September 2, 2014
Exoticism was all the rage in the world of opera and ballet during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Think of Verdi’s “Aida” (Egypt), Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” (Japan) or “Turandot” (China), and even the lineup of foreign emissaries who perform variations in “The Nutcracker” (the seductive Arabian Coffee duet, the playful Tea from China variation).
“La Bayadere: The Temple Dancer” — originally choreographed by Marius Petipa to the music of Ludwig Minkus, and first performed by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1877 — is yet another example of that fascination with far-off cultures. It also is one of the great challenges of the classical ballet repertoire.
Set in a fantastical India, it tells a wildly melodramatic tale of Nikiya (the “bayadere” or temple dancer), and the warrior, Solor, who have sworn eternal fidelity to one another, but whose romance is threatened at every turn. Not only is the High Brahmin also in love with Nikiya, but the Rajah has selected Solor to be the husband of his daughter, the princess Gamzatti. Not surprisingly, chaos and tragedy ensue.
The Joffrey Ballet will perform “La Bayadere” for the first time — Oct. 16-27 at the Auditorium Theatre — in a version of the work created by Stanton Welch, artistic director of the Houston Ballet, who initially set it on his own company in 2010. Animated by dancing Hindu gods, snakes, calamitous poisonings, an opium dream and shattered temple walls, “La Bayadere” is operatic in scale, lavish in design and wildly demanding in terms of technique.
Stroll through the Joffrey’s costume shop these days and you will find racks of heavily bejeweled robes of gold and saris (“rigged” for dance purposes) in Bollywood hues of shocking pink and sea green. Some pieces are so heavily beaded they can only be worn by those in supporting roles of royalty and maidens of the court. The costumes, as well as the ballet’s gorgeously handpainted sets, are the work of British designer Peter Farmer, a masterful theater artist (too frail to do interviews these days), and are on loan from the Houston Ballet.
“This is a very opulent production, with about 250 costumes if you count those for roles performed by several different dancers,” said Marianne Marks, head of wardrobe. “We have retrofitted them to fit our dancers, and we are permitted to do anything — from taking tucks or opening seams, to switching sleeves to fit our taller guys — as long as we restore them to their original state. So I have lots of notes.”
Not everything in “La Bayadere” is Indian, however. In the ballet’s third act, the famous “Kingdom of the Shades” sequence, the story unfolds in a dreamy afterlife world. And the female corps, in exquisite pearl-studded classic white tutus, execute 38 synchronized arabesques, slowly filling the stage in a breathtaking test of control and precision.
At a recent rehearsal, the Australian-bred Welch coached the dancers in a climactic scene of over-the-top drama.
“That was really good — an ‘11’,” said Welch. “Now think [the soap opera] ‘Days of Our Lives’ and really go for it — take it up to ‘15’.”
When they began work on the designs several years ago, Welch and Farmer made a trip to Houston’s Natural History Museum to research the masks for the Hindu gods in the ballet, including the god of sleep and the god of war, fire and turmoil.
“For years I had just watched ‘La Bayadere’ for the dancing, without thinking about the story,” Welch confessed. “But once I began working on it I saw that all the characters possessed elements of both good and evil, and that the women are not the usual victims, but powerful.”
Although the racks of costumes at the Joffrey suggest the sari shops on Chicago’s Devon Ave., the fabrics were found in Houston, a city with a large Indian community comprised of many in the medical and high-tech professions.
“I went to YouTube to look at the choreography in productions of the ballet from as far back as possible,” said Welch. “But we found all the fabrics, bracelets, rings and tattoos we needed in the ‘Gandhi District’ of Houston. Of course you must remember: ‘La Bayadere’ is ballet’s version of India.”