Houston Ballet’s La Bayadere: A Review

28 Feb

Remaining Performances: Today, March 6 and 7 at 2 p.m.,  March 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m. (alternating casts)

By JOHN DeMERS

I have always hated “full-evening story ballets.” But Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch is seeming more and more like the kind of guy who can change my mind. 

Operating for many years under a rule as ironclad as the Monitor or the Merrimac, I’ve become certain that the shorter the written summary of an act or scene in the program, the more I will despise it. This is fairly logical: a short summary means nothing much happens, and since the stretch ahead will last anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, that means 20 to 45 minutes of nothing much happening. And by all means, stay out in the lobby drinking wine whenever you read that the main characters in any ballet are “entertained by lively peasants.” This will go on and on. And this is precisely how story ballets get to be “full-evening” in the first place. 

In all fairness, Welch is not the first or only choreographer to offer Houston Ballet audiences a gift for gripping narrative. John Cranko’s Eugene Onegin remains a theatrical tour de force whenever it’s performed here, as does the Ben Stevenson Dracula – but then again, I’ve never met a Dracula I didn’t like. Welch’s Swan Lake took an old chestnut and made it sprout into a powerful oak, giving it so much human drama that all jokes about this work being “for the birds” were silenced. And now, in his fresh setting of La Bayadere – potentially a real piece of schlock from 19th century St. Petersburg schlockmeisters Minkus and Petipa – Welch shows a lifetime’s worth of growth as showbiz impresario. It is art, it is spectacle, it is exoticism. And in the end, it is beautiful to a nearly Wagnerian degree. Tristan and Isolde, it turns out, have nothing on Solor and Nikiya in the “love death” department. 

In this dazzling production, with sets and costumes by Peter Farmer, Welch makes a senseless story seem to make sense. There are several interlocking loves in this plot set around an ancient Indian temple – Europeans of the late 1800s loved what came to be called “orientalism,”and this is as crazy a bit of it as you can find anywhere. Let’s see: “warrior prince” loves “temple dancer” (the “bayadere” in the title), while high priest (or Brahmin, more or less her boss in sexual harassment terms) loves her too. The warrior prince ends up with the daughter of the Rajah in love with him, and the two are pushed into an engagement. People die from this point on – starting with temple dancer Nikiya when she’s bitten by a viper placed in her basket of flower offerings. Pretty soon, everybody else is dying too, though mostly by stabbing and the collapse of the temple in an earthquake caused by some really angry gods. 

Welch gives us three acts of this nonsense, and convinces us to believe every minute of it. Most impressively, he resists his creative impulse and serves up the classic staging of the ballet’s sole famous scene, something called the Kingdom of the Shades. Excruciatingly slow and meltingly beautiful, this involves the ghosts of temple dancers past moving down onto the stage by way of a long ramp and then crisscrossing the entire space in a flutter of white tutus. To say that this set piece matches Welch’s own choreography perfectly is, of course, backwards. It is Welch who captures, teases and deftly prepares the way for this heartstopper, with every leap, every kick, every wave he puts in. Call it reverse engineering if you must, but the Kingdom of the Shades scene enriches everything else in this new Bayadere. And vice versa. 

Opening night audiences were thrilled by the company’s couple to reckon with, Sara Webb as Nikiya and Connor Walsh as Solor. Walsh brings the necessary strength and nobility to the role, not to mention some decent acting as he sinks into the drug-induced trance that carries him into the Kingdom of the Shades. Webb delivers the expressiveness and maturity we’ve been seeing in development for years, combining some dead-on dance fireworks with the style of intense storytelling that now is (I hope) forever part of Houston Ballet’s approach. 

Kelly Myernick, another longtime company favorite, shines as Rajah’s daughter Gamzatti, getting almost as much stage time as Nikiya and making every bit as much of it. Nicholas Leschke does his usual fine job as the Rajah, as does James Gotesky as the High Brahmin and Christopher Gray as Kalum, the animal-like, ever-slinking fakir. Jim Nowakowski isn’t onstage all that long as Agni the fire god, but he is all excitement when he is, leaping from a temple pyre over prostrate worshippers and dancing impressively before leaping right back in.

Photos by Amitava Sarkar: (above) Sara Webb, Connor Walsh and Nicholas Leschke; (below) Jim Nowakowski, in Houston Ballet’s new production of La Bayadere.

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