La Bayadère not only unites campy melodrama and sublime choreography, it also conjures tragedy from this odd coupling. But to pull the feat off, the dancers must commit themselves equally to silly story and relentlessly rigorous steps. On Tuesday, the 30th anniversary of the 19th-century Russian ballet’s first full staging in the west, American Ballet Theatre’s dancers did, from top to bottom.
Diana Vishneva was the betrayed temple dancer Nikiya; Marcelo Gomes played the haughty, then haunted warrior Solor; Gillian Murphy was Nikiya’s murderous rival, the panther princess Gamzatti; and the troupe’s corps, whom coach Natalia Makarova – mastermind of that historic ABT production three decades ago – had clearly spent extra hours scolding, were a single luminous body. The dancers deepened the ballet – suddenly the perfect expression of our godless age.
La Bayadère begins with shaggy-haired holy men hopping around a fire and turbaned hunters returning from the jungle with an oversized Tigger. You are asking yourself, “Three hours of this?”, when Vishneva emerges from the curtained temple to trace sinuous beseeching arcs with body and limbs.
The ballet’s steps beautifully delineate character. Nikiya’s lines, for example, curve upward, appealing to the heavens, to man – or one man, anyway – and then, when he betrays her, to the heavens again. Gamzatti’s steps are coltish and upright: she attends to what lies before her, not above her. When the two women get in a catfight over Solor, Murphy extends her arms wide to say, “This sumptuous palace is all mine – and he will be, too.” Vishneva arcs her arms upward: “Godhead is mine, and he with it.”
As hope seeps out of these doomed individuals, their steps transmute into signs. Vishneva – with her uncanny ability to foreshadow a character’s fate by shading earlier steps with hints of later ones – makes this process particularly disarming. At first her movement conveys Nikiya’s feelings. But once the temple dancer has lost her faith in human love, the steps become a relic of feeling. Mourning makes everything seem far away, and eventually so does La Bayadère. In its imperturbable classicism the ballet drags melodrama into the depths of sorrow and the domain of art. Or it did on Tuesday.