Bad luck for the Bolshoi to have suffered injuries to principal dancers on two opening nights: first Alexander Volchkov as Siegfried in Swan Lake, then Maria Alexandrova as Gamzatti in La Bayadère. Volchkov had struggled on to the end, but Alexandrova hobbled into the wings and was reportedly taken to hospital.
Her injury occurred in Act II, near the start of the wedding pas de deux with Solor (Vladislav Lantratov). Both dancers bound across the stage in a series of leaps; Lantratov’s leg may have touched Alexandrova’s so that she landed awkwardly and could not continue. The orchestra and company carried on, covering up for her absence. Daria Bochkova, a corps de ballet member dancing a demi-soloist role in the Grand Pas divertissement, gallantly took on the sequence of fouetté turns (Italian and regular) that bring Gamzatti’s flamboyant variation to a close. Great credit must go to the performers for their impromptu response. There would have been no point in bringing the curtain down, since Gamzatti’s role in the ballet was almost over – of which, more later.
This is Yuri Grigorovich’s 1991 production of La Bayadère, revised and restaged by him earlier this year for the newly renovated Bolshoi theatre. The sumptuous designs are based on those for the 1877 production in St Petersburg, which the Kirov Ballet used for Sergei Vikharov’s 2001 reconstruction of the original ballet. Grigorovich’s version ends with the Kingdom of the Shades, omitting the last act ‘restored’ by Natalia Makarova in her productions. He retains the exotic dances in the first two acts, including the Rajah’s retinue of blackamoor child slaves: he’s reverted to Petipa’s nineteenth century fantasy of far-off India, imagined from fables and travellers’ tales.
Grigorovich has beeefed up the melodramatic story by giving prominence to the fervid fakirs who haunt each act. Their leader, Magedaveya (Igor Tsvirko, excellently zealous), knows everyone’s secrets: the clandestine romance between high-caste Solor and temple-maiden Nikiya; the conspiracy by the Rajah and the High Brahmin to kill Nikiya; Solor’s need for opium to dull his conscience for betraying Nikiya. Magedaveya gets more choreography (by Grigorovich) than usual to account for his interventions, including a sinister cameo at the beginning of the wedding party in Act II.
He’s a go-between in Act I, lettting Solor know of Nikiya’s presence. Svetlana Zakharova portrays her as queen of the temple, more regal than her fellow maidens. When the High Brahmin declares his passion for her, she rejects him with contempt for his presumption. She dances her encounter with Solor as graciously as Aurora on her wedding day, complete with a glittering diadem on her sleek head. Yet in the next scene in the Rajah’s palace she is merely a hired entertainer. When Gamzatti summons her in private, Nikiya is modestly dressed as befits her station. Gamzatti is the imperious one, affronted by her rival. Alexandrova relished her chances in Act II to display her grandeur in a solo and her jealous rage in a cat-fight with Nikiya, in yet more choreography by Grigorovich: split jetés for both of them, rather than hand-to-hand tussles.
Solor’s reaction to his arranged marriage is unexamined. Once betrothed, he’s out of sight. His presence at the wedding celebrations barely registers until it’s time for him to dance the grand pas de deux with Gamzatti. The Covent Garden stage is smaller than the Bolshoi’s, making the marital throne barely visible during the display of dances. But the married couple slip away before Solor can show any unease. The female ensembles with fans and parrots were dutiful on the opening night, the demi-soloists in tutus fine but not sparkling. Locally recruited youngsters blacked-up as piccaninnies pranced round the Golden Idol (Denis Medvedev) and two small girls teased the Manu dancer, charming Anna Rebetskaya. The most excitement came from the spirited drum dance, led by Alexei Matrakhov with enthusiastic support from the orchestra.
The build-up to the pas de deux fireworks had just got under way when Alexandrova stumbled off stage, leaving the supporting dancers to continue without her in their midst. Lantratov returned for Solor’s variation, leaping in jumps that seemed to hang in the air. In his mid-twenties, he has an impressive presence, an instinctive command of space. As the Evil Genius in Swan Lake, he dominated his lakeside domain. His first entrance in Act I of La Bayadère was full of authority, a warrior nobler than his companions. Though his impact in the Act II Grand Pas was impaired by Alexandrova’s accident, he made up for it in the Act III Kingdom of the Shades with Zakharova’s Nikiya.
Unnerved in her Act II solo, Zakharova was unmoving in her account of Nikiya’s plight. So lean that every bone and muscle was evident in her bare midriff, she doesn’t have the dramatic glamour Altynai Asylmuratova brought to the role in the Kirov’s production, invoking the Himalayas in every anguished backbend. Though Alexandrova put in a brief appearance, still in her Gamzatti tutu, to witness her rival’s humiliation, she wasn’t able to reclaim Solor in triumph. He was left to mourn over Nikiya’s body – an ending to the scene that may have been improvised.
Grigorovich’s staging of Act III is masterly. He has the fakirs lull Solor into an opium-induced sleep in a setting that lifts away to reveal a rocky arch. Within it Solor sees a vision of Nikiya enticing him into a ballet blanc nirvana. A cascade of ghostly bayadères zigzag their way down four ramps in the darkness, gradually spilling out over the stage. There are 32 of them (instead of the Royal Ballet’s 24), so the eerily silent procession seems endless. Solor, all in white, appears as spectral as they are. Nikiya is rightly their queen, coolly requiring him to serve as her consort. Zakharova’s control of her high extensions was mesmerising, but the line of her leg in arabesque was inconsistent, wavering between 90 degrees and much more, uncertain at the end of pirouettes. Not her night to be immaculate.
The soloist shades were admirable, Chinara Alizade beautifully sustaining the third variation with its slow opening sequence. Lantratov soared through his demanding solo, landing every double tour pliantly, finishing his multiple turns accurately. Towards the end of the scene, when the corps vanished from sight, he ran at such speed that he seemed about to take off before throwing himself to the ground. He awoke to see a last, unattainable vision of Nikiya high in the rocky arch, as he realised what he had lost. As good a conclusion as any, without the complications of a melodramatic fourth act.