Gillian Murphy as Nikiya, a night to remember and the journey of La Bayadère from Petipa to the 21st century

With Christmas Eve just a month away, I thought I’d already seen the outstanding Australian dance performances of the year.

But I was wrong.

In her final guest performance with the Australian Ballet, Gillian Murphy was superb as Nikiya in La Bayadère.

She was both languid and fiery. Her lines, her poses, her fluidity and control in very difficult pas de deux, her exactitude and poise were all evidence of a dancer who has reached a very high level of artistry.

And Kevin Jackson has never looked more confident or happier as did he partnering Murphy.

In a ballet that often crumbles into Victorian melodrama and histrionics, Murphy and Jackson inhabited their characters. They were real, vulnerable and lovable.

In this Bayadère, choreographed by Stanton Welch for the Houston Ballet in 2010, the first scene outside the Jungle Temple places an enormous challenge on Nikiya and Solor as they dance a pas de deux that involves multiple difficult lifts, far more demanding than any other pas de deux set in similar “tryst” moments in ballets, such as the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet or the bedroom pas de deux of Manon.

On the opening night of La Bayadère’s Sydney season the pas de deux seemed unnecessarily complicated and busy. Passion and tenderness, I thought, means so much more than tricky moves and lifts.

But Murphy pulled it off, and ably supported by Jackson, made it seem relatively effortless although its complexity is at odds with the dreamlike setting and the tentative, erotic encounter of a warrior who has just discovered a new and forbidden love.

On Saturday, the Temple dancers and Gamzatti’s sisters danced as well or better than on opening night while the Shades equalled their stellar performance on opening night.

It’s a long time since the Shades were coached in Melbourne by Louise Lester, Houston Ballet’s repetiteur. Since then, the Australian Ballet’s ballet mistress, Eve Lawson, has done a wonderful job in continuing to oversee this difficult but beautiful scene in La Bayadere.

My only quibble with The Kingdom of the Shades was not the dancing but a fiddly choreographic addition in which each dancer enters the stage, alternately bending either upstage or downstage on the ramp into a kind of reverence before stepping into arabesque.

The bobbing detracted from the simpler and more commonly danced Shades scene in which each dancer in turn steps into arabesque, bends backwards with their arms in fifth or crossed fourth and then takes two more steps before the next arabesque. Simplicity adds to the element of mesmerism.

On Saturday, Laura Tong was a confident Gamzatti, as excited as Cruella de Vil when she plots to murder Nikiya with a poisonous snake. On opening night, Lana Jones was a glittering, steely-strong Gamzatti, a role that could have been made for her.

On both nights, Chengwu Guo, as the Fire God leapt out of the temple fire with the sparkle of a New Year’s Eve rocket then circled the stage in a brief but spectacular solo. But I missed the Bronze Idol solo, just as I missed much of the full narrative and elegant designs of both Natalia Makarova’s and Rudolf Nureyev’s Bayadères.

These two Russian artists had a special understanding of La Bayadère and in my opinion Nureyev’s Bayadère danced by the Paris Opera Ballet has never been matched.

I recently asked the Russian, Alexei Ratmansky if he would consider producing La Bayadère.

“If anyone offers this opportunity”, he said “I would probably take it because I like producing the choreographies of the old masters”.

In contrast, Sir Peter Wright said he had never been tempted to reinterpret La Bayadère as he doesn’t like the music.

Reinventing Bayadère is a more difficult task than it is for other 19th century ballets as the narrative is both byzantine and not well known.

Welch clipped the story, deleting some of the mime sequences, including a pivotal moment when the High Brahmin offers to save the heroine, Nikiya, from death by poison by giving her an antidote if she remains true to him.

Welch has also truncated the final scene, the destruction of the temple. In his Bayadère it’s become a précis of Natalia Makarova’s 1980 restoration of the earthquake and collapse of the temple, and without the full scenic impact she created.

Perhaps in Houston that scene was a victim of limited finance.

In her biography of Nureyev, Julie Kavanagh, wrote that the then director of the Paris Opera Ballet wanted to include the original final act of Bayadère, formally titled The God’s Wrath, and asked his designer, Ezio Frigerio, how much it would cost to stage a simulated earthquake.

Frigerio replied: “A million dollars”.

“Then skip it”, Nureyev said.

Welch commissioned Peter Farmer to design the sets and costumes for his Bayadère. The production has been promoted in the United States and Australia as a Bollywood interpretation of the ballet, but Farmer’s set designs reflect the Orientalism of the original 19th century ballet and his costumes are more Hollywood chorus girls and boys circa 1930s than Bollywood.

The Temple dancers and Gamzatti’s sisters wear shiny harem pants, low on the hips, and padded bra tops.

In the wedding scene the four Groomsmen/performers wear gold earrings and ruched knee length pants. The choreography for the four men has feminine moments, especially in the ports de bras.

Welch’s production is playful, colourful and he treats the narrative lightly but it doesn’t take the ballet to a new dimension that might place it up there with Nureyev’s more serious interpretation, one that he staged very soon before his death and one that may have reflected his own memories of performing Solor in Russia many years before.

A little history

Choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1877, La Bayadère remained in the Russian archive cabinet until it emerged in the West with productions by Natalia Makarova (1980) and Rudolf Nureyev (1992).

Both eventually came to Australia, with Makarova’s, staged by the Australian Ballet in 1998, and Nureyev’s production for the Paris Opera Ballet danced by that company at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2009.

I’d seen the Shades scene a number of times but my interest in La Bayadère began in 1998 when Makarova coached the Australian Ballet dancers in the company’s Melbourne studios, always urging the women to use more luscious ports de bras.

Ten years later, before the Paris Opera Ballet toured to Brisbane, I was able to interview Patrice Bart, then deputy director of dance, at the Palais Garnier in Paris where he who told me of his memories of Nureyev’s Bayadère.

To prepare for his last production, Nureyev studied the Soviet version of La Bayadère on videotape and asked Ninel Kurgapkina, his former ballet partner, to travel from Russia to Paris to help him in the studio. They were joined by the Paris Opera Ballet’s ballet mistress, Patricia Ruanne and Patrice Bart.

As Nureyev was then so ill, “it was a very difficult situation”, Bart told me. “He sat on a big bench in the studio. Ninel would demonstrate something and ask Rudolf ‘is this what you want?’ He would say…’mmmm a bit more’”.

Despite his failing health, Nureyev was particular about the way the dancers interpreted the Shades’s choreography, asking not for extreme height of the leg in arabesque, but for maximum length and extension.

He added new passages for the corps de ballet men at the beginning of the second scene of act one, changed the order of the three Shades variations in act three and revised Nikiya’s variation.

Despite all the tinkering over the decades, La Bayadère has always remained “one of the best ballets for telling a story”, said Bart. “It was very much in fashion in 19th century to have all these exotic numbers with all the sets and props especially in the second act, the big défilé with the elephant and a tiger, like a mise-en-scène for an opera rather than a ballet. That’s why Rudolf kept it, he thought it very important”.

The production premiered at the Palais Garnier on October 8, 1992. Nureyev watched the ballet propped up on a divan in a box at the side of the stage.

“It was going very, very well, a big reception, a triumph”, said Bart. “At the end, he was helped on stage. It was extraordinary because he couldn’t move at all and then, when he decided he would go to take his bow, suddenly he managed to walk by himself”.

Dressed in evening clothes, with white tie, woven wool hat, and a shawl draped over his shoulder, he took the curtain call supported by Isabelle Guérin who danced the role of Nikiya, and Laurent Hilaire who danced as Solor. To the cheers of the audience, he raised his arm in farewell.

When the curtain fell, Nureyev sat on the Rajah’s throne to receive the insignia of the Commander of Arts and Letters from the then French Culture Minister, Jack Lang.

Nureyev’s La Bayadère was “a personal triumph”, wrote Julie Kavanagh, “the apotheosis of a 30-year mission to bring Petipa’s unknown classics to the West…

“To this day La Bayadère remains the company’s showcase, the lush St Petersburg plastique of the women, the taut strides, electric presence, and imperious ports de bras of the men still bearing their former director’s indelible mark”.

Three months after the premiere Nureyev was dead and the world mourned, none more than the men and women who had stood by him as he created his last work.

“I had such an admiration for him as a man of the theatre”, said Bart. “He knew about lighting, about sets, choosing material, he had such knowledge about production, everything”.

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