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Understanding La Bayadère – an interview with Jane Pritchard

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.

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