Bitten by La Bayadere

Live snakes, a stuffed tiger, opium dreams and a crashing temple — Houston Ballet's world premiere of Artistic Director's Stanton Welch's La Bayadère has it all. And yes, we did say live snakes, wrangled on stage by Texas Snakes & More's Clint Pustejovsky.

La Bayadère is a must-see for any true balletomane. This 19th-century Marius Petipa classic was little seen in the West in its entirety until Russian ballerina Natalia Markova staged the first full-length version for American Ballet Theatre in 1980. That Welch chose to create a new version of this Russian classic — a strange ballet, but a famous one — as the centerpiece of the company's 40th season is a testament to his artistic vision and the strength of the corps de ballet.

The story is the tale of an Indian temple dancer (a bayadère) named Nikiya who falls for a low-caste lad named Solor. Solor has killed a Bengal tiger threatening the village, but through this act of heroism, he finds himself rewarded by being betrothed to the Rajah's daughter, a bitch named Gamzatti. When Gamzatti overhears the High Brahmin tell her father that her intended loves the temple dancer, she decides to kill Nikiya with a poisonous snake. By the way, the priest is also in love, or in lust, with Nikiya. This is more than a triangle — it's a disastrous four-way love affair. When the snake strikes during the shotgun wedding ceremony between Gamzatti and Solor at the end of the second act, Nikiya dies.

Of course, a 19th-century Russian ballet has about as much to do with India as those Russian ice dancers' Winter Olympics routine had to do with the Aborigines. The great classical choreographer Petipa may have been smitten with the idea of Asia, but he had little use for actual Indian traditions. Thankfully, Welch and set and costume designer Peter Farmer have added a little authenticity by dressing the troupe in brightly colored and bejeweled Bollywood Indian garb: tight-fitting choli bodices, churidar pajama pants and draping dupattas. The costumes, the vine-draped temple sets and the Rajah's palace are all fine eye candy.

La Bayadère is actually two ballets in one, and they're very different in look and tone. In Act III, the depressed Solor, who has just witnessed Nikiya's death by snake, falls into an opium dream and sees her ghost. Now we get to the famous "Kingdom of the Shades" segment, which is one of the most iconic ballets blancs, or "white ballets," ever created. Twenty-four ballerinas dressed in white tutus and gauzy shrouds of death slowly proceed down a ramp at the back of the stage, doing intricate corps work. Step. Stretch leg backwards into arabesque. Hold. Repeat. One by one, they come down the ramp in almost perfect unison, coiling around the stage until they form six lines of dancers, stepping and bowing in precision.

This is one of the most beautiful corps de ballet segments Houston Ballet has ever put onstage. It's absolutely gorgeous, and worth the price of admission in itself. Solor and Nikiya have a haunting pas de deux to the strains of Ludwig Minkus's music, arranged by John Lanchbery and tweaked by Houston Ballet Orchestra's Music Director Ermanno Florio.

When Solor awakens from his drug-induced trance, he is forced into another marriage ceremony with Gamzatti, at which point Nikiya's ghost reappears and the Hindu gods put a stop to it all by crashing the temple and killing everyone. It's like an opera. The curtain comes down as the spirits of Solor and Nikiya waft toward the Himalayas, united in love after death.

The dancers gave a lovely performance on opening night. Principal Sara Webb made a beautiful Nikiya with floating arms and undulating back, moving from a demure temple dancer to a woman in love and then a woman betrayed. Her Solor was the ever-impressive Connor Walsh, who showed yet again that he has the classical chops to emit a princely presence onstage without resorting to theatrics; he also can whip out some mean barrel turns in a circle, to great applause. James Gotesky made a wonderful priest, and Kelly Myernick made a good go at Gamzatti. Her dancing was superb, but the character is thinly drawn, not allowing for much emoting. Does she really love Solor, or is it jealousy that drives her to murder?

Between the faux-Asian scenes and the white ballet segment, La Bayadère is a little schizophrenic. But watching Houston Ballet perform this rarely seen full-length work is still a treat you really should not miss.

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Marene Gustin