If the welcome surge in ballet’s popularity over the last few years has left you fascinated with dancers’ remarkable physicality and unique artistry, chances are you’ve now become a regular at the ballet. If so, you’ll know already, no doubt, just how great (well, mind blowing actually) Royal Ballet principals Vadim Muntagirov, Marianela Nuñez and Natalia Osipova are (note I settled for an alphabetical order here after much tossing of the coin and cutting-and-pasting action). If, however, you’re yet to glissade across to Covent Garden, I’d highly recommend you make The Royal Ballet’s revival of La Bayadère your first live ballet experience.

Marianela Nuñez (Nikiya) in La bayadère
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2018

Staged by Natalia Makarova for American Ballet Theatre (1980) after Petipa’s original choreography for the St Petersburg Imperial Theatre (1877) to Ludwig Minkus’ voluptuous score, La Bayadère entered The Royal Ballet repertoire in 1989, (only a short few years before another illustrious Russian ballet star, Rudolf Nureyev, would set his own equally accomplished version on the Paris Opera Ballet). It has all the right ingredients for a classic ballet: an acte blanc (the dream-like Kingdom of the Shades) an ill-fated love intrigue (here a love triangle, between Nikiya, a temple dancer, Solor, a warrior, and the Rajah’s daughter, Gamzatti), and the dramatic death of the central heroine (that of badayère Nikiya who, when poisoned by a snake bite, chooses death over the salvation of an antidote, upon seeing her love Solor turn his back on her, whisked away by Gamzatti). And as in other repertoire staples, much of the remainder of the intrigue is articulated around betrayal, remorse, and an otherworldly – here opium-induced – experience. The contrast between La Bayadère’s two worlds, that of the original action (here colourful, opulent and at times  overtly flamboyant) and that of the acte blanc (here an elegant, pared back demonstration of balletic purity and excellent corps de ballet work) demands different qualities of the dancers, who tap into a complex palette of technical and artistic strengths to deliver an all-round energetic and beautiful performance.

I’ve long admired Marianela Núñez’s exceptional presence, natural grace and refined technique. As an accomplished artist at the top of her game, she moves through every role I see her perform with love for every moment, profound commitment to every step, and what feels like complete abandonment to the character’s journey. As Nikiya, she again bit wholeheartedly into the lyrical steps, lingering accents and dramatic expression of the choreography with yearning beauty. Her heart-rending interpretation of the temple dancer, who is both heartbroken and betrayed all at once, left a delicate aura on stage after each of her exits, the spirit of Nikiya lingering in the negative space surrounding the onstage action.

Vadim Muntagirov (Solor) and Marianela Nuñez (Nikiya) in La Bayadère
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2018

Her partnership with Vadim Muntagirov is a tender one. They are well matched physically (interestingly, in a similar fashion, at least in proportions and rapport, to how he was so well paired with his long term ENB partner Daria Klimentova). A feeling of trust and true affinity stems from their working together. Nuñez’s radiating tenderness seems to connect to his more introverted nature. In the complex role of Solor, it’s technically that Muntagirov chooses to be explosive, moderating, as he always does brilliantly, impressive virtuosity with assertive finesse in his solos.

Natalia Osipova’s steely technique and commanding presence provide great dramatic contrast to Nuñez’s Nikyia. As Gamzatti, she is strong and imperious, if a little hard at times.  

Artists of the Royal Ballet in La Bayadère
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2018

The Kingdom of the Shades was the pinnacle of the evening, with impeccable togetherness and musicality from the corps, brilliant variations by Yuhui Choe (buoyant and expansive as the First Shade), Yasmine Naghdi (displaying assured control and lines to die for as the second shade, and my personal favourite) and Akane Takada (as a suitably sprightly and upbeat third shade). The dreamy tableau rounded off with Nuñez and Muntagirov’s excellent performance of an arduous, yet evocative, pas de deux. 

This opening night was also supported by a strong pas d’action in the first act, Gary Avis’ assured interpretation throughout as the High Brahmin and an assertive Bronze idol solo by Alexander Campbell.