American Ballet Theater’s La Bayadère transports viewers to another world, not just back in time, but to a place that rarely exists outside one’s own imagination. This fantastic, limitless quality characterizes La Bayadère, from the sets to the costumes, the music, and of course the dancing.

Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in La Bayadère © Gene Schiavone
Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in La Bayadère
© Gene Schiavone

This three-act ballet is a classic love story of star-crossed lovers destined to break the audience’s heart. The story takes place in ancient India during a fire celebration ritual. Nikiya (Veronika Part), a temple dancer, and the warrior Solor (Marcelo Gomes) swear their love for each other. However, a High Brahmin (Victor Barbee) of the temple has also fallen for Nikiya. Meanwhile, the Radjah Dugumanta (Gennadi Saveliev) promises his daughter to Solor as a reward for his valor. These are offers that must be honored and provide the catalyst for the rest of the story.

As soon as the curtain opens, the audience is overwhelmed by the beautiful, ornate set. La Bayadère is a feast for the eyes with multidimensional set pieces that convey seven entirely unique places and give the illusion of depth. While the first scene is dominated by acting and establishing characterization, Graig Salstein as Magdaveya, the head fakir, stands out with soaring switch-leaps and wild spins. Each costume (by Theoni V. Aldredge) contains traditional Indian elements, turbans, hairpieces, loose-fitting pants and pleated sashes. Combined with lighting (by Toshiro Ogawa) that makes the dancers meld with the set, it’s like watching a fairytale come to life.

In the second scene Gamazatti (Gillian Murphy), the Radjah’s daughter, confronts Nikiya, leading Nikiya to haphazardly try to kill her. At this point we’ve seen Nikiya reject the Brahmin, fall in love with Solor and show her spiritual roots, but only one side of Gamazatti. After the pathetic attempt on her life, a switch flips. She commands the stage, causing Nikiya to flee in terror. Staring down the audience, she brings one arm over her head slowly, crushing the air in front of her. The intention could not be clearer and Murphy’s execution is chilling.

The end of the first act is an acrobatic blow-out giving each main character a chance to show off their strengths. Gomes flies around the stage, ending with a series of double turns floating in the air. Murphy echoes his circular path, then piques and pirouettes down the stage effortlessly. Part, outfitted in crimson, performs her fire tribute lunging low to the floor and twisting her body in spirals before Nikiya’s untimely death.

One of the most striking images takes place during Solor’s opium dream in Act II. Twenty-four ballerinas snake their way onto the stage, repeating the same pattern of arabesques until they fill the space. The women move gracefully as one, but with almost military precision. The effect is breathtaking. Solor and Nikiya’s pas de deux is wrought with sadness because they are so beautiful together. Their partnership is natural and all the more painful because it can only exist in Solor’s dreams.

After a stunning solo by the bronze idol (Daniil Simkin) come to life, Act III resolves all the loose ends. Simkin hovers above the stage like a flying statue with his legs folded beneath him and arms wide. Solor and Gamazatti’s wedding is interrupted by his visions of Nikiya as he starts to lose his mind. The gods destroy the temple to thundering music and in death Solor is reunited with his true love.

La Bayadère is pure fantasy, requiring audiences to suspend disbelief in a way that is rare today. The same people who accept the ridiculous circumstances featured everyday on TV might turn their nose up at the epic love story American Ballet Theater is offering. That would be a terrible mistake. La Bayadère is a dazzling spectacle to indulge in, even just for one night.

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