Hong Kong Ballet’s glittering La Bayadere premiere

June 05, 2023 10:01
Royal Ballet stars Vadim Muntagirov & Marianela Nunez in La Bayadere (Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco)

Hong Kong Ballet’s current season concluded last weekend with the premiere of a glittering new production of “La Bayadere” (The Temple Dancer), a major work by the great 19th century choreographer Marius Petipa.

Created in 1877, “La Bayadere” is set in an orientalist fantasy India. It is a story of intrigue, jealousy and divine retribution. The High Brahmin professes his love for Nikiya, the most beautiful of the temple dancers who rejects him as she is in love with the noble warrior Solor. However, the Rajah forces Solor to marry his daughter Gamzatti. The ballet is most famous for its “Kingdom of the Shades” scene in Act 2, which is sometimes performed on its own in a mixed programme. Its depiction of a vision of infinity is an absolute masterpiece of Petipa, and a touchstone of the strength of a classical ballet company.

This new spectacular production is by the former American Ballet Theatre Ukranian star Vladimir Malakhov, who was a distinguished and celebrated dancer before he became the artistic director of the Berlin State Ballet in 2004. The choreographic text in Malakhov’s version is mostly faithful to Petipa’s original choreography. Since the original choreography for the Act 3 wedding scene in the temple has been lost, Malakhov is sensible not to recreate Act 3. And the ballet ends instead with the glorious Kingdom of the Shades scene in Act 2, as in the current production of the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg.

In Act 1, Malakhov has included a good selection of classical and exotic character dancing. He has retained the delightful Manu dance with a female dancer balancing a water jug on her head, and also the Djampe ribbon dance for six women. I wish though that he hadn’t omitted the exciting ‘tom-tom’ drum dance.

In the beginning of Act 2, Malakhov has added a yearning solo for Solor under the influence of opium before his dream of the Kingdom of the Shades. The Golden Idol solo has been moved to this act from the Act 3 wedding scene.

This opening night’s cast was stellar, due to the guest appearances of the Royal Ballet stars Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov. They are the most renowned partnership in the Royal Ballet nowadays. Nunez has just celebrated earlier this year her 25th anniversary with the top British company. When the Royal Ballet last toured Hong Kong in 2008 Nunez was with the company.

Nunez was magnificent as Nikiya. She was sublime in the duet of the Kingdom of the Shades scene; her dancing projected a warm glow and a soothing spiritual calmness. Her solo had a diamantine brilliance. As Solor, Muntagirov was princely and noble. His virtuosity was breathtaking, especially in his series of eight impeccable double assemblees at the end of the Shades scene. This is a great partnership.

The second night saw the return to Hong Kong Ballet of another guest star, Iana Salenko, a principal of the Berlin State Ballet. Her solo with the flowers basket at the end of Act 1 was vibrantly danced. Her technical virtuosity in the Shades scene was effortless and dazzling. Garry Corpuz was her Solor.

Hong Kong Ballet was certainly in top form and did justice to this excellent Malakhov production. The corps de ballet of 24 shades was impressive in its uniformity especially on the second night. Wang Qingxin was convincing as Gamzetti. Kim Eunsil impressed as the first shade soloist. Wei Wei was a dignified High Brahmin, while Luis Torres was authoritative as the Rajah. Jeremy Chan shone as the Golden Idol.

The costumes designed by Jordi Roig were lavish. The golden backdrops were spectacular. However, the lighting for the Kingdom of the Shades scene was too dark. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta was superb under the baton of Robert Reimer.

Incidentally, “La Bayadere” may not be politically correct nowadays, since this ballet’s depiction of Indian culture has been criticised by some as being a narrow 19th century European view. Nevertheless Hong Kong Ballet’s outstanding performances last weekend should render insignificant such criticism.

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HK Ballet dancers in La Bayadere (Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco)

veteran dance critic