Review: Royal Ballet - La Bayadère - Royal Opera House

Performance: 9 April - 22 May 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 8 April 2013

The Royal Ballet - Roberta Marquez in 'La Bayadère' Photo: Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 5 April

The Royal Ballet is in one of those states of transition that come along every decade or so, with dancers gone, going or permanently on the physio’s table, and there is a strong and demanding repertoire to keep the depleted roster of dancers very busy. La Bayadère has two big roles for the principal ballerinas: Nikiya, the bayadère (or temple dancer) of the title and Gamzatti, the Rajah’s daughter. The age-old story concerns a love triangle between this pair and the noble warrior, Solor: he has pledged his love secretly to Nikiya but is then pressed into marrying Gamzatti (not altogether against his will). A pivotal scene is the confrontation between the two women about their love for the same guy, which ends in Nikiya attempting to stab the princess and Gamzatti deciding that its time to eradicate her lower-caste rival.

The original casting of Alina Cojocaru as Nikiya and Marianela Nuñez as Gamzatti was a mouth-watering prospect since both embody an ideal image of the respective characters and their rank but, only days before the first night, injury forced Cojocaru to withdraw. Stepping up to the plate was Roberta Marquez, a Brazilian ballerina who has been a principal with the Royal Ballet for almost a decade without ever really enjoying the limelight (compared to, say, Cojocaru, Nuñez, Darcey Bussell or Tamara Rojo). Marquez had not been scheduled to open her account as Nikiya for another week and with a different partner (Steven McRae) but she answered the call of duty to dance with Federico Bonelli at just a couple of days’ notice and after a single rehearsal together. It could have been a disaster but in the time-honoured tradition that comes with consummate professionalism it ended as a spectacular triumph.

This had much to do with a delicately shaded performance by Marquez, her sublimely expressed nuances flavouring every aspect of Nikiya’s vulnerability as an object of service and lust and her pride as a woman in love. Each of the key scenes involving Marquez were full of dramatic tension, not least as she rejects the lascivious advances of the High Brahmin, (yet another substantial acting achievement by Gary Avis) and in the aforementioned scene with Gamzatti. She coloured the role differently than I recall from Cojocaru but was no less effective in portraying the contrast between the oriental exoticism of Nikiya and the imperious severity of Gamzatti. I have read that this is her favourite role and with this unexpected substitution Marquez proved that she is amongst the very best interpreters of Nikiya.

To add to the positives, Nuñez also gave a peerless display of strength and artistry. Last year, I witnessed three outstanding American Ballet Theatre ballerinas – in successive performances – each fail to deliver the tough choreography for Gamzatti in her betrothal pas de deux without significant mishap. Nuñez combines the filigree delicacy in the expressive arms and slow balances and pirouettes of her variation before reeling off the Italian fouettés of the coda with the strength of a steel piston. She appears as fresh at the end of the duet as she was at the beginning and in doing so makes us believe that her Gamzatti really doesn’t sweat.

I was less convinced by Federico Bonelli’s Solor. He has nobility in spades but is not so persuasive as a warrior. Bonelli is excellent in the Royal Ballet tradition of expressive mime and gesture and we certainly feel that here is a man caught between true love and noble duty. However, the strong masculine phrasing that is necessary to define the warrior is, I feel, a little underwhelming in his variations although the elegant carriage and port de bras are unquestionable. He, too, has recently returned from a long injury and perhaps the fire needs a while to build again.

Dame Ninette de Valois – the founder of the Royal Ballet – once said that you could dispense with the whole of this ballet but “the Shades”. This key sequence in Act II is where one-after-another, 24 ballerinas in white tutus – identical images of the now-dead Nikiya that come to Solor in an Opium-induced dream – descend in a unified, repeated movement phrase from the heavens (or the Himalayas). It is one of the most memorable and haunting sequences in ballet, where both the choreography (by Marius Petipa) and glorious music (Ludwig Minkus) combine to produce a living work of art that has survived for almost 150 years. It needs 24 ballerinas capable of delivering the discipline and harmony required and the Royal’s corps de ballet – led out by Yasmine Naghdi – did their Ballet Mistress (Samantha Raine) proud. It’s inevitable that an occasional wobble will creep into seven minutes of continual arabesques but this unit was as cleanly together in their timing as I can recall.

Throughout the cast there were wonderful cameos of both dancing and acting, including Alexander Campbell’s strength and accuracy in the Bronze Idol solo and Genesia Rosato’s obsequious, angular Aya (Gamzatti’s servant). It is this richness of texture and detail that the Royal Ballet does so well, an authority that transcends the need to rely on any particular star dancers.

Further performances on 12, 20, 27 April , 1, 2, 6, 13, 14, 22 May

Photos: Tristram Kenton and Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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