Works & Process
"The Royal Danish Ballet La Bayadère"
Peter B. Lewis Theater
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York, New York
October 21, 2012
by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2012 by Mary Cargill
Nikolaj Hübbe, the revered former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current director of the equally revered Royal Danish Ballet, made a brief visit to New York with a small group of dancers to discuss the upcoming production of La Bayadère. The Royal Danish Ballet has never danced this, though they do have other Petipa classics, and Hübbe said he wanted to give the corps a chance to perform the Shades scene, which he he described as embodying the clarity, simplicity and aesthetic values of classical ballet.
Hübbe described his updated version, though he did assure John Meehan, the moderator, that the text of the ballet was basically unchanged. The ballet now takes place in 19th century India, ruled by the British, instead of an older India, ruled by the Muslims. Gamzatti is now Lady Emma, daughter of the Viceroy, who was engaged to Sir William as a child in England. Emma is visiting India for the first time to meet her fiance, only to find that he is in love with Nikiya, so she determines to have her killed. (How a well-bred 19th-century English lady learns of the poison snake trick on her first day in India is was not explained.)
Sir William does meet Nikiya for their pas de deux in the first act, where he swears eternal love, not by a sacred fire, but by his army emblem. There is no final destruction (the shades scene is the last act), appropriately, I guess, since the ancient gods would probably not be insulted by a British soldier ignoring a vow based on a uniform, but I do like Makarova's denouement, where evil is punished and good rewarded. Without this moral frame, the ballet seems as if it would just be a group of very nice dances.
The audience did get to see some of these dances, with the added treat of a brief appearance of Hübbe in the mimed role of the head Fakir. The chance to see that incredible performer once more was an unexpected treat. Hübbe brought seven dancers, who performed some of the highlights. (Of course, the corps had to stay home, working, Hübbe said on their ramp descending skills.) Obviously, these brief glimpses on that small stage were not a good judge of the final product, but the dancers looked engaged and committed.
Hübbe talked about some of the changes he had made to the traditional version (though those who saw the Maryinsky revival are aware that the current versions vary quite a bit from the 1900 notation). The Danish Nikiya has a sitar in the opening scene; Hübbe seemed to be unaware that the 1900 Nikiya also played a musical instrument. He, like Makarova, dropped the parrot dance (charming though it is, nowadays it is too reminiscent of Monty Python, I suppose). Hübbe replaced it with a peacock dance for several ballet students, which sounds intriguing. He also added a solo for Sir William in the first act, and a new solo for the betrothal scene, using a Minkus march from Paquita, in keeping with Sir William's new career.
Richard Hudson, the costume and set designer, also came, and described his process, showing pictures of the settings and the costume designs. He has based his settings on Indian miniatures, and they looked lovely, especially the stylized trees for the betrothal scene. His comments on the costume designs were very interesting, as he described an Indian shop in London where he purchased many of the fabrics. (The production does manage to get Lady Emma and Sir William into Indian dress for their pas de deux, and Sir William also sheds his uniform in the shades scene for more traditional Solor attire.)
The 19th century setting lets the grand waltz costumes echo the pigeon-breast bodices of the period (English ladies get to dance it), and the costume designs looked very similar to the tutus of the Maryinksy revival. Hübbe added that this waltz was his homage to the ballerinas of the Royal Ballet of the 1950's and '60's, saying that he tried to get Ashton's spirit in it, using the expressive upper body of the old Royal Ballet and adding some ribbons a la Fille. (This sounds as if it will prefigure the ribbons/shrouds of the shades scene, a fascinating idea.) Hübbe has given another nod to ballet's history, in the Golden Idol variation, which has been converted into a blue god, Le Dieu Bleu, in honor of Nijinksy. There were hints throughout the evening that the Danes wanted to bring this production to the United States, though obviously it would be an expensive undertaking. Hübbe's enthusiasm was infectious, and we can only hope.
Copyright 2012 by Mary Cargill