The American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, May 15.
La Bayadère is as evocative of India as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is of Japan, which is to say: hardly at all. The Mikado is a thoroughly British operetta, and La Bayadère is a thoroughly Russian ballet—complete with a chorus of ballerinas in white tutus—but in both cases, the occasional goofy exotic flourishes are kind of endearing, even if they are anachronistic.
The ballet’s story is deliciously soap operatic—star-crossed love, dastardly schemes, cruel betrayals, opium dreams, and murder by poisonous snake—and the American Ballet Theatre’s dancers made the most of it. Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella played the doomed couple, and Herrera, in particular, was beautifully expressive, communicating joy and despair and passion through the way she held her arms or inclined her head.
That said, I found the ballet only sporadically compelling. The music, by Ludwig Minkus, was sonic wallpaper, and I couldn’t understand why Natalia Makarova’s choreography (after that of Marius Petipa) didn’t make better use of the setting in India, at least in the character dances. The one exception was the completely incidental but utterly charming dance of the Bronze Idol. Herman Cornejo took that solo, achieving great height and dynamism with his vertical leaps.
The other famous number in La Bayadère is the Kingdom of the Shades sequence. After the poor temple dancer (the bayadère of the title) meets her untimely end, her craven paramour escapes into a drug-induced vision of a spirit world where they reunite. Honestly, I think the scene is memorable largely because of bare aesthetics of the Shades: two dozen women in white tutus moving in unison are bound to be visually arresting. It is a lovely image, but to my mind, it doesn’t compare to the similar swan scenes in Swan Lake. I wonder whether the clear superiority of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score has something to do with that.