It's an age-old story: Boy saves temple dancer from man-eating tiger, boy is rewarded with the hand of another, that other has temple dancer killed, fiery retribution from the gods rains down on the wicked, and boy and temple dancer are reunited in the afterlife.
Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer), Houston Ballet’s season-ending production, is a masterclass in storytelling, the union of Welch’s choreography and the lyricism of Ludwig Minkus’s music combining to create a breathtaking spectacle of operatic proportions. Centered on a quadrangle that would make Shakespeare proud, La Bayadère is a more than fitting end to the ballet season.
Titular temple dancer Nikiya (Karina Gonzalez) falls in love with Solor (Connor Walsh) after he saves her (and her village) from a tiger. Their plans to be together, however, are dashed when the Rajah (Ian Casady) offers Solor not only gold as a reward, but his daughter Gamzatti’s (Yuriko Kajiya) hand in marriage. Kalum the Fakir (Rhodes Elliott) spies Nikiya and Solor together, informing the High Brahmin (Linnar Looris), who’s also in love with Nikiya. The High Brahmin tells the Rajah, and though he successfully pleads for Nikiya’s life, Ajah (Jessica Collado), Gamzatti’s handmaiden, has heard everything. She tells Gamzatti and devises a plan to kill Nikiya with a poisonous snake.
Conventional wisdom tells you that the simplest plot works best in ballet, but Welch proves it wrong. The drama of La Bayadère is complex, and Welch’s choreography is not only coherent, but crystal clear, brought to life beautifully by his dancers.
Gonzalez was promoted to principal four years ago while playing the role of Nikiya, and it makes sense. Her technical brilliance is on display, and her character sympathetic and feisty. She holds court in her first solo, building to an early show-stopping crescendo, just as successfully as she does in her solo when she’s forced to perform for the wedding party of her soon-to-be-married-to-someone-else love. As Gonzalez gravitates to the basket, containing the snake that will seal her fate, she is vulnerable, the mood ominous.
Walsh is given ample opportunity to show off through bursts of athleticism and swift movement, and he successfully gives the illusion of ease on multiple lifts. Emotionally, there’s not much range asked of him, but he does play conflicted well. And though Gonzalez and Walsh lack chemistry and passion when they’re not dancing, when they do dance, it’s electric and mesmerizing.
Ajah is clearly the brains of the operation, her quick thinking and scheming played well by Collado, but it leaves little agency, and therefore little motivation, for Kajiya’s Gamzatti, a disappointing choice that relegates her role to little more than ornamental. That said, Kajiya’s solos are not to be missed.
Special mention goes to Looris, who performs a lively and dizzying series of leaps, turns and extensions early in Act I, and the Four Performers (Chun Wai Chan, Oliver Halkowich, Rhys Kosakowski and Harper Watters), who similarly bring down the house.
The music, by Minkus and arranged by John Lanchbery, here under the direction of Ermanno Florio, is sweeping and romantic (in particular, the flute and cello solos stand out); it would work just as well in an epic summer blockbuster, and the divertissements and variations would stand up next to any great work. Some moments in Act II would fit seamlessly in the Land of Sweets. Welch’s choreography is light and airy.
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Going in, the “Kingdom of the Shades” is the expected star of the show – 24 ballerinas in identical white tutus moving in haunting synchronicity, 38 arabesques and graceful port de bras – and it is, but it’s also repetitive and indulgent.
The production is not without some wobbles and shakiness, literally from the dancers, and figuratively. Ultimately, La Bayadère is a lavish example of Western orientalism, romanticized and lovingly crafted, but no less troubling. Here, India is a land of myth, mysticism and snake charmers, where authenticity is an admitted afterthought. It’s a culture borrowed to paint pretty pictures onstage, like the Anjali mudra, a common positioning of the hands, or, early in the first act, when the temple dancers form a line, their arms outstretched and posed, reminiscent of Hindu deities.
But the near perfection of La Bayadère is undeniable. Between the pacing and performances and with the richness of Peter Farmer’s scenic and costume designs, it rivals an old Hollywood film — beautiful, enchanting and just a touch out of date.
Performances are scheduled through June 18 at 7:30 p.m. June 10 and 16, 2 p.m. June 11 and 18, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 17 at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25-$195.