La Bayadère was first presented in 1877 at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, with choreography by Marius Petipa and a score by Ludwig Minkus. The Bolshoi Ballet then staged the ballet in 1940. In 1991, Yuri Grigorovich – then Director of the Bolshoi Ballet – undertook a major restoration. Grigorovich dispensed with a considerable amount of mime and added new choreography for Gamzatti, Solor, and secondary characters. Grigorovich has sometimes been criticised for modernising the classics by emphasizing dance over mime and static narrative staging, but 25 years later, the production still looks fresh.

Svetlana Zakharova (Nikia) © Damir Yusupov
Svetlana Zakharova (Nikia)
© Damir Yusupov

The current production premiered in January 2013. The first scene in Act I takes place under a huge stylised Bodhi tree that envelops the stage and gives it an intimacy that contrasts with the splendor of Gamzatti’s residence in scene 2, and the stunning palace in Act II.

The ballet revolves around the love of Solor, a young warrior, for Nikia, a bayadère (temple dancer). Solor has been promised in marriage to the daughter of a Rajah, Gamzatti, and the High Brahmin of the temple, who also loves Nikia, informs Gamzatti’s father that Solor has declared his love for Nikia, hoping that the Rajah will then kill Solor. But the Rajah instead decides to kill Nikia. Gamzatti overhears some of their conversation and summons Nikia. She tells her that Solor and she will be married and demands that Nikia give him up. When Nikia refuses, their rivalry escalates and Nikia pursues Gamzatti with dagger in hand. Stopped by a servant, Nikia flees.

At the betrothal celebrations, Nikia dances with great sorrow. But when a fakir gives her a basket of flowers—supposedly from Solor—she dances joyously, believing that the flowers confirm his love for her. But in the midst of her dance, a venomous snake crawls out of the basket and bites her. The High Brahmin offers her an antidote to the poison, but she chooses death rather than life without Solor. After Nikia’s death, Solor is filled with remorse. In an opium induced dream, he sees Nikia’s spirit (called a shade) among many others and joins her in the Kingdom of the Shades.

The lead roles were danced by Svetlana Zakharova (Nikia), Maria Alexandrova (Gamzatti) and Denis Rodkin (Solor). Zakharova’s dancing in the classics has been faulted for a lack of warmth and tonight’s performance was characteristic. Facially, she believably conveyed Nikia’s deep love for Solor and her anguish at losing him, but her body did not. Her dancing was beautiful in its refinement and perfection (apart from a few missteps in Act III), but it was not emotional. She was perfect as the soul of Nikia in Act III where the role calls for an other-worldly demeanor.

Maria Alexandrova (Gamzatti) and members of the Bolshoi ballet © Damir Yusupov
Maria Alexandrova (Gamzatti) and members of the Bolshoi ballet
© Damir Yusupov

Denis Rodkin has an impressive physique and a soaring leap, but he often looked self absorbed and disconnected from the action on stage, even while being an attentive partner. His musical phrasing needs improvement; in the Grand Pas in Act II, he was a beat behind Alexandrova in every jump sequence.

Maria Alexandrova danced Gamzatti with her usual aplomb. She has a rare gift of being able to dazzle while dancing with great warmth and her characterization of Gamzatti was both strong and sympathetic.

The Bolshoi excels in the number and quality of its soloists at all levels, and with so many secondary roles in this ballet, they had the opportunity to shine. Anton Savichev danced Magedaveya – the head fakir – with conviction and Vyacheslav Lopatin danced the Bronze Idol with technical precision. Victoria Yakusheva was a charming Manu dancing while balancing a jug of water on her head, and Anna Antropova, Vitaly Biktimirov, and Alexei Matrakhov performed the drum dance with tremendous speed and energy.

Thirty-two members of the corps de ballet danced with precision and musicality in Petipa’s masterpiece: the Kingdom of the Shades in Act III. However, a few wobbling shades occasionally broke the magical spell they wove.