The original production of La Bayadère, choreographed by Marius Petipa to a score by Ludwig Minkus, was first presented in 1877 at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. The (then) Kirov Ballet’s 1941 production with revised choreography by Vakhtang Chabukiani and Vladimir Ponomarev is considered the definitive version of the ballet, on which virtually all subsequent productions have been based. In 2000, Sergei Vikharev staged a new production for the Mariinsky, but reaction was mixed and the company is again performing the 1941 version, with some changes, including the elimination of Act IV (the destruction of the temple).

Diana Vishneva as Nikiya © Nikolay Krusser
Diana Vishneva as Nikiya
© Nikolay Krusser
The ballet tells the story of the love between Nikya – a bayadère (temple dancer)– and Solor, a warrior, who has been promised in marriage to Gamzatti, the daughter of a Rajah. A High Brahmin, who also loves Nikiya attempts to have Solor killed by informing the Rajah that Solor has vowed eternal love to Nikiya. But his intentions are thwarted when the Rajah decides to have Nikiya killed. Gamzatti, who has eavesdropped on their conversation summons Nikiya and attempts unsuccessfully to bribe her to give up Solor. Their rivalry escalates and Nikya seizes a dagger to kill Gamzatti, who is saved by her servant. As Nikiya flees, Gamzatti vows that she must die.

At the betrothal celebrations, Nikiya dances with great sorrow. But once she receives a basket of flowers that she believes is from Solor – confirming his love for her – she dances joyously. However, she is bitten by a venomous snake that was concealed in the basket. The High Brahmin offers Nikiya an antidote to the poison, but she chooses death rather than life without Solor. After Nikiya’s death, the depressed Solor falls asleep and dreams he sees her spirit (also called a shade). The lovers are united among the spirits of other bayaderes in the Kingdom of the Shades.

The lead roles were portrayed by a stellar cast: Diana Vishneva as Nikiya, Viktoria Tereshkina as Gamzatti, and Kimin Kim as Solor. In Acts I & II, Vishneva expertly balanced Nikiya’s vulnerability and inner strength in a convincing portrayal, dancing with the soft and sensual quality of a woman in love. In Act III, she dances with the distant reserve befitting a spirit. The role of Gamzatti is tailor made for Tereshkina, a dancer who combines exceptionally strong technique with powerful execution. Her dancing in the pas de deux and variations in Act II was precise and dazzling. This Gamzatti clearly had no reservations about dispatching Nikiya to the afterlife.

© Natasha Razina
© Natasha Razina
Given the calibre of the two female leads, the dancer portraying Solor needed to be exceptional, and Kimin Kim certainly met the criterion. Kim – the recipient of the 2016 Benois de la Danse award – has had a well-deserved meteoric rise. After just three years as a soloist with the Mariinsky, he was promoted to principal in 2015, the first non-Russian dancer so honored. Kim has beautiful lines, tight turns, and soaring leaps, but what makes him so special is the effortlessness of his dancing and the harmony of all aspects of his technique. His classical arm positions are perfect both in repose and in motion.

The corps de ballet and soloists danced Act II with classical precision, particularly Philippe Styopin as the Golden Idol. But apart from Svetlana Ivanova as Manu, and the performers in the drum dance (not listed in the program), the performances lacked energy overall. In Act III– the Kingdom of the Shades – the corps de ballet danced in perfect unison to the melodious score and the three soloists were exceptional. Strangely, the entrance of the Shades was marred by the presence of what looked like the silhouette of a rock that blocked the view of the second of each three dancers on the entrance ramp.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1941 production, which would benefit from some modernisation. While a life-sized stuffed tiger and elephant may have impressed the public in 1877, in the age of digital projection technology, these and other production features look rather dated. So does the hour long first act, with acting and mime reminiscent of silent movies. The first two acts could be combined without losing much dancing and to great dramatic effect. While this may seem a drastic revision, in the early 1980s, the Tbilisi Theatre of Opera and Ballet presented a two act version of La Bayadère, staged by none other than Vakhtang Chabukiani, one of the original choreographers of the 1941 production.