Tigers, shiny daggers, live snakes, and a collapsing Hindu temple are all elements in the marvelous spectacle that the Joffrey Ballet unveiled Wednesday night, and will run through October 27, at the Auditorium Theatre. Those elements serve as background for the story of a doomed, secret love between Nikiya, a temple dancer, and Solor, a heroic warrior.
Based on Marius Petipa’s choreography, “La Bayadere” – The Temple Dancer, which premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1877, while set in ancient India, is a dazzling display of color; yet it is a classical romantic ballet and includes the mesmerizing “Kingdom of the Shades”, a stunning showpiece for the corps de ballet. Not as well known as Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake because it is not often performed in this country it is one of the great 19th century ballets.
The narrative is pure melodrama and passionate love triangle: Solor (Dylan Gutierrez) saves Nikiya’s (Victoria Jaiani) life by killing a tiger and they fall in love. Complications ensue, however, as the High Brahmin (majestic Fabrice Calmels) promises Solor to Gamzatti (a surefooted April Daly). Enter Gamzatti’s devoted, conniving maid Ajah (Erica Lynette Edwards) and you have the setting for jealousy, betrayal, and vengeance. Daly and Edwards are delicious to watch as they plot the lovers' demise.
But the story, while juicy, is only the setting for the joy of the evening: masterful dancing, exotic costumes (121, comprised of 568 items, which includes 26 handmade white tutus), and sumptuous sets, with rich colors that bedazzle the onlooker. The lavish and opulent costumes and sets, by prolific British designer Peter Farmer, were originally created for choreographer Stanton Welch’s production for the Houston Ballet in 2010. The jewel-outlined tops and harem pants for the women were particularly beguiling, emphasizing their strong, yet sinuous dancers’ bodies.
The always excellent Jaiani, as Nikiya, was lovely to watch, with supple arms and a flexible back that arched backwards almost to the floor as she stood on pointe in her first act duet with Gutierrez. She was a bit unsteady in her pirouettes, perhaps due to opening night jitters, but had sure command of the stage as she performed her fast series of pique turns in the duet and variations in Act 3.
A standout were the four guards (Matthew Adamczyk, Ogulcan Borova, Temur Suluashvili, and Shane Urban) who were flawless in their Act I piece, with superb timing that made them seem to be one person in their unison work.
The piece de resistance of “La Bayadère” is the third act’s famous “Kingdom of the Shades,” which showcases the corps de ballet in precision work. The ensemble of 20 dancers, spectres really, in white tutus, enter one at a time and descend down a ramp at the back of the stage in a deceptively simple combination: 2 steps, arabesque, step and pose, repeated 38 times, as they serpentine slowly to fill the stage, one of the purest forms of ballet-blanc, or white tutu ballet. Purity of line and simplicity of steps is often the best.
The line and position of each dancer must match every other dancer, every leg and pointed foot at the same height, every outstretched arm in the same position and height as every other, to make it all look seamless and smooth. Wednesday night it was perfection, and received a long, well deserved ovation, though not as long as the 1877 premier, which lasted for half an hour. “The ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ is a challenging segment because it requires such control and precision from the women,” says Welch. In fact It is quintessential classical ballet, and is so popular it is often performed on its own. It is reminiscent of the other female ensemble dance which occurs in Act 2 of the ballet Giselle, where the dancers, again in arabesque, but in long skirts, glide in unison from one side of the stage and back again, weaving through each other as one body.
The whole has an operatic feel, but without the words. The music, by the Viennese Ludwig Minkus, as arranged by John Lanchbery, includes a number of waltzes, which makes for a jumble of styles—one doesn’t think of waltzing in harem pants and saris and tutus, pirouettes set in exotic Hindu temples, but it all makes for fun, intrigue, and a stunning evening of inspired dance.
Through Sunday, October 27.
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway
Tickets $31 to $152 at (800) 982-2787 or www.ticketmaster.com
Photos: Courtesy of Cheryl Mann