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Original Indian temple dancers

Reversing the Gaze – Karthika Naïr on the grandmother of all orientalist spectacles

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.


Karthika Naïr
Dramaturg on Bayadère – the Ninth Life

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