That lurid 19th century story ballet about a humble temple dancer who gets assassinated by a royal rival through the mechanism of a poisoned snake doesn’t seem so farfetched in today’s world in which a ruthless dictator is suspected to have sent mysterious women armed with poisoned needles to do in his half-brother. Then there’s the archetypal villain: a High Brahmin who thinks his status gives him the right to grab women by their veils. Thus the timeless La Bayadère comments on the more unsavory aspects of contemporary politics.

Bayerisches Staatsballett’s 1998 staging of Bayadère by Patrice Bart kicked off the Hong Kong Arts Festival on Thursday night. It was an unadventurous choice for a festival that has been known to take risks in its distinguished 45-year history.

Yet there was much to admire, starting with the ravishing designs by Tomio Mohri – finely etched motifs of lotus flowers, Buddhas and more abstract, vaguely Hindu symbols painted onto modernist backdrops, hanging drops, and stunning ivory kimonos; fanciful headdresses of an impressively architectural nature; Art Deco influences on the tutus and tiaras in the Kingdom of the Shades scene, contrasting with the super-saturated fuchsias, ultramarines, mint greens, and atomic tangerines at the temple wedding ceremony. Some will miss the bare midriffs of Theoni Aldredge’s seductive stylings for the temple dancers and the near-naked fakirs in Natalia Makarova’s 1980 recreation for American Ballet Theatre – there are no fakirs at all in Bart’s version – but overall Mohri’s stylized design is a triumph.

The music, too, was an unqualified sensation. In the hands of the splendid Hong Kong Philharmonic, under the lively baton of Michael Schmidtsdorff, Minkus’ score transcended the banal. Chief among the many stirring passages, Leung Kin-fung’s heroic solo violin lifted an otherwise indifferent pas de deux in the Kingdom of the Shades to Tchaikovskian heights.

The dancing, from a company that has seen much turnover since Igor Zelensky took the helm in 2016, was a more mixed bag. The role of the high-born but weak-willed warrior Solor played to Osiel Gouneo’s strengths in the jumping and turning department, while he seemed genuinely distraught as he was buffeted between Ivy Amista’s imperious Gamzatti and Ksenia Ryzhkova’s temple dancer Nikiya. Some of the soloists were visibly fatigued by their strenuous variations but only Gouneo seemed to find surpluses of energy in the most taxing moments; as he got more tired, his jumps soared miraculously higher and his whipping changes of direction while airborne became more explosive.

Ryzhkova had a variable evening – she made wonderfully extravagant lines and acted up a storm in the run-up to her moment of death, though elsewhere she seemed unduly remote. She never stood a chance against Amista’s fiery princess. Ryzhkova teetered precariously through the accursed Scarf variation in the Shades scene (the bane of many ballerinas, it really should be excised) and visibly lost steam in her manège of tours jetés. Nevertheless, her eloquent, pliant feet and limpid bourrées made a searing impression.

On other fronts: the first two soloists in the famous Kingdom of the Shades variations were not ready for prime time (Elizaveta Kruteleva’s gawky lines were particularly off-putting) but Luiza Bernardes Bertho was expansive and gorgeous in the third, notwithstanding a wobbly start. The lusty Konstantin Ivkin stood out in the wedding festivities. As did the engaging and polished young students from Hong Kong’s Jean M. Wong School of Ballet, with their delightful lime-green parrots.

Jonah Cook tackled the Golden Idol with a fleetness of foot that seemed at odds with the brute force of the role. Even more inappropriate were the Idol’s comrades in blackface – a pointless and dismaying throwback to a less enlightened era. Most theatre companies have abandoned the practice.

Throughout, the ensemble admirably negotiated the intricate patterning – including the iconic entrance of the 24 Shades down a steep ramp, lit only by moonlight. Their divertissements, however, go on for what seem like hours, diluting the drama. Composer Minkus is partly to blame but he’s dead so one can be ruthless about cutting the score, as Makarova wisely did. Her streamlined recreation focused on the essential tragic circumstances, with choreography that feels more naturalistic, less vaudevillian. That Bart was heavily influenced by Nureyev’s 1992 staging for Paris Opera Ballet comes across in the clunky, unmusical, and often kitschy choreography, in which far too many steps are crammed into a phrase. His choreography is athletically challenging but does not breathe, and the dancers are rarely afforded an opportunity to play with phrasing. Campy flourishes and excessive mugging to the audience emphasize the carnival aspect of the ballet rather than the political and human tragedy. 

One could not hope for a more magnificent apotheosis, though. The stately progression of Solor, Gamzatti and Nikiya toward a holy light upstage – in those gorgeous kimonos, their backs to us, arms outstretched but not touching – underscores the leveling power of death. There are no winners in these epic power struggles, Bart tells us, and no reunion of lovers in the afterlife. In the end, aristocrats and lowly temple dancers all traverse the same path.