La Bayadère

Grand ballet in four acts and seven scenes with an apotheosis
Music by Ludwig Minkus
Libretto by Marius Petipa and Sergei Khudeokv

World Première
4th February [O.S. 23rd January] 1877
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Original 1877 Cast
Nikiya
Ekaterina Vazem

Solor
Lev Ivanov

Gamzatti
Maria Gorshenkova

The High Brahmin
Nikolai Goltz

The Rajah
Christian Johansson

Première of Petipa’s final revival
16th December [O.S. 3rd December] 1900
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1900 Cast
Nikiya
Matilda Kschessinskaya

Solor
Pavel Gerdt

Gamzatti
Olga Preobrazhenskaya

The Three Shades
Vera Trefilova
Varvara Rykhliakova
Anna Pavlova

Plot
Set in legendary India, La Bayadère tells the story of the doomed love between the noble warrior, Solor and the beautiful temple dancer, Nikiya, who is murdered by her jealous rival, Gamzatti. In the aftermath, Solor’s grief brings him to the heavenly realm of the Kingdom of the Shades in an opium-induced dream, where his beloved appears among the many shades and tenderly forgives him for his betrayal. However, Gamzatti’s murderous triumph is short-lived as her actions provoke the wrath of the gods. In retaliation, the gods destroy the temple, killing all who are responsible for Nikiya’s death, and Nikiya is reunited with her beloved Solor beyond the reach of man.

Ekaterina Vazem as Nikiya (1877)
Ekaterina Vazem as Nikiya (1877)

History
La Bayadère is Petipa’s most famous exotic ballet and was created especially for the benefit performance of Ekaterina Vazem, who danced the lead role alongside Lev Ivanov, who was the Premier Danseur of the Imperial Theatres at the time. Petipa spent almost six months staging La Bayadère. During the rehearsals, he clashed with Mme. Vazem over the matter of her entrance in the ballet’s final Grand Pas d’action of the fourth act, while also experiencing many problems with the set designers who constructed the ballet’s elaborate stage effects. Petipa was also worried that his new work would play to an empty house, as the Director Karl Kister increased the ticket prices to be higher than the Italian Opera, which at the time were expensive. However, when the ballet premièred on the 4th February [O.S. 23rd January] 1877, it was a renowned success, with the most celebrated passage being Petipa’s grand vision scene known as The Kingdom of the Shades. In 1900, Petipa staged his final revival of La Bayadère for the dual benefit performances of Pavel Gerdt and Matilda Kschessinskaya.

Despite the ballet’s setting in Ancient India, Minkus’s music, even in the character numbers, made barely any gesture to traditional forms of Indian dance and music. The ballet was essentially a vision of the Southern Orient through 19th century European eyes. Although some sections of Minkus’s score contained melodies that were reminiscent of the Southern Orient, his score was a definitive example of the musique dansante in vogue at that time and did not stray at all from the usual string of lightly orchestrated melodious polkas, adagios, Viennese-style waltzes and the like. In that same regard, Petipa’s choreography contained various elements that reminded the spectator of the ballet’s setting, but never once did the Ballet Master stray from the canon of classical ballet.

Petipa’s production of La Bayadère was performed for the final time by the Imperial Ballet in 1916.

Lev Ivanov as Solor (1877)
Lev Ivanov as Solor (1877)

The first revival of La Bayadère was staged by Alexander Gorsky for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet in 1904, which subsequently underwent several revivals. In 1917, Gorsky substituted his revival with a more radical version, which included finishing with a “wedding feast” as the highlight with all kinds of quasi-authentic Indian arm and finger positions. He also made some quite drastic changes to the Kingdom of the Shades scene, including the use of much more quasi-authentic Indian-style costumes for the shades. The scene was later restored to its original scenario, or at least a version closer to it, by the Bolshoi Premier Danseur Vasily Tikhomirov in 1923. In 1932, Agrippina Vaganova staged a new production of La Bayadère for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet, in which she heavily revised the dances for Nikiya, especially for her star pupil Marina Semenova, who danced the title role. These features included triple pirouettes sur la pointe and fast piqué turns en dehors, all of which would find a permanent place in the ballet.

Today, La Bayadère is presented primarily in two different versions – the productions derived from Vladimir Ponomarev and Vakhtang Chabukiani’s 1941 revival for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet and Natalia Makarova’s 1980 production for the American Ballet Theatre, which is itself derived from the Ponomarev/Chabukiani version. While the Ponomarev/Chabukiani revival follows Petipa’s staging more closely, it deviates further from the original story in regards to the absence of the fourth and final act, a tradition that is seen in almost every Russian production today.

Nikolai Aistov as the Rajah, Julia Sedova as Gamzatti and Pavel Gerdt as Solor (ca. 1902)
Nikolai Aistov as the Rajah, Julia Sedova as Gamzatti and Pavel Gerdt as Solor (ca. 1902)

Petipa’s final revival of La Bayadère was notated circa. 1905 in the Stepanov notation method and is part of the Sergeyev Collection. In 2002, Russian Ballet Master, Sergei Vikharev mounted a new production of La Bayadère at the Mariinsky Theatre, in which he restored the long-lost fourth act. Although this staging has been labelled as a “reconstruction”, Vikharev retained most of the Soviet choreography and used only a small amount of the notated choreographic passages. The production premièred on the 31st May 2002, but was met with hostility in Saint Petersburg. Vikharev’s staging of La Bayadère has since been retired from the Mariinsky repertoire and the company continues to perform in the 1941 Ponomarev/Chabukiani production. In 2018, for Petipa’s bicentenary, La Bayadère was reconstructed by Alexei Ratmansky for the Staatsballett Berlin, with new décors and costumes by Jerome Kaplan. Ratmansky’s reconstruction of La Bayadère premièred on the 4th November 2018 at the Staatsoper Unter den Berlin.

Act 1 of the 1900 revival: in the centre is Matilda Kschessinskaya as Nikiya (1900)
Act 1 of the 1900 revival: in the centre is Matilda Kschessinskaya as Nikiya (1900)

Did you know?

  • Pavel Gerdt was 56 years old during the time of the 1900 revival and Nikolai Legat acted as an additional cavalier during the dance passages. This situation was very ironic because when Gerdt was a young dancer, he acted as the additional cavalier for the ageing Lev Ivanov (the first Solor) in the original 1877 production.
  • In the original 1877 production, Gamzatti was called “Hamsatti”.
  • The famous pas de deux for Solor and Nikiya outside the temple in the first act was originally not a dance number, but a mime number, as discovered by Alexei Ratmansky when notation scores for La Bayadère by Alexander Gorsky were recently discovered in Moscow. According to Ratmansky, it was Vakhtang Chabukiani who expanded and transformed this number into the famous pas de deux known today for the 1941 revival.
  • The so-called Pas de deux for Nikiya and the Slave was choreographed and added by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1954 for Natalia Dudinskaya. The music is not by Minkus, but by Cesare Pugni from his score for La Esmeralda.
  • The Danse Manu of the second act has a history of having had many famous ballerinas dancing the student roles when they were children and among others was the great Bolshoi Prima Ballerina Galina Ulanova.
  • The role of Nikiya was the role that shot Anna Pavlova to fame when she first danced it in 1902. It is even written that she gave Petipa everything he had wanted for the role. Nikiya would later be the final role that Pavlova would dance with the Imperial Ballet in 1913 before she left Russia for good.
  • The famous Dance of the Golden Idol that is traditionally danced today in La Bayadère was not created by Petipa. It was created by the Russian danseur, Nikolai Zubkovsky in 1948 for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet’s production. Like the music for Solor’s variation, the music for the Golden Idol’s dance is also taken from Petipa’s 1874 revival of Le Papillon – it is a Persian march that Minkus composed for the revival. Interestingly, the music is not even a march, but a waltz in 5/4 time. In the 19th century, composers used the 5/4 time signature when they needed to portray ‘the exotic’.
Act 2 of the 1900 revival
Act 2 of the 1900 revival: in the centre are Matilda Kschessinskaya as Nikiya and Vera Trefilova as the Manu Dancer. On the right are Pavel Gerdt as Solor and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gamzatti

The Kingdom of the Shades

The most famous and celebrated scene of La Bayadère is The Kingdom of the Shades scene, in which Solor, under the influence of opium, dreams of his beloved Nikiya in a glorious heavenly realm at the top of the Himalayan Mountains. Petipa staged The Kingdom of the the Shades scene as a Grand Pas Classique and in the original 1877 production, the scene was set in an illuminated castle in the sky. Petipa’s simple and academic choreography was to become one of his most celebrated compositions, with the famous Entrance of the Shades arguably his most celebrated composition of all.

The Entrance of the Shades was inspired by Gustav Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Paradiso from The Divine Comedy, with each dancer of the thirty-two strong corps de ballet clad in white tutus with veils stretched about their arms. Each of the dancers made her entrance one by one down a long winding ramp from upstage right with a simple arabesque (fondu) and into cambré, followed by an arching of the torso with arms in fifth position, followed by two steps forward. With the last two steps, she made room for her sister shade and the combination would continue thus in a serpentine pattern until the entire corps de ballet had filled the stage in eight rows of four. Then followed simple movements en adage to the end, where the ballerinas split into two rows and lined opposite sides of the stage in preparation for the following dances. Petipa left the Entrance of the Shades free of technical complexity – the unison of the whole and the effect of the descending ballerinas was the challenge, as a mistake from one dancer would spoil the entire scenario.

For his 1900 revival, Petipa changed the setting for The Kingdom of the Shades scene from an enchanted castle in the sky on a fully lighted stage to a dark and rocky set on the starlit peaks of the Himalayas. He also increased the number of dancers in the corps de ballet from thirty-two to forty-eight, making the illusion of descending spirits all the more effective in the Entrance of the Shades.

One very interesting passage that has been changed in modern times is the Variation of Nikiya with the Scarf, which is known today as The Scarf Duet. Today, this piece is danced by Nikiya with Solor holding the ends of a tulle scarf before the latter exits with the scarf, leaving Nikiya to complete her solo alone. In the original variation by Petipa, Solor never took part in this passage – Nikiya entered the stage holding one end of a long tulle scarf, while the other end was attached to a wire in the rafters above the stage. When Nikiya released the scarf, it flew away across the stage and disappeared into the rafters, as if it were “supernaturally guided”. The original Nikiya, Ekaterina Vazem briefly mentions this effect in her memoirs:

I had a great success, in the variation, accompanied by [Leopold] Auer’s violin solo, with the veil which flies upwards at the end.

The majority of the traditional choreography that is danced by Nikiya in the Kingdom of the Shades scene was not choreographed by Petipa, but by Natalia Dudinskaya, who danced the role of Nikiya in the première of Ponomarev and Chabukiani’s 1941 revival. Dudinskaya gave way to the multiple tours en arabesque performed in the so-called “Scarf duet” and added the famous fast piqué turns in the Grand coda.

The Kingdom of the Shades was the first scene from La Bayadère to be staged in the West. In the 1920s, Anna Pavlova attempted to stage the scene for her company’s repertoire, but alas, her attempts were unsuccessful. It was not until 1961 that The Kingdom of the Shades made its Western début when it was staged for the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Eugenia Feodorova on the 12th April. That same year, on the 4th July, the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet performed The Kingdom of the Shades on the Palais Garnier in Paris and it was this staging that won the scene widespread interest and recognition as, at that time, La Bayadère was unknown in the West. In 1963, Sir Frederick Ashton commissioned Rudolf Nureyev to stage The Kingdom of the Shades for the Royal Ballet, as Nureyev was very familiar with the scene having danced in the full-length ballet in Russia. Sir John Lanchberry re-orchestrated and arranged Minkus’s score. The Royal Opera House première of The Kingdom of the Shades was a huge success and is considered to be one of the most important events in the history of ballet.

The Kingdom of the Shades in the 1900 revival: in the centre are Matilda Kschessinskaya as Nikiya and Pavel Gerdt as Solor. On the left are Vera Trefilova, Varvara Rykhliakova and Anna Pavlova as the Three Shades.
The Kingdom of the Shades in the 1900 revival: in the centre are Matilda Kschessinskaya as Nikiya and Pavel Gerdt as Solor. On the left are Vera Trefilova, Varvara Rykhliakova and Anna Pavlova as the Three Shades.

The loss of Act 4

One of the most distinguishable facts about modern productions of La Bayadère is the loss of the fourth and final act, in which, during the wedding of Gamzatti and Solor, the temple is destroyed by the gods as vengeance for Nikiya’s death.

The first production to omit the fourth act was Alexander Gorsky’s 1907 revival of his original 1904 production for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet. Gorsky’s reason for omitting the fourth act was because by then, the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatre’s administration had stopped renting the sets. Following the Russian Revolution, La Bayadère reappeared on the stage of the former Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1920 in a new production with Olga Spessivtseva as Nikiya, Anatoly Vilzak as Solor and Maria Romanova (the mother of Galina Ulanova) as Gamzatti. This production omitted the fourth and final act and modified the scenario, while Minkus’s score was adapted by Boris Asafiev, transferring the music for the apotheosis in the fourth act to the Grand coda of the third act’s Grand Pas Classqiue to bring the ballet to a close. This revival ended with a short epilogue after the Kingdom of the Shades in which Solor awoke from his dream and was reunited with his beloved Nikiya. Fyodor Lopukhov claimed that the fourth act was removed because the theatre now lacked the technical staff needed to stage the destruction of the temple.

A modern tradition of La Bayadère is the inclusion of the Grand Pas d’action in Act 2. However, this Grand Pas d’action is from the fourth act and is meant to be performed by Nikiya, Solor, Gamzatti and four bayadères, for in this number, the shade of Nikiya haunts Solor during his wedding to Gamzatti. Today, however, the scenario is completely changed, as it is traditionally performed by Gamzatti, Solor, four bayadères and two cavaliers as part of the celebrations for Gamzatti and Solor’s engagement. The variations also underwent change from the original 1877 production.

The famous variation for Solor in the Grand Pas d’action that is danced in all modern productions is not the original variation that was performed by Pavel Gerdt in 1877, nor it is the variation that was performed by Nikolai Legat in the 1900 revival. For the 1900 revival, Legat interpolated a variation that was composed by Minkus for Petipa’s 1874 revival of Le Papillon into the Grand Pas d’action as Solor’s variation. The violin repetiteur score for this variation is included in the Sergeyev Collection. According to Alexei Ratmansky, it was Chabukiani who later replaced Legat’s variation with the famous traditional one danced today.

The traditional variation that is danced by Gamzatti is not the original variation composed by Minkus, but a variation composed by Riccardo Drigo for Queen Nisia in the Pas de Vénus from Le Roi Candaule. However, this is not the variation that is included in the repetiteur score in the Sergeyev Collection as Gamzatti’s variation. What is included in the repetiteur score as Gamzatti’s variation is what is today known as the famous Variation of Dulcinea in the Dream scene of Don Quixote. It has been commonly believed that this famous Dulcinea variation was composed by Drigo for Alexander Gorsky’s 1902 revival of Don Quixote, but that is not the case. This variation was actually composed by Drigo in 1888 for Elena Cornalba’s performance in The Vestal. It was later interpolated into La Bayadère as the Variation of Gamzatti in the Grand Pas d’action, possibly by Julia Sedova, who was dancing the role of Gamzatti by 1902 and whose name is on the repetiteur score. However, it is unknown if this is the same variation that was danced by Olga Preobrazhenskaya in 1900. It is also unclear how the famous traditional variation for Gamzatti ended up in La Bayadère, but there are two possibilities – it could have been interpolated into the ballet by Preobrazhenskaya for the 1900 revival and was then replaced by the variation performed by Sedova, or it is a Soviet addition. The famous traditional choreography for this variation that is commonly danced today is by Gusev.

According to Sergei Vikharev, the Grand Pas d’action once included a variation for Nikiya that was composed by Drigo for Matilda Kschessinskaya in the 1900 revival. However, Vikharev did not include this variation in his 2002 production and as of today, it remains unknown if the music has survived.

According to Lopukhov, the 1920 revival was the first production to present the Grand Pas d’action in the second act. In one of his many writings, Lopukhov writes that when the 1920 revival was staged, the music for the Grand Pas d’action was cut and rearranged, Nikiya was removed from the number and the number was given to Solor, Gamzatti and four bayadères. He then goes on to say that it was in the 1941 revival by Ponomarev and Chabukiani that the Grand Pas d’action was heavily revised into the traditional version danced today, with only a small fragment of Petipa’s choreography still in use.

The loss of the fourth act not only saw the transferring of the Grand Pas d’action to the second act and the omission of the destruction of the temple, but also the omission of a rarely danced number. This number is the Dance of the Lotus Blossoms, a children’s dance for twenty-four female students, which is performed after the Grand Marche. This dance had not been performed until it was reconstructed and restored by Vikharev.

Although Gorsky was the first to omit the fourth act, his production and its subsequent revivals were never staged outside of Moscow. It was the 1920 revival that ultimately gave way to the tradition of omitting the fourth act and performing the Grand Pas d’action in the second act. However, Lopukhov’s explanation for the omission of the fourth act in the 1920 revival does not explain why it was permanently removed from the ballet as it later reappeared on the Russian stage. The fourth act of La Bayadère was performed for the final time in Russia circa. 1924, after which, it mysteriously disappeared from the ballet.

There is no concrete explanation for the loss of Act 4, but there are several possibilities:

  • Petrograd was flooded in 1924 and many pieces of décor created for the former Mariinsky Theatre’s stage were destroyed. Among these may have been the décor for Act 4 of La Bayadère and perhaps the post-revolution Saint Petersburg ballet were unable to obtain the funds for new décor.
  • A lack of funding supports the second theory, which is that the Mariinsky Theatre lacked the technical staff needed to produce the effects of the temple’s destruction, as Lopukhov claimed.
  • A third and more curious explanation tells of how the Soviet regime would not have allowed the performance of a theatrical presentation that included Hindu gods destroying a temple.

It may very well be that all of this factored into the loss of Act 4, but the true explanation for the act’s disappearance still remains unclear. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, several modern productions of La Bayadère surfaced that included new versions of the fourth act, with the most famous being Natalia Makarova’s production. The final act in Makarova’s production is a version that she completely created and choreographed herself with the music of Minkus completely rearranged and re-orchestrated by Sir John Lanchbery. When Rudolf Nureyev staged his production of La Bayadère for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1992, he had planned to include the fourth act, but his failing health deteriorated and he ran short of money. In the end, he chose to remain faithful to the Soviet tradition of ending La Bayadère on the Kingdom of the Shades scene. It was not until the staging of Sergei Vikharev’s 2002 production that the fourth act from Petipa’s production was restored, though the notated passages from the Grand Pas d’action were modified and expanded. For example, Vikharev’s staging of the coda included the traditional fouetté sequence for Gamzatti. However, this fouetté sequence is a Soviet revision and was probably added in the 1941 revival.

The Destruction of the Temple (1877)
The Destruction of the Temple (1877)

Sources

  • Letellier, Robert Ignatius (2008) The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus. Cambridge Scholars Publishing
  • Naughtin, Matthew (2014) Ballet Music: A Handbook. Lanham, Maryland, US: Rowman & Littefield
  • Pritchard, Jane with Hamilton, Caroline (2012) Anna Pavlova: Twentieth-Century Ballerina. London, UK: Booth-Clibborn Editions
  • Scholl, Tim (1994) From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge
  • Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd
  • Stegemann, Michael. CD Liner notes. Trans. Lionel Salter. Léon Minkus. Paquita & La Bayadère. Boris Spassov Cond. Sofia National Opera Orchestra. Capriccio 10 544.
  • Royal Ballet: Souvenir program for La Bayadère. Royal Opera House, 1990
  • Mariinsky Ballet: Souvenir program for La Bayadère. Mariinsky Theatre, 2001