La Bayadère review – moonlit heights from Nuñez and co

Royal Opera House, London
Visually intoxicating and beautifully danced – mostly – by the Royal Ballet, Petipa’s Indian romance remains problematic

In the latest run of La Bayadère, Marianela Nuñez proves, if proof were needed, that she is the Royal Ballet’s reigning queen. As Nikiya, the Indian temple dancer betrayed by her lover Solor, she gives us steely control, serene musical phrasing and a lustrous classical line. Marius Petipa created the ballet in St Petersburg in 1877, but Nuñez gives his choreography a new-minted gleam, projecting every nuance of her character’s emotions to the furthest reaches of the auditorium.

On last Monday’s opening night, Natalia Osipova danced opposite Nuñez as the calculating princess Gamzatti. When she pulls out all the stops, unleashing her huge jump and scorching turns, Osipova reminds us of the phenomenal impact that she made in soubrette roles such as Kitri (in Don Quixote) and Swanilda (in Coppélia) with the Bolshoi and Mikhailovsky companies. As a principal dancer with the Royal, however, she has yet to discover her career’s second act.

There are moments when her Gamzatti flares brilliantly into life. Her avid expectancy as Nikiya dances to her death is chilling, as is her gloating, vampiric claiming of Solor (Vadim Muntagirov, on noble form) thereafter. If Osipova is to convince as a classical ballerina, however, longstanding issues need to be addressed, particularly her erratic arms and often imprecise line.

Natalia Osipova (Gamzatti), Kristen McNally (Aya) and Marianela Nuñez (Nikiya) in La Bayadère.
Natalia Osipova (Gamzatti), Kristen McNally (Aya) and Marianela Nuñez (Nikiya) in La Bayadère. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

As Gamzatti in the second performance, Claire Calvert was more sensually balletic than Osipova, if less naturally villainous, while Sarah Lamb was a willowy but fragile Nikiya opposite Ryoichi Hirano’s Solor. In a later performance, at which Nuñez and Osipova exchanged their opening-night roles, Cesar Corrales (recently arrived from English National Ballet) took the leading male role. With his pantherine leaps, elegant manner and burning attentiveness to his ballerina partners, he is likely to be much in demand. Overall, the Royal’s dancers acquit themselves with precision and charm, particularly in the third act’s hypnotic, moonlit Kingdom of the Shades sequence, of which Yuhui Choe’s relevé solo is a particular highlight.

First staged at Covent Garden in 1989 by Natalia Makarova, this production of La Bayadère is visually intoxicating. The sets, by Pier Luigi Samaritani, are ravishing. Dizzying Himalayan vistas, misted valleys suffused in violet light, distant rose-lit peaks. Ludwig Minkus’s score, delivered with oompah brio by conductor Boris Gruzin, is never less than serviceable, and in the vision scene achieves sentimental, sugar-frosted perfection. But there’s no getting around the fact that this is a deeply problematic ballet. With its inanely capering fakirs, lustful priests and blithe appropriation of Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist religious and cultural motifs, it’s pretty much a compendium of 19th-century orientalist attitudes.

Some commentators, bringing contemporary sensibilities to bear, advocate relocating the work to a non-specific, non-Indian setting and cutting out its offensive elements. Others would like to see the work excised from the ballet repertoire altogether. Personally, I can’t imagine anyone taking La Bayadère at face value, and I think that it should stand. Not as a monument to Europe’s one-time dominion over the Indian subcontinent and its peoples, but as a reminder of the repeated failure of colonial powers to comprehend civilisations older and subtler than their own.

Watch a trailer for La Bayadère.

• La Bayadère is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 17 November


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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