Eifman Ballet
Kings of the Dance Tickets

Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg

Title: Review: La Bayadère by the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet
Date: February 25, 2011
Publisher: Ottawa Citizen

Like plays within a play, many classical ballets feature dance itself, or the idea of dance, as a major element of the plot. Poor deceived, deserted Giselle dances herself to death. In Coppelia, the village heartthrob ditches his girlfriend for a life-size dancing doll. And the title character of La Bayadère is a temple dancer who must give the performance of her life even as her heart is crumbling to pieces.

Mariinsky in Ottawa

Dress rehearsal performance by the Mariinsky Ballet (The Kirov), La Bayadère, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Feb. 24, 2011.
Photograph by: Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen

La Bayadère is one of the signature productions of Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet, better known as the Kirov. The company is performing it at the NAC, and Thursday night’s premiere was presented before a nearly-sold out audience of enthusiastic ballet lovers.

Choreographed by Marius Petipa in the 1870s for the Kirov, La Bayadère takes place in exotic India. The convoluted plot centres on Nikiya, a beautiful temple dancer. She is in love with the warrior prince Solor, who adores her in return and swears to be faithful. But Solor has been promised since childhood to Gamzatti, the Rajah’s dazzling, jealous daughter. Meanwhile, the temple’s high Brahmin priest is desperately in love with Nikiya, and promises her wealth and power if she will return his affections.

The Kirov is touring with the traditional Chabukiani-Ponomarev staging from 1941, also known as the “Soviet version.” It’s a magnificent production, with sumptuous, exquisitely detailed sets and opulent costumes, as colourful and spangled as a Jaipur bazaar. There’s even a lumbering mechanical elephant. But with the Kirov, the dancing is the richest jewel of all.

The incomparable Diana Vishneva danced Nikiya in Thursday night’s cast. She brings to the role the most tender vulnerability married to languid sensuality. Moonlight-pale, she moves like a serpent, curving sinuously from the tips of her pointe shoes to the end of her long braid.

Her Solor was handsome, chiselled Denis Matvienko, whose spectacular technique — such height on those cabriole jumps! — is enhanced by expressive, natural acting. His wife Anastasia glittered with cool, haughty fire as Princess Gamzatti. Her Act II variation was as buoyant and crisp as Vishneva’s was melancholy and poignant.

Several character dancers were outstanding. Georgy Popov exuded animal grace and power as the fakir Magdaveya, while Philip Stepin was a superbly athletic, statuesque Golden Idol, although he performed his variation at an unusually slow tempo. As the High Brahmin, Vladimir Ponomarev epitomizes the Kirov’s supremacy in pantomime.

The other shining star of the evening was the Kirov corps, especially in the famous Act III Kingdom of the Shades scenes. Their dreamlike, stately, zigzagging entrance was a miracle of control, unison and simplicity. The arms are so light, so ethereal, they seem to be made of the same material as their gossamer scarves.

The NAC Orchestra musicians, under the congenial direction of Pavel Bubelnikov, appeared to enjoy themselves romping through Ludwig Minkus’s decidedly un-Oriental score. But nobody had more fun than the young Ottawa dancers who get to perform with the professionals. They were disciplined and impervious to opening night jitters, and they did their teachers and families proud.

La Bayadère continues at the NAC Feb. 25-27 at 7 p.m., with 1 p.m. matinees Feb. 26-27. Tickets: At the NAC box office or through Ticketmaster, 613-755-1111.