The Long version of my Restager’s Notes for this year’s recital
For our annual ballet recital, I restaged La Bayadere, or The Temple Dancer. It’s a story ballet with a love triangle, an assassination, and karmic retribution . It’s also loosely based on Asian, particularly Indian culture. Of the ballets I’ve restaged before (and I’ve restaged a LOT), this was definitely the most challenging. Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty are all peanuts to restage, in comparison.
La Bayadere originally has four acts, but I left out the anticlimactic fourth act which follows The Kingdom of the Shades for two practical reasons: it is boring as it only serves to wed Solor and Gamzatti, and we cannot afford to stage an earthquake that destroys the temple and kills everyone in it. Additionally, I have come to think of the second act pas d’action as Gamzatti’s Wedding, and is more festive than the “actual” wedding, so the rearranging of the story still stays true to its original purpose.
As a dance scholar doing serious dance research, I am quite aware of the ironic orientalism that pervades this ballet. It is as if Khudekov and Petipa were picking out little Asian tidbits from everywhere, stirred it up in a pot, and whoosh – La Bayadere. Being Asian, I wanted to right the othering of these Westerners, but having grown up in a country that often orientalizes itself, and understanding that everything is beautiful at the ballet anyway, had to concede that we are not presenting a truly Asian drama, but a Western ballet inspired by exotic myths, and therefore not based on real cultures. Also, I think only a dance scholar such as I would be bothered by such personifications.
In trying to understand where “Shade” comes from, I was amused to discover that the Himalayas is their inspiration for the Kingdom of the Shades, though to me that’s where Hugo the abominable snowman was found by Marvin the Martian. So near Hugo’s home, in the starlit mountain peaks, is the Kingdom of the Shades. “Shade” is from the Greek/Hebrew mythological term for death shadow, or underworld spirit, and though not an Asian allusion, was probably exotic enough for Marius Petipa.
Unlike Swan Lake or Giselle, where the lead ballerina is surrounded by other swans or wilis, Solor’s first glimpse of the Shades are multiplied versions of Nikiya’s Shade; this hallucination is brought on by his guilt – because if he hadn’t been sneaky with her behind the temple, Nikiya would still be alive – and by certain hallucination-inducing substances. But I thought a shisha might not be PG enough for a ballet school recital, and decided to exchange it for wine. But poisoned wine.
The poisoning of Solor through the High Brahmin’s wine is my own addition to the story, but it’s a liberty that I feel is justified. The High Brahmin wanted Solor dead, and although he gets his revenge, it is the hero who gets to live on with his Nikiya in the afterlife, in the starlit mountains of the Himalayas, and not with an indulgent princess he did not love. I didn’t want to kill Solor with an earthquake, nor did I want a hallucination from illegal substances. In this case, poisoned wine works just fine.
My dad, I believe, had fun choreographing the orientalized “Asian” dances, especially Nina’s solo as temple dancer in Act I. A lot of orientalized ballet steps looks like Arabian Coffee from the Nutcracker, with hand flexing as the main orientalization. As La Bayadere is supposedly an Indian story, the solo (originally the Dance of the Persian slaves, according to Minkus) has many elements copied from Bharatanatyam that we’ve seen, so it’s more Indian than Persian. Luckily, Nina was quite up to the challenge of her new solo.
I first performed in La Bayadere with Philippine Ballet Theatre when I was employed with them in 2004, was cast in the corps of all four acts, but notably as a divertissement girl in the Act II pas d’action, and having danced the pas d’action several times after, I know it even in my sleep. Restaging from memory is funny because when someone asks “How do you do this?” my body has to do the steps before my mind can remember.
Although it is not as popular as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, or even The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadere has always been one of my big favorites, both to watch and to dance. Hope you can come see in this Saturday, so that it can become one of your favorites too.