Writing about La Bayadère. It’s not only what I’m about to do but also the essence of Shobana Jeyasingh’s new work, an enterprising commission by The Royal Ballet Studio Programme.

Sooraj Subramaniam in <i>Bayadere - The Ninth Life</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH
Sooraj Subramaniam in Bayadere - The Ninth Life
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Two centuries separate Jeyasingh’s focus on this literary activity: beginning with her fictional account of Jas Gupta, a young British Indian of today, blogging his thoughts after seeing a performance of La Bayadère, that epitome of 19th century balletic classicism; and then there is the actual writing of French critic, Théophile Gautier, documenting his experience of the first group of bayadères to tour Europe, during their Parisian performances of 1838. Gautier was so obsessed by these temple dancers with their teeth and gums dyed blue, and ears studded with holes, that he was still writing about them 20 years’ after they had gone. One, in particular – named Amany – was believed by Gautier (perhaps mistakenly) to have committed suicide during the ensemble’s time in London and may have become the inspiration for Nikiya, the tragic heroine of La Bayadère.

Jeyasingh’s target appears to be the cultural hotchpotch represented by an ancient Indian subject seen through a French lens in a product that is quintessentially Russian. Speaking through Gupta’s words, she makes the point that “bayadère” is merely a French word that has – through the ballet – come to signify the Hindu temple dancer (more accurately described, in the indigenous language, as a devadasi); and she pinpoints the precise location of events as being in Golconda, near Hyderabad.

This assertion of cultural ownership for the narrative of La Bayadère flows through Jeyasingh’s choreography, a mix of contemporary and classical Bharatanatyam with the merest hint of a balletic sub-text. But, these claims are staked with good humour. The opening sequence has Gupta briefly describing the characters and quickly sketching the ballet’s narrative, thereby providing an amusing riff on a well-loved story, linking ballet to Bollywood with Gupta declaring that the only authentic evocation of India is to be found in the long and opulent wedding ceremony!

Sooraj Subramaniam in <i>Bayadere - The Ninth Life</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH
Sooraj Subramaniam in Bayadere - The Ninth Life
© Bill Cooper | ROH

This opening was inventively designed by Adam Wiltshire, Fabiana Piccioli and Ravi Deepres with Gupta’s blog-post appearing on a large video screen, fading to reveal the characters he describes dancing behind it. These tiny capsules of characterisation were deliciously portrayed, especially by Sunbee Han as Nikiya and in the withering, pointed finger of Avatâra Ayuso as “the scheming princess”, Gamzatti. I was left wondering why no reference is made to the High Brahmin, such a pivotal character in the plot’s denouement.

Just as the warrior, Solor, succumbs to opium-induced dreams, so Gupta gently drifts into the ballet he is describing, entering the Kingdom of the Shades: Solor’s vision of ghostly bayadères occasioned by mixing narcotics with his grief for Nikiya. Sooraj Subramaniam was so good as both Gupta – the quizzical, nerdy blogger – and his alter-ego of an exotic, bejewelled and mystical, male equivalent to the bayadère that I had to check to be sure that these were not two different performers. Although the dancers don’t remain in character from the earlier account of La Bayadère, Noora Kela retained an aloof disdain that linked her spectral temple dancer back to the role of Gamzatti’s maidservant (Aya).

Sooraj Subramaniam and Sunbee Han in <i>Bayadere - The Ninth Life</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH
Sooraj Subramaniam and Sunbee Han in Bayadere - The Ninth Life
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Piccioli’s excellent lighting and Wiltshire’s set and costume deigns achieved a strong sense of mood with an impressive economy of means and the same minimalism was apparent in Gabriel Prokofiev’s spartan and soporific score, which was the one element that worked less well for me, although it was well-matched to the dreamy haze of Gupta’s fantasy. It was this long nebulous section that began to challenge my waning powers of concentration. Much more effective were the repetitive lines of Gautier’s text (quoted from the translations in Ivor Guest’s book, Gautier On Dance) praising the qualities of “sunshine, perfume and beauty” that had so beguiled him in the presence of Amany and the other bayadères.

Jeyasingh has not so much deconstructed La Bayadère, as unlocked a fascinating new angle on the legend behind the ballet. This was a worthy initiative of The Royal Ballet, providing an excellent opportunity for the under-used and soon-to-be refurbished Linbury Studio Theatre. More of the same, please!