Imagined lands of the east as seen through the fantasies of the west
This article was first published in the Australian Ballet’s program for Stanton Welch’s La Bayadere.
The word oriental evokes a sepia-tinted past, a time when the fleet of the Orient liners sailed to Australia via the Suez Canal and the Orient Express wound its way through Europe, ending its journey at Istanbul.
These were the dream journeys, fantasy travels of the 1880s when the British shipping line and the French train line tempted travellers with the concept of an exotic orient. The liners and carriages never ventured as far as India, China or Japan but â€śOrientâ€ť was enough to evoke excitement, a place of imagination where geishas bowed their heads and offered tea and rajahs bestowed gifts of diamonds and pearls.
Oriental may have slipped from our everyday vocabulary, but fragments of the imagined lands remain on the stage in many forms, from the elephants in Aida, the fluttering fans of Madame Butterfly, the Turkish slaves of Le Corsaire, the kimonos of The Mikado and the fakirs of La Bayadere, all of them works created by Europeans.
Their costumes were a powerful part of the fantasy. Le Corsaire, set in Turkey, and La Bayadere, set in India, represented a peculiar meeting of east meets west, contrasting harem pants and tutus, pointe shoes and saris, head veils and bare midriffs, peacock feathers and tiaras, bare feet and pointe shoes.
Such incongruous partnerships came to be known as an element of orientalism, a word popularised by the academic and author Edward Said. Orientalism, he wrote, was a European ideological creation, a way that writers, philosophers and colonial administrators could deal with the otherness of Asian culture, customs and beliefs, and a way to visualise this fantasy world as a spectacle or tableau vivant.
Long before Edward Said wrote his book, Orientalism, in the 1970s, it already existed on stage, in literature and art, in the Verdi opera, Nabucco, Bizetâ€™s The Pearl Fishers and Marius Petipaâ€™s first major success in Russia, The Daughter of the Pharaoh of 1862 which the heroine wore a long skirted tutu decorated with Egyptian motifs.
Petipa returned to an Egyptian fantasy world, choreographing the dances for Aida when the opera was first performed in Russia in 1875. Two years later, his orientalist masterwork, La Bayadere, premiered in St Petersburg.
Ekaterina Vazem, creating the role of Nikiya, the bayadere, recalled the day she first wore one of her costumes. â€śMy oriental costumeâ€ť, she called it â€świth filmy trousers and bracelets on my legsâ€ť. Her lover, the warrior, Solor, wore an embellished skirt, sandals, arm cuffs and necklaces.
In the wake of La Bayadere came the oriental spectacles of the operas The Mikado, Prince Igor, Salome and Turandot along with treasure trove of exoticism presented by Diaghilevâ€™s Ballets Russes, whose designer, Leon Bakst â€ścould evoke all the cruelty and voluptuousness of the Eastâ€ť, wrote the historian, Cyril W. Beaumont. Bakst conjured up â€śthe mystery and sense of awe produced in the East in a mood of religious exaltationâ€ť.
Although the kaleidoscope of orientalia continued in the repertoire of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and Colonel de Basilâ€™s troupes, the appetite for the genre declined in the mid-20th century. Yet the meeting of of east and west can still be seen in many productions of Le Corsaire, in the Chinese and Arabian dances of Nutcracker, and later Robert Helpmannâ€™s Yugen and more recently Stanton Welchâ€™s Madame Butterfly, choreographed for The Australian Ballet.
But for the full impact of an oriental ballet spectacle, it is hard to surpass La Bayadere with its fakirs, serpents, a Rajah and High Brahmin, and the blending of Hindu costumes with the 19th century European invention, the tutu. But while the story remains intact, La Bayadereâ€™s dĂ©cor and costumes have continued to evolve over the decades, according to fashion and taste.
A study of Peter Farmerâ€™s various designs for The Australian Ballet illustrates that evolution. For Anna Karenina, his first commission for the company in 1979, the heroine wore many cream coloured dresses of lace, tulle or chiffon, a cloak of champagne silk, and a sumptuous hooded coat trimmed with fur, reminiscent the maxi coats of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the costumes of Lara in the movie, Dr Zhivago.
When Farmer came to Australia a year later, to design to The Australian Balletâ€™s The Three Musketeers, he conceded that â€śtheatre costumes are invariably influenced by prevailing fashions, making it impossible to accurately recreate a period on stageâ€ť.
He went on to design three more ballets for the company, Maina Gielgudâ€™s production of Giselle, Kenneth MacMillanâ€™s Manon and Stanton Welchâ€™s Madame Butterfly. For Manon, in particular, he focused on the colour coding of the costumes. As he said at the time, Manon has â€śa kind of decadence which is grand not lovable â€“ they are dark and echo the paintings of Goyaâ€ť.
Farmer has an equally close association with the Houston Ballet, with his most recent designs for the company among the most vibrantly coloured of all his ballets. For Houstonâ€™s La Bayadere, choreographed by Stanton Welch in 2010, Farmer turned the concept of orientalism inside out, embracing the glittering world of Bollywood, a phenomenon originating not in the west but in India itself.
Turquoise, coral, purple and gold dominate the designs with many costumes embellished with woven cord, lamĂ©, pearls and ruby-coloured glass stones. Despite its Bollywood inspiration, the costumes still follow the orientalist path. As Stanton Welch says: â€śPeterâ€™s scenic design is not a realistic depiction of India. Itâ€™s like looking through an old picture book from western culture with a view of romanticised Indiaâ€ť. Pure white, of course, remains the ghostly non-colour of the tutus and scarves of the Kingdom of the Shades scene in which Nikiya and her shadows represent the vision that Solor imagines as he dreams of his lost love.
Welch describes the production as having â€śa very painterly lookâ€ť. But while we recognise the ballet as a symbol of a painted orientalist past, the drama of its narrative and the splendour of the Kingdom of the Shades keeps it well within the realms of a classical theatrical masterpiece of any place and time.
The following is a re-post of an earlier article on dancelines:
Iâ€™ve been researching La Bayadereâ€™s origins and designs and re-reading A Century of Russian Ballet: Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, 1810-1910, edited by the American academic, Roland John Wiley.
The eyewitness accounts include the writing of Konstantin Skalkovsky and Sergei Khudekov, two critics and historians who knew Petipa well.
Skalkovskyâ€™s review of La BadayĂ¨reâ€™s premiere in 1877 includes an intriguing insight into the original sets for the ballet. Rather than studying Indian architecture, the four designers of La BadayĂ¨re relied instead on illustrations from two English magazines, the Graphic and Illustrated London News in their reports on the visit to India of the Prince of Wales, known to his family as Bertie.
Skalkovsky wrote: â€śEverything necessary to render the couleur locale exactly has been taken from engravings appearing in the Graphic and the Illustrated London News on the occasion of the Prince of Wales journey [in 1875/76]. As a result we see a series of scrupulously exact tableaux of the mores and costumes of the Indians, which naturally give the ballet an ethnographic interest quite exceptional and singularly fascinatingâ€ť.
A Century of Russian Ballet also includes Skalkovskyâ€™s 1890 review of Petipaâ€™s The Sleeping Beauty in which he wrote: â€śThe new balletâ€™s production is extremely luxurious, the costumes â€“ excellently drawn, partly after DorĂ©â€™s illustrations to Perraultâ€™s tales â€“ are elegantâ€ť.
Gustave DorĂ© illustrated many of Charles Perraultâ€™s fairy tales, and itâ€™s believed that his illustration for Danteâ€™s Paradiso was the inspiration for the Shades scene in La BadayĂ¨re.
Sergei Khudekov, in turn, collaborated with Petipa on the libretto of La BadayĂ¨re.