Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, newly created for Houston Ballet in 2010, has just finished a season in Sydney danced by the Australian Ballet. Welch, somewhat curiously, given he has recently celebrated ten years as artistic director at Houston, is in fact still a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet.
While Welch has made a name for himself in Houston, and also earlier in Australia, with his updates of well-known, full-length works from the established repertoire, an updated Bayadère was destined to have problems. What to do, for example, with India as a piece of exotica, as the country was viewed in nineteenth-century Western thought? India as exotica is inherent in the original Bayadère and in its later revivals, and it is the Indian element that causes many of the problems in Welch’s Bayadère. There is a mishmash of costuming — a mixture of Indian-styled garments and classical costuming — and a similar jumble of choreography — waltzes for the corps de ballet and regular classical vocabulary for all, mixed with Shiva-like poses and fake Indian greetings.
But there are some satisfying features of Welch’s production. He has, for example, heightened the dramatic structure, provided a little more context for the storyline and strengthened the role of some individual characters. So, if the stars are aligned, the ballet speeds along and the odd mixtures of design and choreography can be forgiven (just).
The stars were indeed aligned when American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy arrived to guest with the Australian Ballet for two performances as the leading lady, Nikiya the temple dancer. Technically, Murphy danced with superb control. But what attracted me most of all was that her dancing was completely seamless, whether moving from one step to another, executing and then returning from the deep, swooning bends of the body that Welch’s choreography demanded, or moving as one in pas de deux with Solor, her warrior love. Dramatically, she immersed herself in the role and was never out of character. Even when facing the wrath of Gamzatti, danced by Laura Tong, or of Ajah, Gamzatti’s servant, played by Vivienne Wong, there was a certain calmness to her reactions. It was not that she was immune to their rage and their taunts, but she behaved as if her role as a temple dancer put her beyond their reach. She seemed to face her fate stoically, if sorrowfully.
Murphy also managed to imbue many others in the company with extra energy and zing, in particular her partner, Kevin Jackson, as Solor. Jackson, an Australian Ballet principal since 2010, was the most ardent I have seen him in any role, such was the communication between him and Murphy. He showed his ardour as he leant towards her and looked into her face, as he lifted her, as he danced with and for her — always through movement. There were some magical moments, which continued to the final front-of-curtain call when Jackson fell to one knee, tenderly took Murphy’s hand and kissed it.
As for the Kingdom of the Shades scene, the Australian Ballet’s corps de ballet mostly looked together as they descended that ramp and continued their unison dancing. But I had a problem with all those smiles. Murphy showed that she was a Shade, a spirit removed from the world. Jackson treated her as real, as he should have in his drugged state, but she was removed from reality, beyond reach. But her fellow Shades beamed out at the audience. For their role to fit the story there has to be more than unison dancing and smiling.
The three solo shades, however, acquitted themselves beautifully. Miwako Kubota in the first solo handled the pizzicato-like movements and that diagonal of relevés in arabesque with panache; in the second solo Ako Kondo, whose technique is so clean, showed details in the steps that I have never noticed before; and Robyn Hendricks in the third solo managed to bring more lyricism to the steps than usual.
The final scene as the temple comes crashing down was spoilt somewhat, not by the melodrama of it all, but by a surfeit of gold body paint on a few male dancers who seemed to be emulating not so much gods as body builders. It quite took away from the ascent to heaven of the reunited Nikiya and Solor.
Welch’s Bayadère is far from my favourite ballet. Culturally it sits awkwardly between an old era and a new one. It does justice to neither; but, with Murphy in the lead, the story, with all its clashing parts, did speed along. Welch has a knack of creating full-length narrative works. I just wish this one sat more comfortably in the twenty-first century.