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choreography: Nikiya, Gamzatti, and the Shades

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Mindy Aloff reviews Zakharova's "La Bayadere" at ABT for the DanceView Times:

Svetlana Zakharova in La Bayadère

She writes what I thought was a very interesting theory about the choreography.

For this is a ballet in which Nikiya, the heroine, while she lives, expresses her identity as a temple dancer and hopeful lover primarily with her upper body—her braided arms, her manipulation of such props as a dagger or a basket of flowers—while Gamzatti, her rival for the warrior Solor, presents herself to society as a classicist in a tutu. Yet, after Nikiya has been murdered and becomes a Shade in the mourning hero’s opium dream, i.e. a classical dancer in a tutu whose choreography synthesizes both Nikiya and Gamzatti, the world is effectively turned upside-down: Nikiya and her court of Shades become standard-bearers of classical dance, their legs performing the gestures that were formerly given to Nikiya’s arms and their arms carried with Gamzatti’s aristocratic restraint. This is the magic transformation that animates the ballet’s famous Vision Scene, with its procession down a ramp of 24 dancers taking two steps, steadying themselves with a tendu, and then posing momentarily in arabesque, over and over, winding in an “S” curve down to the stage, where, in formations of inexhaustibly fascinating simplicity, they become a human house of mirrors. The basketry image of the corps standing in ranks, girl upon girl, each in a fifth position slightly canted so that the “X”s of their legs read as geometry, rather than as flesh and bone, is one of the glories of the ballet repertory. It is also a multiplication of the living Nikiya’s braided port de bras, displaced from above the waist to below it. The opiated, grief-stricken, and guilt-ridden Solor has refracted impressions from his day and melded them with embodiments of wish in a manner that one might call Freudian, if Petipa hadn’t made La Bayadère nearly 35 years before the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. The choreography for Nikiya’s Shade and Solor, who has plunged into his own dream to find her, is warmer—more humane—than that for the corps, as the choreography for the leads in Giselle’s second act (to which some of the choreography and the music of La Bayadère refer) is warmer than that for the Wilis. Yet the warmth is not a matter of less austerity in the performance of the steps but rather of the way the figures interact and the way their steps and gestures continually refer back to the actions of the previous scenes, when Nikiya was alive. A ballerina has some options for softness and spontaneity, but within a very narrow compass of tone.
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