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Cojocaru's Bayadere 5/12/03

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Avant-propos: I'm way behind on writing and was going to do one massive essay to catch up, but reason prevailed and I'll try to post several related essays over the next few days. Because they're long, I'll put them in separate threads so they don't dam up discussion.

A ballerina being introduced to New York could not have a more portentous entry than that of La Bayadère, and it amplified the mystery of Alina Cojocaru's debut in the city wonderfully. Like many of the grand ballets, the ballerina's entrance is held off; the scene is set first, subsidiary characters introduced and group dances happen and then when we are primed, she appears.

The audience couldn't stay quiet on Monday night, her second and final performance. Including balletomanes and cognoscenti, it buzzed and hummed and whispered and chattered and was as distractedly attentive as if it were a gala night. Much of the dance profession is off that night including New York City Ballet's dancers, and they streamed across the plaza along with everyone else to find out who exactly Alina Cojocaru was and what the fuss was all about.

After the dance of the fakirs and the temple dancers, a curtain parted and she appeared stage left at the entry door of the temple atop a flight of stairs, veiled, the body seen but her face still invisible to us. As in Ashton's magical entry for Cinderella at the ball, ballerinas do not rush down stairs; they take them step-by-step. In Nikiya's snow white costume and spotlit to make her appear even more unnaturally pale, Cojocaru descended and then slowly walked toward the center; each step a pose in tendu back with a carefully placed foot. Minkus' music rises to a gentle swell as Cojocaru stopped in the center and waited; the High Brahmin approached her from behind. The tension was delicious as he came up from behind her and tore off her veil, revealing her to the gathered cast, the audience and New York. There was spontaneous applause. The moment was more a triumph of event planning and mystery than technique (Cojocaru hadn't danced a step yet) but of such mystery does a dancer become a ballerina.

In Makarova's production of the ballet and coached by Makarova herself, Cojocaru resembles her in some ways. Even smaller and more waif-like than Makarova, she looks in danger of being dwarfed by the stage of the Met, yet she held her own. Like Makarova as well, her proportions mitigate her size; she may be small, but her legs are quite long. They are similarly studied dancers in performance as well; Cojocaru's lines and angles look meticulously studied and carried out with precision. Her extensions are high, and there's some grousing about that, but I didn't find them egregious. Her leg is placed to its extension; it's never flung.

Beyond the physical, one can see Makarova's method in Cojocaru's dance-acting and she looks as if she responds well to it. There is motivation in every step of Cojocaru's Nikiya; no port-de-bras is merely ornamental, no step taken without purpose. Her variation at Solor's betrothal to Gamzatti was danced directly to Solor, each movement of the dance a plea. Her instincts seem sound as an actress; she made intelligent and individual choices to fit the role to her. Had Cojocaru come charging at Gamzatti, dagger in hand, she would have looked ridiculous. Instead, she seemed to walk toward the table with the knife in shock after Gamzatti's revelation of her betrothal to Solor. Stunned, distraught and in a daze, she happens on the knife as if by accident and picks it up weakly in desperation, as if she knows the action is doomed to failure from the start. It works much better for her character and physique. There is danger in this sort of study of a hermetic performance and right now Cojocaru throws off very little heat. Projection and passion are the next challenges for her; she has authority and ability to spare.

Angel Corella's Solor was a mixed bag. Corella seems in transition as an artist; trying to shed his boyish image, a difficult task, as that's his physique and stature. His Solor seemed manly, but to do it Corella punched everything fortissimo and if it was powerful, it was also strained; he had difficulty with one of his manèges because of it. I've seen Corella make a case for himself in role's he's miscast in, but a role like Solor doesn't require merely power and weight, but stillness. Stella Abrera's Gamzatti was well acted, glamorous and spiteful, but as a dancer it's hard for her to stand up to Cojocaru. Where Cojocaru would place her leg or pointe just so, and it went directly to that place just so and did not budge, Abrera would hit a pose and adjust it slightly. There is a difference in their level, and it diminishes the ballet slightly. Like Myrtha, Gamzatti may not be as large a role as the lead, but it's not a soloist role; it takes a dancer of principal caliber to do it.

The production itself is grand and handsome. After seeing enough ham-handed desecrations of nineteenth century ballets, Makarova's psychological additions to the final act seem innocuous in comparison. They aren't as effective as what comes before, but at least they don’t feel anti-classical. There is a perceptible shift in style, though. Even if one hasn't seen other productions of Bayadère, one can sense after the Shades scene where Petipa leaves off and Makarova begins. Where Petipa put his meaning into classical abstraction, Makarova puts hers into characterization. The change is even in the look of the production. The sudden angular change of lighting as Gamzatti advances threateningly towards Solor in his chamber on the morning of their wedding is dramatic and beautiful, but it hurtles us forward 80 years in sensibility.

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