Filmmaker Gary Tanner filmed our dancers in the lead up to a performance at The Lowry. More trailers and interviews can be found on our YouTube channel
Filmmaker Gary Tanner filmed our dancers in the lead up to a performance at The Lowry. More trailers and interviews can be found on our YouTube channel
A visual treat from Act 3 of Bayadère – The Ninth Life. Photographs taken by Benedict Johnson at The Lowry.
We spoke to dancer Sooraj Subramaniam about what audiences can expect…
The piece has three distinct sections, can you tell us what happens in each act?
Act 1 is like a synopsis of the original La Bayadère ballet, played out via a conversation between two friends. You get a sense of how these two friends feel about La Bayadère: surprise, awe and disbelief about the culture in which the ballet was created.
In Act 2 one of these characters is absorbed into this orientalist fantasy world of 19th century Europe when westerners first encountered Indian temple dancers. That character takes on some of the layers of the temple dancers who were objectified, exoticised and fetishised.
Act 3 plays on the hybridity of how we see dance in the 21st century. In an abstract way, it exposes the cultural tropes that people were quite happy to use when talking about new or fascinating civilisations. How do they relate to our own present day cultures; are we an amalgam of all these seemingly contradictory things; do we sit with these differences comfortably; what tensions confront us? It’s a lot of questions up in the air, that’s what the final act reveals to me.
No ballet made as deep an impression on me as did Petipa’s La Bayadère which I saw for the first time in the early nineties. Its impact on me was viscerally contradictory. On one hand there was much to admire in the movement and choreography. I had seen enough kitsch Bollywood dream scenes to be totally unfazed by the exotic set and the grand spectacle of the staging. However there was a constant stream of elements that pulled my attention away from the dance. At times I almost wished it were set in any other country apart from the one of my birth.
I had to double check that characters that moved with animal-like servility close to the floor with arms hanging by their sides indeed represented fakirs– spiritually-minded and disciplined ascetics (like John the Baptist perhaps) who shunned society. I quelled a deep desire to stand up and shout, “This is an insult to fakirs!” The invented gesture used as a greeting that was neither a salaam nor a namaste was equally distracting.
To an Indian any mention of a dancing Golden Idol conjures up the bronze icon of Shiva, the perfect cosmic dancer. Like everyone else in the audience I was left exhilarated by the amazing skill displayed in this virtuoso solo. However my eye kept wandering to the mudra (hand gesture) that concluded the line of the arm. The mudra in Bharatha Natyam (the dance that has its origins in the temples of South India) is a culmination of a taut energy that radiates from the torso and informs the tips of the fingers, giving them an etched, incisive quality even when they seem to project easefulness. I had to adjust my aesthetic template to fit the soft-fingered un-stretched rendering of the mudra that I saw on stage.
And what of the figure of the Bayadère herself with the very un-Indian name of Nikiya? How had a pale, willowy heroine with a pliant spine and harem pants come to represent Indian temple dancers for over 150 years? It was this question more than anything else that set me on my quest.
I wondered if a traditional dance-maker in India in 1866 would have composed a dance work set in Tunbridge Wells with a heroine named Kamala. Would their exotic “English“ Kamala have danced barefoot to the sound of drums surrounded by beautiful sets that evoked the English countryside with the silhouette of the Roman Colosseum in the background? Would all the men have worn tartan kilts in the belief that this was the national dress of the English? Would the depiction of Morris dancing have ended up looking like Flamenco?
Part of the answer to these questions lies in the fact that in 1866 the sense of cultural entitlement did not exist in India for the creation of such a dance work. It was a colonised country very much on the disadvantaged side of the cultural power balance. The power to observe, choose selectively, appropriate, and give legitimacy to one’s own perspective without anticipating challenge or debate is one of the perks of political and economic power exercised on a global scale.
We premiere the new version of Bayadère – The Ninth Life at The Lowry on Thursday 28 September, before performing at Sadler’s Wells on Monday 16 and Tuesday 17 October. We asked photographer Jane Hobson to capture production photos, below are some stunning images featuring our incredible cast of dancers.
The Ludwig Minkus score for the original La Bayadère has of course been a big influence on the music I have created for this work. In fact much has been created from a recording (provided courtesy of Capriccio Records). I have frequently used the Minkus score as an ‘electroacoustic’ sound-source and manipulated and processed it to form new musical material that is very far from the original. At other times I have allowed familiar motifs and harmonies from Minkus’s composition to emerge.
Remarkably, certain electronic time-stretching processes gave some of the Minkus music a quasi-Indian sound. I have played with Minkus’s very 19th century attempts at Indian-inspired music to bring it a more authentic flavour: further exploring the idea of how one culture perceives, and tries to imitate another.
In the first act of Bayadère – The Ninth Life my music has a very functional role – giving little digital snippets from the Minkus version, which have been distorted and corrupted as they are sent over the internet. Gradually this re-telling of La Bayadère seems to cast a spell over our protagonists and they are swept into a maelstrom of swirling Hidrabadi traffic and warped La Bayadère score, and are magically drawn into the 19th century of Minkus, Petipa and Théophile Gaultier… Music fills the theatre – with a stretched harmony from the famous Kingdom of the Shades scene – an important sonic theme of this work.
I have long admired Shobana Jeyasingh for her structural rigour and compositional invention but more recently I discovered her approach to narrative in dance, through Material Men Redux where she took on a chapter of history as abstruse – as seemingly distant – as indentured labour. Shobana then transformed it into an immediate, riveting, and highly affecting, tale whose shadows, whose injustices, colour the lives of tens of thousands of people across the globe even today, including those of the two remarkable dancers of the duet.
So, it felt like pure serendipity that our paths should cross on Bayadère – the Ninth Life. I’ve been grappling, more than ever this year, with the many complex equations of dance and otherness. And with this piece, Shobana reverses the gaze on La Bayadère —one of Europe’s germinal ballets, and quite the grandmother of all orientalist spectacles. She dissects – but always with sharp good-humour – the perceptions of otherness teeming through the visuals and narrative of Marius Petipa’s masterpiece as well as through the writings that probably inspired the French-Russian choreographer and his librettist: Théophile Gautier’s 1838 chronicles of the first European tour by a troupe of Indian devadasis (female temple dancers), who took Paris by storm for a brief period.
Fittingly, this post-colonial revisiting also leads us to wonder why La Bayadère’s regressive, sometimes shockingly racist, representations like the black-face Golden Idol moment, continue to be a part of revivals by some of the world’s great ballet companies.
Dramaturg on Bayadère – the Ninth Life
On Monday 18 September Shobana appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. The programme’s theme was competing ideologies and intolerance. Other guests were Jon Sopel, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and Roxana Silbert who is directing What Shadows about Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Listen on iplayer here (Shobana’s section starts approximately 20 minutes in)
Bayadère – The Ninth Life is a departure from Shobana’s usual works as it is a full-length piece that has a very strong narrative. Moving between fact and fantasy, Shobana interweaves the original story of the La Bayadère ballet with the first-ever visit of Indian temple dancers to Europe in 1838.
But what is the original ballet about? Where and when was it created? And how did it become one of the most well-known ballets still performed throughout the world?
1. The word bayadère is French for Indian temple dancer, originating from the Portuguese word ballar, meaning dance.
2. The first visit of temple dancers to Europe was in 1838. They were brought over to France by an enterprising impresario – EC Tardival (pictured below) – from Pondicherry in south India. They stayed for over a year and performed in Paris, Vienna, Antwerp, Brussels, London and Brighton.
3. Once in Paris, the prevailing attitude towards the cultures of India and the Far East (Orientalism) was vividly reflected by theatre critic, Théophile Gautier:
‘The very word bayadere evokes notions of sunshine, perfume and beauty even to the most prosaic and bourgeois mind… and through the pale smoke of burning incense appear the unfamiliar silhouettes of the East. Until now bayaderes had remained a poetic mystery like the hours of Muhammad’s paradise. They were remote, splendid, fairylike, fascinating.’
4. La Bayadère was first staged in 1877 by French choreographer Marius Petipa to the music of Ludwig Minkus at the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg.
5. The ballet was created especially for the benefit performance of Ekaterina Vazem, Prima Ballerina of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre.
Jane Pritchard is Curator of Dance, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
What is La Bayadère?
La Bayadère which we are referring to is a ballet choreographed in St Petersburg for the Imperial Russian Ballet in 1877. It takes its title from its heroine who is a Hindu dancing girl. The word is derived from the Portuguese so from the start there is an element of colonial ownership. The choreography was by the Frenchman Marius Petipa who worked on the narrative with Sergei Khudekov and the music (dominated by waltzes) by the Austrian composer Ludwig Minkus. It’s really a typical ballet fantasy of the triumph of love over death – I love Clive Barnes’ description of La Bayadère being ‘Giselle east of Suez’.
Tell us a bit about the historical context of La Bayadère – do you have an opinion on what kind of impact it made at the time and how it might have been received? Has it stood the test of time?
In many ways La Bayadère was typical of late nineteenth century Russian Ballet. St Petersburg audiences loved long spectacular ballets and Bayadère with its four acts, seven tableau, dancing, mime, processions and special effects – most notably the collapse of the temple at the end, was exactly what they wanted. But along with the usual ballerinas dancing in tutus to tuneful music. Western audiences certainly heard about La Bayadère even if they did not see it for it was sufficiently spectacular for prints of scenes from the ballet to appear in illustrated periodicals in London at the time of its creation. Interestingly there were plans to mount a production also in Moscow but having prepared sets and costumes Petipa was suddenly unable to do this. Another choreographer, Joseph Hansen, was asked to create another ‘Indian’ ballet complete with collapsing temple! It was not very successful.
Although little bits of La Bayadère crept out into the West through the C20th it remained a Kirov/Mariinsky ballet until Natalia Makarova mounted her reduced production for American Ballet Theatre in 1980. I know then I was very excited to be seeing the complete ballet having already become familiar with the scene the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’. Markarova retained a C19th feel for the work but even more exciting for historians of dance was Sergei Vikharev’s reconstruction of the complete work in 2000. But it was long! Nevertheless by going back, at least to 1900, it revealed how much the ballet has evolved and changed over time. Given the international standardisation of ballet repertoire, there are now many stagings but not many reinterpretations.
I would say, although I enjoy La Bayadère, and for me it was a highlight of the recent Mariinsky season in London, it’s not a work I would take friends who were not into ballet to see. I would encourage them to see the Kingdom of Shades in a mixed bill.
It is important to understand that for C19th audiences the Indian element was no more than a gloss, an excuse for some exotic elements in the architectural of the sets, not to mention the inclusion of an elephant, tiger, parrots etc. But ballets followed a similar format wherever they were set; the Rhinelands, medieval Hungary, the Turkish Empire or Japan. Audiences were looking for instant exoticism and it’s not so different from us enjoying films and TV series set in interesting locations. I think of the approach to ballets as being similar to the ‘courts’ at Crystal Palace which evoked buildings from different eras and continents from ancient Egypt to South Asia, but no one was worried if they cobbled together architectural details from different centuries from one region! Sources used would be the illustrations and accounts that travellers sent back from their journeys. All a bit like Chinese-whispers. This approach really continues to the middle of the C20th. To more informed eyes of the C21st much seems ludicrous.
What are your favourite elements of La Bayadère? Is the costuming, set, music or any particular scenes?
No question my favourite scene is the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ which can become an almost abstract work, a formal ballet of atmosphere. You do need a superb corps de ballet and soloists as it is so exposing for dancers. But with a bare stage and just one or two ramps (that actually are meant to represent the slopes of the Himalayas) down which the corps descends at the start it is superb. I would also say that in the complete ballet Nikiya is a wonderful role for a virtuoso dramatic ballerina. I am also fascinated that it is often performed in traditional painted scenery which is a dying art.
You’ve seen Bayadère – The Ninth Life and Shobana’s work – does this impact your view of La Bayadère – does it provoke any particular thoughts for you?
I love the fact that Shobana is questioning the place of this quaint old ballet. You do not have to know the Petipa ballet to enjoy her production but it is fun when you do. To my mind it’s surprising that audiences have continued to accept C19th clichés for so long. In fact, Shobana’s production also references the visit of the Indian devadasi dancers to Paris and London in 1838. Audiences then had little context in which to place their art in so critics wrote about them with Western prejudices and vocabulary.
In Bayadère – The Ninth Life there is an element of time travel – if you were to be transported back in time, where would you go and why?
This is a tricky one as one always thinks about the elements of the past that fascinate not the horrors. I have always been intrigued by the late C19th early C20th it was such a time of creativity and change but I would want to be within artistic circles. BUT then one would end up in the Great War which would be horrid and I am not certain there would be dentists available to solve all my problems with my teeth. I think I am better off living now!
Finally, please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do – people will be very interested to learn about your work and also how often you attend the ballet and other productions.
I and my two sisters grew up in London with parents who encouraged us to go to theatres, concerts, museums and take advantage of what London had to offer and I have never looked back. I see a very wide range of dance in different styles both for pleasure and work. I’ll be at theatre or dance three times a week – its where most of my money goes! As Curator of Dance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, I am expected to care for a wide range of material relating to dance in performance so I am always learning new details about dance and dancers. I’m lucky to have such a stimulating job.
Thanks for your fascinating insights Jane.