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Mariinsky Ballet returns with curious, occasionally brilliant 'La Bayadère'

La Bayadère, Kingdom of the Shades (Act III), Mariinsky Ballet (photo by Valentin Baranovsky)

The last time the Mariinsky Ballet performed La Bayadère at the Kennedy Center, it was in 2008, when the company was still calling itself the Kirov Ballet. Regret over missing that run is almost entirely due to the chance to see Diana Vishneva dance the role of Nikia, in what was the company’s first performance of the ballet, in the Marius Petipa choreography, here in Washington. The second run of this ballet, which opened last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House, was most remarkable for its male lead.

It has to be said that La Bayadère is not exactly a work for the ages. It has a largely undistinguished score by Ludwig Minkus, often little more than a harmonic pattern and accompanying figures in search of an interesting melody. The story is a fairly standard love triangle, involving a prince who has to marry Gamzatti, the rajah's daughter, but is actually in love with Nikia, the temple dancer (bayadère) of the title. There is a lot of rather stilted pantomime in the first two acts, and the divertissment in the second act, for the wedding of Solor and Gamzatti, is a ludicrous pageant that opens with Solor arriving atop a (fake) elephant and reaches a silly climax with the corps holding stuffed parrots. Dance critic Alastair Macaulay once quipped, “No matter which production of this full-length ballet you see, at least 60 percent of it is trash.” The math is indisputable.

Kimin Kim in La Bayadère, Mariinsky Ballet (photo by Natasha Razina)

The Solor of Korean dancer Kimin Kim, who has also danced the role with American Ballet Theater, was the high point of the solo casting. Lithe and bounding with energy, Kim made the most of the role's many leaps and other acrobatic feats -- “a formulaic series of standard bravura tricks," Macaulay also noted, which "have much more to do with a ballet competition than with dance drama.” The lightness and verticality of his movement through the air was breath-taking.

Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, The ballerina who fights back: In ‘La Bayadere,’ she won’t be manhandled (Washington Post, October 18)
Viktoria Tereshkina was technically impeccable as Nikia, her iron-like form holding beautiful shapes in lifts. Her strongest moment was the tragic dance at her beloved's wedding in the second act, to the accompaniment of a poignantly played solo by principal cellist Amy Frost Baumgarten. In this moment, especially going to a perfectly still arabesque while remaining en pointe with consummate strength, Tereshkina was astounding to watch. In much of what had come before, she was a cold, even steely presence, not creating much sympathy for her plight.

Although the Mariinsky has recently restored the fourth act of La Bayadère, this production ended mercifully with the best part, Solor's extravagant opium dream in the third act. The "Kingdom of the Shades" scene is “one of the sovereign images of ballet classicism” (Macaulay again), and few companies mount it as strikingly, as mysteriously as the Mariinsky. Susan Robinson's harp solos set the otherworldly tone, as the gorgeous corps de ballet, supremely drilled, made their slow descent from the Himalayas. The meditative repetition of movements and music creates a spell, greater than either music or dance by itself.

The solo variations for Solor and Nikia's ghost were also fine, featuring a softer version of Tereshkina's style, the perfect foil to the loveless pas de deux Solor had with the Gamzatti of Anastasia Matvienko in the second act. Oleg Rylatko, concertmaster of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, played the dazzling violin solos with admirable virtuosity.

La Bayadère runs through October 22, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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