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Gene Schiavone

Kathleen Breen Combes and Lasha Khozashvili in Boston Ballet’s La Bayadère.

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La Bayadère

Boston Ballet Company

The Boston Opera House

Oct. 24 – Nov. 3, 2013

Last week the Boston Ballet began their 2013–14 season with La Bayadère, a classical ballet set in a fantastical-version of ancient India, that artistic director Mikko Nissinen describes as “one of the most iconic and quintessential pieces in the classical ballet collection.”

First performed in 1877 by the Imperial Ballet at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg, La Bayadère is a technically challenging ballet that American companies often avoid. However, the Boston Ballet performed the world premiere of choreographer Florence Clerc’s production of La Bayadère in 2010, and rose to the challenge again this year. Clerc based her version of the ballet closely on the original by Marius Petipa (1818-1910), the renowned choreographer of over fifty ballets including Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.

Despite a lavish set, one is hard-pressed to recognize that the story takes place in India, and not some fabricated fantasy world. The music by Ludwig Minkus is wonderfully expressive and well-matched to the choreography, but there is nothing particularly ‘exotic’ about it. The costumes hint at Indian style — with some flowing pants, turban-like headgear, a few veils, and some sashes — but there are also plenty of standard white tutus, and one of the leading ballerinas, Gamzatti, wears a particularly imperious royal blue tutu with gold embroidery and white fur trim. Of course, it can’t be helped that none of the dancers look Indian either, and by the third act there is no longer the pretense of being in India since by that time the story has moved on to nirvana. Nevertheless, suspending belief in deference to artistic license allows the viewer to fully appreciate the superb performance of the dancers, which is after all the most important aspect of the ballet.

The dancing is emotionally evocative and convincing, while at the same time technically impressive. Principal dancer Lia Cirio steals the first act as the lead temple dancer, the eponymous bayadère, Nikiya. By a sacred temple in the forest, she rejects the advances of the High Brahmin and joins her fellow bayadères around a fire with other religious leaders and the savage-like fakirs. The bayadères perform elegantly in ensembles, wearing matching long skirts and light satin pointe shoes, while the shirtless fakirs fight for space around the fire in rough-and-tumble dances that contrast with and highlight the bayadères’ sylph-like beauty.

The story becomes increasingly complicated and wondrous as the ballet continues. Nikiya and the warrior Solor (Lasha Khozashvili) share a passionate pas du deux in which they swear eternal love to each other over a Sacred Fire. Solor lifts Nikiya onto his shoulder with effortless ease, then balances her back on her pointe shoes as if the two have been dancing together for centuries. Their oneness makes the second scene, in which Solor agrees to marry the Rajah’s daughter Gamzatti, puzzling if not heartbreaking. In a consequent scene, Gamzatti and Nikiya engage in a ballet-style catfight, in which Gamzatti moves proudly, almost aloof, and Nikiya moves slyly, and more desperately. Their fight escalates from a slap in the face to near-murder by knife, reminding the audience how jealously and love are often intertwined.

Solor and Gamzatti’s wedding is an extravagant affair, with a posing Solor carried onto stage atop an elephant, and numerous soloists and groups dancing in celebration. A glorious golden idol dances too. His spot-on technique and glimmering masculinity contrasts with the adorable little children accompanying him. In the final scene of the wedding, distraught Nikiya dances a heartrending solo, at first despondent at Solor’s betrayal, and then temporarily gladdened by the gift of flowers she believes are from him. Solor’s callous and cowardly inactivity is enraging, but his dancing is so magnificent you forgive him against your will. His leaps are so high that his 360° turns seem like he’s moving in slow motion because it takes so long for him to reach the ground again!

The final act, The Kingdom of the Shades, is one of the most celebrated excerpts in all of classical ballet. The Boston Ballet performs to perfection. In Solor’s dream, twenty-four dancers in white tutus descend diagonally onto the stage in a repetitive sequence of arabesques. By the end of the act, they have performed at least a hundred arabesques each. The ensemble is visually stunning, and almost hypnotic. The soloists (Kathleen Breen Combes, Ashley Ellis, and Misa Kuranaga) truly shine in what artistic director Mikko Nissinen describes as “notoriously demanding” roles. The pace quickens towards the end, as Nikiya and Solor have their final, cathartic, duet, and he twirls her in midair. The two are fearlessly athletic in their passionate dance, but also happy and finally at peace.

In a dramatic ending, the white tut-clad dancers arabesque out the way they came, and the lovers follow close behind, with Solor solemnly holding aloft Nikiya’s long white veil, like a marriage train, and the two boldly striding up and out towards the light. The curtain falls, waking the audience from the dream of love, lust, unattainable desires, and slightly absurd circumstances.