the box office you can bet they’ll spend more time rehearsing her for her next appearance.

***11