4 Feb

Beginning Feb. 25, Houston Ballet presents the highlight of its 40th anniversary season, the world premiere of La Bayadère, a historic classic newly staged by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch and set in royal India of the past.

La Bayadère is a dramatic ballet of eternal love, mystery, fate, vengeance and justice intertwined to tell the story of Nikiya, a temple dancer, her lover Solor, and the vengeance that keeps them apart, at least in this life. Houston Ballet will give seven performances of La Bayadère at Wortham Theater Center in downtown Houston. Tickets may be purchased by calling 713 227 2787 or by visiting http://www.houstonballet.org.

“We wanted a grand classical ballet as the centerpiece for the 40th anniversary season, and this will be a big Bollywood-like production. It’s a colorful story that’s sexy, provocative and very dramatic,” commented Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch.

The choreography for La Bayadère’s famous Kingdom of the Shades section will remain intact in Welch’s staging as the third act of the production. This world-renowned part of La Bayadère showcases 24 female dancers in white tutus, executing 38 synchronized and seamless arabesques while descending onto the stage, and is one of the purest forms of ballet-blanc, or white tutu ballet.

“The Kingdom of the Shades is a challenging segment because it requires such control and precision from the corps de ballet women,” says Welch. “There are few works in the classical repertoire that require more precision from the corps de ballet.” The Kingdom of the Shades is so popular it is often performed on its own.  Houston Ballet first performed The Kingdom of the Shades scene, staged by Ben Stevenson after Marius Petipa, in March 1994 and revived it in 1998.

La Bayadère is the second new staging of a 19th century classic that Mr. Welch has created for Houston Ballet, after Swan Lake in 2006. He has choreographed a number of full-length story ballets for The Australian Ballet, including Madame Butterfly (1995), Cinderella (1997) and The Sleeping Beauty (2005); as well as two original evening-length works for Houston Ballet Tales of Texas (2004) and Marie (2009).

English designer Peter Farmer, who has a long and rich history with Houston Ballet, will create the spectacular scenery and costumes for La Bayadère. Mr. Farmer has created eight full-length productions for Houston Ballet since 1972 and is one of the few designers to have worked with three of the company’s directors:  Nina Popova, Ben Stevenson and Stanton Welch.

“It was such a pleasure working with Stanton on Madame Butterfly in 1995 for The Australian Ballet that I was so pleased when he asked me to design La Bayadère,” says Farmer.  “Stanton’s vision, as in all his works, is visually exciting and adventurous. I’ve always been an admirer of the great works of the 19th century. And, I’ve always admired La Bayadère and have wanted to design it for some time. It’s a big challenge for me, and for the company, to have the chance to make the production new again.”

The focus of Farmer’s costume designs are brightly colored traditional Indian attire, such as harem pants and saris, for the first and second acts.  “Peter’s scenic design is not a realistic depiction of India.  It will be more like looking through an old picture book from western culture with a view of romanticized India,” comments Welch.  “The production will have a very painted look, almost reminiscent of Monet, that will give it dreaminess and romance.”   

Welch’s lavish new production will include 121 costumes, comprised of 568 items.  This also includes 26 new handmade white tutus for the Kingdom of the Shades scene.

The original production of La Bayadère was set to the music of Viennese composer Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917). The composer of over 20 ballets, Minkus was an excellent craftsman in the style of ballet music of his day and one of the most important composers in 19th century Russian ballet. Born in Vienna in 1826, Minkus was a violinist, ballet conductor and composer.  From 1864-1871, he was the official ballet composer at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. In 1871, he was transferred to St. Petersburg, where he worked until 1891.

The only original score of La Bayadere exists in Russia, but has never been available in the west.  In 1980 former American Ballet Theatre prima ballerina Natalia Makarova commissioned John Lanchbery to reconstruct the original Minkus score for her staging of La Bayadère at American Ballet Theatre.  Acts I and II of the resulting score are based on Minkus, but Act III was composed by Lanchbery, adding a bit of Hollywood glamour.  Welch’s La Bayadère uses Minkus’s score as arranged by Lanchbery as a starting point.  Since February 2009, Houston Ballet Music Director Ermanno Florio and the late music librarian Robert Bridges tailored the score for Mr. Welch’s production.  

“Both Stanton’s version and Lanchbery’s original score are in three acts,” explains Florio, “But where there are three large scenes in Lanchbery’s Act I, Stanton’s version only uses the first two scenes of the original Act I as his new Act I.  The third scene of Act I stands alone as Stanton’s new Act II.  Stanton joins the original Act III and IV as his new Act III.”

A tragic soap opera set in an Indian royal court; La Bayadère blends exoticism, white tutus, venomous snakes and opium.  In his book, The World’s Great Ballets, critic John Gruen places La Bayadère in the following historical context: “The creators of Romantic ballet shared with other artists of the time a fascination with the spiritualism and exoticism of the Orient. The most notable early dance treatment of such themes was Filippo Taglioni’s opera-ballet Le Dieu et la Bayadère, based on a poem by Goethe. More than 40 years later, Marius Petipa conceived of the idea for his own Oriental ballet.  At its premiere on February 4, 1877, at the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, La Bayadère was a triumph: it catered to the Russian taste for spectacular theatrics, exotic settings, and convoluted, melodramatic plot lines, yet also contained classical choreography of breath taking purity.”

Marius Petipa (1818-1910), the “father of classical ballet,” was born in Marseille, France in 1818, and produced over 60 full-evening pieces, including works that have become the foundation of the classical ballet repertoire such as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.   Swan Lake and La Bayadère share many similarities:  Both were premiered in 1877, and both made spectacular use of the corps de ballet in performance to symphonic scores.

Although La Bayadère remained in the repertory of many Russian companies throughout the 20th century, it was little seen in the West until 1961, when The Kirov Ballet performed The Kingdom of the Shades scene at The Royal Opera House in London.  In 1963, Rudolph Nureyev staged a version of The Kingdom of the Shades for England’s The Royal Ballet.  In 1980, the great Russian ballerina Natalia Markova staged the first full-length production of La Bayadère in the West for American Ballet Theatre to critical acclaim.  In 1992, Nureyev also staged a full-length version for Paris Opera Ballet.

Although the exact origin of the story of La Bayadère is unknown, it is an example of 19th century Romantic ballets set in an exotic location with a fascination with the Orient, spiritualism, triangular relationships, ethereal beings and melodramatic plot lines.  A number of operas and ballets were created about “bayadères” – Indian temple dancers – at that time.   Despite the ballet’s setting in ancient India, Ludwig Minkus’s music and Petipa’s choreography barely made any gesture to traditional forms of Indian dance and music, as the ballet was a vision of the Orient seen through 19th century European eyes, particularly since it was produced during the height of the British Raj (Queen Victoria of England took the title Empress of India in 1877).

Petipa’s choreography contained various elements that reminded the spectator of the ballet’s setting, but he did not stray from the classical ballet canon. Petipa was not interested in ethnographic accuracy in any part of the ballet with regards to choreography. It was the fashion of the time, whether a ballet was set in China, India, or the Middle East. The ballet master rarely – if ever – considered including traditional native dance forms.

Photo by Pam Francis: Amy Fote in Houston Ballet’s La Bayadere



  1. Jenny February 6, 2010 at 1:40 am #

    Loved reading the background and plans for this lavish ballet, which I am eager to see. It is main reason we will be in Houston in March.

  2. Patrizia March 6, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    very interesting, thank you

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