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.
The other part of the answer to these questions lies in the fact that the East did not build a fantasy Occident like the perfumed Orient which Europe constructed for its own delectation and peopled with inhabitants such as The Indian Temple Dancer.
It was this vogue for the Orient that in 1838 led an enterprising French impresario to bring a group of dancers from a temple in Pondicherry, India.
It was a historic visit and they created quite a stir. Théophile Gautier, the celebrated French dance critic, saw them and recorded his mixed response to their alien-ness. The Indians stayed for over a year and performed in Paris, Vienna, Antwerp, Brussels, London and Brighton. But, as Gautier noted, their visit brought no changes to the European depiction of Indian temple dancers. As he watched Marie Taglioni portray a Bayadère in 1844 he wryly observed that the “genuine article” did not really stand a chance against the “white gauze tutu”.
My work Bayadère – The Ninth Life lets the long lens of history dwell on the very European character of the Bayadère and asks what she means to me as a contemporary Asian woman living in Britain. Gautier viewed the real Bharatha Natyam dancers from Pondicherry and found them not as he had expected. In a reversal of Gautier and in companionship with him, Bayadère – The Ninth Life is inspired by my encounter with the fictional Nikiya in Petipa’s ballet.
This article was first published in Dancing Times 2017
1.La Bayadère, Act 2, 1877
2.Illustration, Indian temple dancers
3.La Bayadère, Kingdom of the Shades, 1900
4.Yekaterina Geltzer as Nikia in La Bayadère. Credit – Sputnik/Alamy Stock Photo
5.La Bayadère – Nikiya – Ekaterina Vazem, 1877. Credit – Paul Fearn/Alamy Stock Photo