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 “Orient” 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, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Marius Petipa’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. “My oriental costume”, she called it “with filmy trousers and bracelets on my legs”. 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 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, whose designer, Leon Bakst “could evoke all the cruelty and voluptuousness of the East”, wrote the historian, Cyril W. Beaumont. Bakst conjured up “the mystery and sense of awe produced in the East in a mood of religious exaltation”.

Although the kaleidoscope of orientalia continued in the repertoire of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and Colonel de Basil’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 Helpmann’s Yugen and more recently Stanton Welch’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 Bayadere’s décor and costumes have continued to evolve over the decades, according to fashion and taste.

A study of Peter Farmer’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 Ballet’s The Three Musketeers, he conceded that “theatre costumes are invariably influenced by prevailing fashions, making it impossible to accurately recreate a period on stage”.

He went on to design three more ballets for the company, Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly. For Manon, in particular, he focused on the colour coding of the costumes. As he said at the time, Manon has “a kind of decadence which is grand not lovable – they are dark and echo the paintings of Goya”.

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 Houston’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, lamé, pearls and ruby-coloured glass stones. Despite its Bollywood inspiration, the costumes still follow the orientalist path. As Stanton Welch says: “Peter’s scenic design is not a realistic depiction of India. It’s like looking through an old picture book from western culture with a view of romanticised India”. 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 “a very painterly look”. 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:

I’ve been researching La Bayadere’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.

Skalkovsky’s review of La Badayère’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 Badayère 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: “Everything 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 fascinating”.

A Century of Russian Ballet also includes Skalkovsky’s 1890 review of Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty in which he wrote: “The new ballet’s production is extremely luxurious, the costumes – excellently drawn, partly after Doré’s illustrations to Perrault’s tales – are elegant”.

Gustave Doré illustrated many of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, and it’s believed that his illustration for Dante’s Paradiso was the inspiration for the Shades scene in La Badayère.
Sergei Khudekov, in turn, collaborated with Petipa on the libretto of La Badayère.

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La Bayadere, Act II, 1900

“Dancing before the Prince of Wales’ elephant in the torchlight procession at Jeypore”, Graphic magazine, 1876

Pool in a Harem, by Jean-Leon Gerome c.18

Laura Tong, Charle Thompson and John Paul Idaszak, Australian Ballet, Stanton Welch’s La Bayadere

Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadere, Joffrey Ballet

Peter Farmer’s design for Stanton Welch’s La Bayadere, photo © Jeff Busby