When ballet lovers go to see La Bayadère, what are they looking at? A version of a 19th century story ballet, originally in four acts, depicting the fate of a female Indian temple-dancer. Its exoticism, envisioned by Marius Petipa, was typical of the period, 1877, and the Imperial Russian culture from which it sprang,
The evening-length ballet, however, came as a curiosity to Western audiences as late as 1980. It hadn’t been performed outside the Soviet Union until Natalia Makarova first mounted it for American Ballet Theatre. Before then, only the Kingdom of the Shades act had been seen, when the Kirov Ballet toured it in 1961 and Rudolf Nureyev mounted it for the Royal Ballet in 1963.
Seen on its own, The Kingdom of the Shades is a purely classical ballet, in which a corps of female dancers in white tutus provides the setting for a pas de deux between a ballerina and her male partner. In the context of the complete story, the ballerina is Nikiya, with a ghostly retinue of fellow temple-maidens evoked in an opium-induced vision scene.
Shobana Jeyasingh elected to deal with the ‘Indian’ aspects of the story when she was commissioned by the Royal Ballet in 2015 to make a work for the Linbury Studio Theatre. Transferred to the Sadler’s Wells stage, her revised Ninth Life seems an intriguing idea inflated into unwieldy modern dance-theatre. She has lost sight of the fact that Petipa’s ballet has endured because of the quality of its choreography: its daft plot is no more important than that of Don Quixote (set in Spain) or Le Corsaire (set in Arabia).
But to Jeyasingh, the cultural context of Petipa’s Asian fantasy matters greatly. Why choose an Indian setting for La Bayadère? she asks. How did 19th century occidental artists and audiences regard Indians, given how limited foreign travel was at the time? She found that five devadasis – Indian temple dancers – and three musicians had toured European countries in 1838. The French writer, critic and balletomane Théophile Gautier had written extensively in his diary about his lubricious reaction to the exotic bayadères, and one in particular, Amaty, whom he seems to have pestered. When Gautier’s comments are spoken in a voice-over during Ninth Life, they are as repellent as any 21st century crass male remarks about women. (Gautier, the scenarist for Giselle, later wrote the scenario for an 1858 ballet set in India, Sacountala, with choreography by Lucien Petipa, Marius’s elder brother. It hasn’t survived.)
Jeyasingh wants to challenge the response to dancers from another culture as exotic beings, both fascinating and alien. Ninth Life starts in the present with a young man in India (actor Adi Chugh) exchanging texts with his friend about the latter’s first-ever visit to a ballet, La Bayadère. The texts are displayed on a screen, providing a précis of the ballet’s preposterous plot. As the roles are described, dancers appear briefly in costume, miming balletically, within a framed structure. The new designs, featuring moveable frames, are by Tom Piper.
Here’s the first dilemma. The two ballet novices can’t believe how ignorant ‘Indian’ references are in the ballet: fakirs didn’t look or dance like that, nor did devadasis; and what is a Golden Idol doing in blackface. (Actually, he never is – he’s gold all over.) Are we in the audience complicit in their scorn of exotic stereotypes, or do we recognise that these two men don’t understand a re-creation of 19th century Russian ballet culture?
The performers in these excerpts look like inept parodies of ballet dancers. Their mimed gestures are unconvincing and their version of the bayadères’ entrance in The Kingdom of the Shades is feeble. A projected outline of a female figure in a sort of arabesque, with her extended leg on the ground behind her, reappears several times during the piece. It’s meaningless as a reference to the ballet, in which the bayadères’ sequence of arabesques is a marvel of highly-trained classical dance.
The exegesis of the ballet’s plot over, the Indian first-time ballet-goer time-travels into a European orientalist fantasy. Sooraj Subramaniam is a skilled dancer in the Bharatanatyam and Odissi traditions, as well as being a contemporary dancer. So the next dilemma is just how far he is parodying 19th century European ideas of an exotic Indian dancer – Gautier’s fetishised Amaty – by presenting himself as a feminised male devadasi, posing provocatively with a fan. He does indeed look extraordinary.
Spoken repetitions of Gautier’s description of Amaty insist that we are to see Subramaniam’s devadasi as objectified by the European male gaze. He is paraded around on high, surrounded by odalisques (vamping women) and crassly ogling Europeans. The corps of eight dancers then become a sinister line of wilis, stripping him of his ornamental costume and offering him a length of plain cloth, which he winds into a lungi around his waist.
He springs into the air, a beautiful Bharatanatyam dancer freed of artificiality. He is now the real thing, while the ‘inauthentic’ corps dancers reprise moments from the ballet’s melodramatic plot. When they try to suggest the descent of the bayadères, complete with ghostly projections, I find myself wishing that Jeyasingh had offered the Indian classical dance equivalent of Petipa’s vision of heavenly bliss as her riposte to 19th century ballet’s aesthetic.
Instead, she proposes in the final section that her dancers become contemporary performers in modern dress. They express themselves in a tangle of choreography that combines their different skills – oriental martial arts, South Asian dance, western street dance, Jeyasingh’s own fusion of Indian and contemporary styles. Their movements are abrupt, powerful, aggressive, clumsy, hauling each other around – the very opposite of elegant, disciplined balletic bayadères. Jeyasingh’s idea is that they represent people of today, amalgamating different cultures, torn between contradictory influences and urban tensions.
The concept may be thought provoking, but the result is so discordant and so protracted that it becomes unwatchable – a disappointing finale. Does Jeyasingh intend to alienate us from her vision of today’s incoherent dance culture? A concluding solo by Avatara Ayuso does not enlighten us. At the end, Subramanian, dressed in a white shirt and trousers, walks serenely past her, his time-travel fantasy over, thank goodness.