Having gone beyond the realms of contemporary ballet with its opening programme, the Staatsballet now counterbalances this forward looking move by going right back to the roots of classical ballet. The second première of the season, Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of the choreography of La Bayadère follows a manuscript of Marius Petipa’s 1877 production. The sold-out evening proposes a journey through dance history: the audience can forget the extreme lines of contemporary ballet aesthetics, with the return of long mime scenes, and the opulence of a gloriously complex and intricate décor. Are you ready for a time warp?

Polina Semionova (Nikia) and Alejandro Virelles (Solor) in Ratmansky's <i>La Bayadère</i> © Yan Revazov
Polina Semionova (Nikia) and Alejandro Virelles (Solor) in Ratmansky's La Bayadère
© Yan Revazov

If you expect to get stuck in spider webs hanging from the long ballet acts, you are wrong. Ratmansky’s adventure is an interesting one. You must, however, make sure you get a programme. The (over a hundred pages long) notes will help you appreciate the background and decipher the hard work behind this enterprise. Ratmansky, resident choreographer at American Ballet Theatre for the past nine years, was so much in love with Petipa’s craftsmanship that he decided to recreate the ballet for a contemporary audience. Dance notoriously suffers from a version of Chinese whispers as notation is not so thoroughly used as it is in music, with modifications in variations introduced here and there to accommodate this star’s specific skills, changes in taste, context or training. Throughout the years this equates to a totally different performance. The plot contains the typical elements of a tragic love story: two main characters infatuated with each other are unable to be together, one of them is forced to marry someone else, and the other dies. In line with the period's fascination with the exotic, the story is set in India and involves a secret bond between the devadasi Nikia, a temple dancer, and Solor, the warrior, a jealous, unrequited High Brahmin, an equally jealous princess, Gamsatti, daughter of the Rajah, the bite of a deadly snake and dramatic events brought about by the above – the palace collapses. Set to impress the Russian court of the time, the effect is here recreated by Jérôme Kaplan’s dazzling decor and vibrant costumes. With each act we are transported in different worlds, from the jungle outside the temple, to the house of the Raja and that of Solor. One scene stands apart from all the others: the clouds of the supernatural realm of the shadows (the Kingdom of the Shades scene).

Polina Semionova (Nikia) in Ratmansky's <i>Bayadère</i> © Yan Revazov
Polina Semionova (Nikia) in Ratmansky's Bayadère
© Yan Revazov

Mostly, the dance sections function as entertainment whereas the choreography heavily relies on mime to bring the action forward. These gestures are now cryptic and outdated, and towards the end of the first part, they start to taste stale to the contemporary eye. Yet, these sections give the dancers the room to act. The construction of the characters is so precise that, for Nikia, (a touching interpretation by Polina Semionova), almost every delicate curve of the veil seemed to be conveying meaning. Wonderfully wild in contrast was Vladislav Marinov’s rendition of the ragged Fakir, the fiery, two lovers’ secret courier and lead of a group of beggars outside the temple. Solor (a splendid Alejandro Virelles), was stuck between his love and obligation, an ambivalence that coated most of his movements and interactions though never with Nikia. Gamsatti, the daughter of the Raja, interpreted by a wonderful Yolanda Correa, was genuinely obnoxious in her pestering Solor into being the perfect husband. But most striking, (and this is where Ratmansky’s initial admiration for Petipa’s work began, were the challenging enchaînements executed by the dancers. The choreography is characterized by plenty of repetition – a leitmotiv is the small shuffling hops in arabesque travelling backward – and quick footwork with varying tempi. There are also, especially in the Kingdom of the Shades scene, several extensions that are held for an exceptionally long time, as for example, the leg à la seconde held for at least 8 counts. These are juxtaposed to other sequences were, instead, dynamic enchaînements are favoured over the cleanliness of the transitions between positions.

Artists of the Staatsballett Berlin in Ratmansky's <i>La Bayadère</i> © Yan Revazov
Artists of the Staatsballett Berlin in Ratmansky's La Bayadère
© Yan Revazov

This revival is especially interesting to a knowledgeable audience interested in dance history but it can also appeal to a more general public. It is nevertheless a little intimidating with a long running time (almost three hours, breaks included) and lengthy mime sections. But this sacrifice is worth it for the opulence of the action onstage (an elephant and a tiger share the stage with the dancers!), the decor, and the dancers’ acting. If you decide to go, be ready to immerse yourself into something familiar yet foreign and make sure to buy the programme notes. 

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