Beyond the grave

For concert halls and classical performance regulars, 2010 has been a special year. The classical music world celebrates the 200th birth anniversary of Frederic Chopin, the Polish composer and virtuoso pianist. Chopin was born in 1810, and the same year marks by birth, in Germany, of another important composer and pianist: Robert Schumann.

Published on 6 May 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

The list of anniversaries also includes the names of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (Italian composer, violinist and organist, born in 1710) and Samuel Barber (American composer of orchestral, opera and choral music, born 1910). Pergolesi, Chopin, Schumann, Barber are all names from the classical music field.

Likewise, the world of ballet is marked by an equally important anniversary as 2010 marks the death centennial of Marius Petipa (1818-1910). Petipa, with a decades-long career as Premier Ma”tre de Ballet of the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres, was a Russian-French ballet dancer and choreographer, widely considered the father of Russian ballet and, more broadly speaking, a “father of classical ballet”. His choreography of over 50 ballets survives to this day, whether intact or reinvented by generations of choreographers. Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Giselle are only a few of the more notable works choreographed by Petipa or supervised by him (when choreographed by Lev Ivanov). Paquita, performed by the Iñaki Urlezaga Ballet Concierto last March at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall (reviewed in issue 990 of Al -Ahram Weekly ) also carried Petipa’s choreographic lines and concepts. In later work Petipa collaborated with Ludwig Minkus who composed several pieces especially for this ballet. Paquita was not the first collaboration between the Austrian composer and Petipa. La Bayadère (meaning: The Temple Dancer or The Temple Maiden ) is an earlier fruit of the two artists artists joining their creative forces.

End of April has been marked by National Academic Bolshoi — Opera and Ballet Theater of the Republic of Belarus performing La Bayadère at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall (followed by performances in Alexandria). The history of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre goes back to 1933, while today’s ballet group consist of over 100 dancers including several great masters of ballet. This is not the first time that the Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus has performed in Egypt, yet with each ballet it manages to bring something fresh to Egyptian aesthetic sensibilities.

The plot of La Bayadère is based on an Indian folk tale about love between Nikiya (Bayadère, the temple dancer) and Solor, a princely warrior. The two protagonists face obstacles leading to a tragic end. On the one hand the Great Brahmin, a temple priest, secretly loves Nikiya; and on the other hand, Rajah Dugmanta of Gulconda has already made plans to marry his daughter Gamzatti to Solor. To guarantee Solor for herself, Gamzatti puts a poisonous snake into a basket of flowers which she offers to Nikiya during Gamzatti and Solor’s engagement celebrations. Nikiya dies bitten by the snake, and a triumphant Ganzatti leads Solor to marriage. Nevertheless, Solor in a dream follows his beloved into the Kingdom of the Shades. The gods, disappointed, take revenge and destroy the temple.

From the dramaturgy point of view, the plot of La Bayadère forms a classical triangle in which the love of two main protagonists (Nikiya and Solor) is destined to end tragically due to a vicious third character (Gamzatti acting for her father Rajah). All secondary characters support the main aim of the story, which is annihilation of love. Pairs such as Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult (Tristan and Isolde), Romeo and Juliet are characterised by a similar innocence, pure and almost naïve love equaling the one between Nikiya and Solor. While many known stories transcribed in world literature end with the protagonists’ death being an ultimate solution to their misfortunes, love presented in La Bayadère carries powers which go beyond death. Moreover, Solor carries lots of elements resembling Orpheus who followed his wife Eurydice to the realm of death, where he tried to reconnect with her and bring her back to life. (It is worth mentioning that Eurydice too was bitten by a snake!)

Nikiya dies at the end of the second act. The final, third act is a representation of Solor’s dream about the “Kingdom of the Shades” in which Nikiya appears as a vision. The vision scene serves as a prolonged catharsis. The scene carries strong emotional weight. Petipa’s choreography is simple but poignant; it seems to walk the spectator through the world of eternity. Minkus music carries many meanings within itself. The Entré of the third act is a prolonged, monotonous scene with lined-up ballerinas going down the ramp towards the front stage in slow repetitive arabesque movements. Musical lyricism transports the spectator into the world of dreams which belongs to Solor, but in which the plot itself is dropped for the sake of dance and music. In hereafter, time stops and events cease to matter yet neither time nor events lose their impact. Minkus’s music penetrates the emotions and as such it does not only reflect La Bayadère ‘s dramatic lines but also creates additional profound images. No wonder “Kingdom of the Shades” is often played as a separate piece during many symphonic concerts.

La Bayadère ‘s elementary plot turns the ballet into a big painting and even if it does not really relate to cultural elements typical to India, but rather it reflects emotions known to all cultures. Its beauty is accentuated through movement and music. Dancers of the Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus did not disappoint us with their performance and skills. Their steps are neat and complete with proper fine endings. Elegant postures and well synchronized tableaux were characteristic of all group scenes. Nikiya (danced by Marina Vezhovets) had the delicacy required for the role and the precision of her movements was a delight to watch. Solor (Yury Kovalev) is an obviously skillful dancer, his jumps and grand jetés gained a well-deserved applause of the audience. However, the nobility of the character was not sufficiently explored. To complete the classical trio, Gamzatti (Lyudmila Kudrjavtseva) emanated witty energy enveloped in masterful technique.

La Bayadère is a complete aesthetic treat. It is a lengthy but fulfilling experience for those who like classical ballet. The dancers have definitely offered a neat presentation of the ballet but the true emotional impact was reached through choreography images and the music. The Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nikolai Koliadko managed to transmit many expressive accents. And even if the brass section at times seemed too loud, many phrasings, such as numerous breathtaking lyrical harp and flute dialogues left soothing impact on the whole of the evening.

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