The Set-Up: This past weekend, Houston Ballet concluded its run of Stanton Welch's La Bayadére (The Temple Dancer). The seven-performance engagement marked the second time the company has performed this extravagant story ballet set in Rajah-era India.
The Execution: Watching La Bayadere is like watching a Victorian storybook come to life. Think Rudyard Kipling meets Hans Christian Anderson if Kipling had been in the business of writing fairy stories rather than adventure tales. Peter Farmer's rich set and costume designs are evocative of Mother India without the slightest hint of kitsch exoticism. There are liberalities taken with the aesthetics, but as someone who's traveled that great country, the world onstage conjured up the sensory landscape in a way that felt culturally true to form.
La Bayadére is the story of Nikiya, the beautiful temple dancer who falls in love with the brave warrior Solor. As a servant of the gods, however, Nikiya is unable to pursue the growing passion in her heart. Their predicament is further complicated when Solor is rewarded for his bounty with the hand Gamzatti, the Rajah's eldest daughter. Gamzatti, as it turns out, is one jealous princess. The best villainesses have a minion, and Gamzatti has her own in the handmaiden Ajah. The two devise Nikiya's death, a devious and sinister scheme that involves a poisonous serpent.
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All this love and deceit is danced, of course. On the evening of March 1, Nikiya was performed with characteristic beauty by Sara Webb. Bayadére's choreography is filled with the gorgeous flourishes of the hands and elegant poses of Indian dance. Webb, as well as the rest of the temple dancers, was excellent in capturing the binary of demureness and sensuality of the Eastern feminine form. The pas de deux in Act I is filled with serpentine caresses and ornate lifts, all of which required the assuredness of a dancer with the power to hypnotize. Webb does this more, bringing the fragility and innocence of her Juliet to this kindred spirit of a role.
At the beginning of Act III, Solor is convinced by a dubious fakir to smoke a hash pipe in order to reconnect with the departed Nikiya. This plot point allows the audience to glimpse the underworld where the beautiful temple dancer has been banished to, but really it's just an excuse to see some splendid dancing. Enter the "Kingdom of the Shades," the scene that Welch's version of La Bayadére is best known for. It's a breathtaking spectacle, as one-by-one twenty-four members of the corps descend from the right wing in a simple, yet, lovely arabesque sequence. Dressed in white tutus, the shades of temple dancers past float across the stage as effortlessly and naturally as water lilies in a pond.
Like the best stories from the subcontinent and in homage to it, La Bayadére is high melodrama. Nikiya is avenged in satisfying manner by the gods she danced for in life, and Solor is reunited with his true beloved in death. The final scene is breathtaking, and one that leaves an indelible images of lovers among the gods.
The Verdict: There's a reason why this is the second time in three years that La Bayadere has graced the Brown Theater stage. Yes, "Kingdom of the Shades" is required viewing, but this is one of the few story ballets that is void of inconsequential filler scenes. The mime work and acting are extensions of the dance, and every choreographed step is a contribution to the story. The sensory beauty of India is not used as pale imitation, but reconfigured to further the majesty of classical technique. It's enough to make one believe in a world of enchantment.