It happened. After ten long months deprivation from live theater, even as houses remain slammed shut in the name of safety, I cried with pure joy at entering the pale blue and gold jewel-box that is the Latvian National Theater of Opera and Ballet. La Bayadère, danced exquisitely by the Latvian National Ballet, gave its audience a blissful break from the difficulties of the outside world. While staff members wore face shields and two seats separated groups to allow for social distancing, the beautiful theatrical experience, ubiquitous and vital in Eastern European life and cultural soul, was untouched and unmarred by excessive safety-related theatrics. A well-dressed audience enjoyed canapés and cakes before the opening of one of Minkus’ most danceable scores and Petipa’s loveliest ballets.

Latvian National Ballet in La Bayadère
© Andris Tone

Yuliya Brauer was the first delight of the evening. A luminous Nikiya, her splendid technique was entirely subservient to the pure beauty of her dancing. I would love to see her dance one of the great Romantic roles, that would allow her very delicate physicality and quintessential ballerina qualities to shine even more brightly. She has perfected the method of walking beautifully in pointe shoes by rolling through them instantly from the top of the toe, rather than shuffling along from her metatarsals as so many do. Brauer is extremely musical, and appeared to have the orchestra flowing through her veins. Her lines are a true gift, both for her and the audience. In style and appearance, she resembled both a young Altynai Asylmuratova or Alina Cojocaru, but the depth of thought in her placement and characterization was entirely her own.

Avetik Karapetyan premiered as Brauer’s Solor, and perhaps nerves overtook him a bit. Sadly, his uneven partnering was not the only unfortunate duet work of the evening; the men in the Grand pas d’action of Act 2 were also regretful in their duties to their partners. I was surprised an extra duet was inserted for them, a Minkus solo typically used in Le Corsaire or Paquita. After watching this fumbled partnering, I felt a bit like Killing Eve’s Carolyn Martens, thinking “Jokes, omelets and extra variations are for people who do their jobs correctly.” To be entirely fair, however, when dancing alone, he was excellent, and his standard quite high. Indeed, Karapetyan was brilliant in his solo, and his double cabrioles were absolutely spectacular. 

While pas de deux is not the Latvian National ballet’s strength at the moment, their corps de ballet looks fantastic. In the infamous Shades entrance, there was not a single movement out of place. Every woman moved in sync with each other, though the tempo was brisk and the movements mechanical; it was clear that this was a fascinating and deliberate artistic choice. They truly gave meaning to the well-deserved excellent reputation of this theater. I cannot imagine the hours of rehearsal that went into making this iconic work look as brilliant as it did. Bravo to each of them. Bravo also to Sabīne Strokša as Gamzatti, who played her role with a cruel, calculated brilliance. She also compensated for her partner’s deficiencies where she could, and showed a lovely technique combined with a clear, and apparently deliberately vicious, characterization of the role. I would enjoy seeing her in a variety of roles as it seems she could have quite a range. It was a bit odd, however, seeing her introduce herself in yet another extrapolated variation, this time, the pas de trois variation from Paquita. Friendly, certainly, but highly untraditional in what was otherwise quite a lovely and traditional production. Perhaps this was a case in which her good work did earn her an extra variation.

Partnering problems aside, this was an exquisite production. I applaud the Latvian government and the Latvian National Theater of Opera and Ballet for their determination to carry on with work as normal during these difficult times. Thanks to their decisions, these dancers will keep their careers, and their grateful audience will continue to find refuge in beauty that appears onstage, not on a tiny screen. We, as professionals, critics and art lovers of all kinds cannot stand back and watch our art forms be snuffed out. There are countless dangers in the world, and now, sadly, losing the art of dance is one of them. Among nations, Latvia is proving itself a leader in the charge to preserve art, culture and humanity, and this lovely company and country deserve both support and imitation.