Royal Danish Ballet
November 21, 2012
by Alexander Meinertz
copyright 2012 by Alexander Meinertz
Solor as Sir William? Nikolaj Hübbe’s recent staging of “La Bayadère” in Copenhagen reinterprets the original Petipa libretto casting the ballet’s aristocratic warrior as an English colonel, setting the drama of love and betrayal during the British Raj. Judging by the Edwardian party dresses and military uniforms, sometime in the early 20th Century: think Downton Abbey meets Bollywood and, thanks to set designer Richard Hudson, with an element of Bakst thrown in for good measure.
In Hyderabad, one of them, the marvelously named British resident James Achilles Kirkpatrick wrote to his brother William, 23 May 1800, of his infatuation with an Indian noble lady, Khair-un-Nissa Begum: ‘She declared to me again and again that her affections had been irrevocably fixed on me for a series of time, that her fate was linked to mine… was it human nature to remain proof against such fiery trial? I think you cannot but allow that I must have been something more or less than a man to have held out any longer.’
Defying everyone the couple secretly married and had two children but the relationship – almost predictably – ended in tragedy. Imagine the inspiration and how Sir William’s love of Nikiya could be used as a powerful metaphor for a young imperialist’s love of the Orient, the tension that could be built between the Indian and British communities which in reality later erupted with the Sepoy Mutiny.
Hübbe gets less than this from making Nikiya an Indian Madame Butterfly and William his Pinkerton, however. His focus seems to be a more straightforward love story where the Indian trappings are by the way. A concept without real content, the British are rigid caricatures, from the khaki-clad, automated tin soldiers with bristling moustaches to the haughty, narrow-minded memsahibs of the ruling class: more Monty Python slapstick than “A Passage to India.” The Indian acts and characters are traditional, staged more by rote from Mariinsky-derived convention than freshly and convincingly understood.
Dramatic detail and credibility is lost as Hübbe struggles to solve the inconsistencies of his idea, from explaining why Lady Emma (Gamzatti) and Sir William happily appear in Indian dresses in Act II to William’s effete suicide by pistol at the beginning of Act III: changing the dramatic premise for the Kingdom of the Shades from an opium dream to the afterlife should, of course, change the whole dynamic of the Shades scene but doesn’t.
More often than not his choices are predictable and unsatisfactory, looking to John Neumeier and Peter Martins for templates in making the implausible plausible and to explain what really needs no elaboration: the overture, for instance, is used to show us the moment William first spots Nikiya in a temple procession. Maids are squeezed in to make a rushed presentation of a tutu-sari and Rajput outfit before Lady Emma and Sir William elope into the wings to change for the Act II grand pas.
Worse, Hübbe rushes in a frantic apotheosis to the Shades scene where the corps de ballet interrupts and frankly wrecks Nikiya and William’s final series of triumphant attitudes to form a hard square formation with the sole purpose of hiding the reunited lovers exit, giving them just enough time to sprint to the ramp at the back of the stage to make yet another – hasty – final appearance, two flat-footed silhouettes against the Himalayas. I suppose this is to tell us that William and Nikya have been forever united in the Kingdom of the Shades.
We already knew that, though Hübbe never gave us the time to feel it or let the feeling resonate. Unforgivable, really, to insist on sacrificing “La Bayadère’s” great, cathartic moment, its emotional and musical climax, for a detracting, literal idea. Nureyev got it right in Paris, letting that stunning embracing circle of corps de ballet dancers on their knees open their arms and bend backwards, like a heavenly lotus flower opening, revealing the gods’ favourites. Voila!
Could the RDB dance it? Just. Forgetting about Hübbe’s new choreography (predictably, Bournonville School style enchainements with beats and double tours for the British soldiers, for instance), the corps of 22 gave a fine performance of Act III and he might consider scrapping the production but keeping this act in his repertoire as a gift to the corps and its appreciative audience.
At the Saturday matinée show I attended, the RDB’s senior ballerina, Gudrun Bojesen, gave a very poignant and individual reading of Nikiya. Her dances were exquisite poems of supplication, spirituality and longing, but while her partner Marcin Kupinsky complemented her line, he could not offer her the support or security she needed to fully explore the ballet’s double work or indeed develop any relationship between the two lovers.
Photos, all by Costa Radu.
Top, Gudrun Bojesen and Marcin Kupinsky.