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
Ekaterina Vazem

Lev Ivanov

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
Matilda Kschessinskaya

Pavel Gerdt

Olga Preobrazhenskaya

The Three Shades
Varvara Rykhliakova
Agrippina Vaganova
Anna Pavlova

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)

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.

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.

Anna Pavlova as Nikiya (ca. 1902)
Anna Pavlova as Nikiya (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.

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”.
  • Petipa’s original pas de deux for Solor and Nikiya outside the temple in the first act is shorter than the traditional version that is danced today. It was Nikolai Legat who expanded this pas de deux, with the addition of more athletic lifts, when he staged a revival of La Bayadère in 1914.
  • The famous variation for Solor in the Act 4 Grand Pas d’action was originally composed by Minkus for Petipa’s 1874 revival of Jacques Offenbach’s and Marie Taglioni’s two-act ballet Le Papillon. Minkus composed new music for this revival, expanding the ballet from two acts to four, and one of the new compositions was a variation for the lead male role, Prince Djalma. This variation later became the famous Variation of Solor in Petipa’s 1900 revival of La Bayadère when Nikolai Legat interpolated it into the Act 4 Grand Pas d’action and it has remained Solor’s variation ever since.
  • The traditional variation danced by Gamzatti in the Grand Pas d’action in modern productions today is not the original variation composed by Minkus. It is actually a variation composed by Riccardo Drigo for Queen Nisia in the Pas de Vénus from Le Roi Candaule. The famous traditional choreography for this variation that is commonly danced today is by Pyotr Gusev.
  • For the 1900 revival, Drigo composed a new variation for Matilda Kschessinskaya in the Act 4 Grand Pas d’action, but the variation did not survive as Kschessinskaya did not pass it on to the ballerinas who succeeded her in the role of Nikiya.
  • 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 Soviet Prima Ballerina Assoluta, 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 1914 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

Petipa staged The Kingdom of the the Shades scene as a Grand Pas Classique, completely devoid of any dramatic action 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 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 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 Varvara Rykhliakova, Agrippina Vaganova 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 Varvara Rykhliakova, Agrippina Vaganova 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 the temple is destroyed by the gods.

Following the revolution, the ballet reappeared on the stage of the former Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1919 in a production by Fyodor Lopukhov that was staged especially for Olga Spessivtseva. It was this production that was the first to omit the fourth and final act, resulting in the scenario being modified and with Minkus’s score being adapted by Boris Asafiev. Lopukhov claimed that he removed the fourth act due to the lack of technicians and artists at the time. This was also the first production that presented the Grand Pas d’action in the second act. Today, the Grand Pas d’action is traditionally danced in Act 2, but it is actually from Act 4 and is performed by Nikiya, Solor, Gamzatti and four bayadères, in which the shade of Nikiya haunts Solor during his wedding to Gamzatti. Lopukhov’s 1919 revival removed Nikiya from the Grand Pas d’action and gave the number to Solor, Gamzatti and four bayadères. Lopukhov’s production ended with a short epilogue in which Solor awoke from his dream and was reunited with his beloved Nikiya. It was here that the tradition of omitting the fourth act of La Bayadère began: it was performed for the final time in 1924, after which it 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. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, several new productions of La Bayadère surfaced that included new versions of the fourth act, with the most famous of these productions 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 Lanchberry. When Rudolf Nureyev staged his production of La Bayadère for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1992, he originally planned to include the fourth act, but his failing health took its toll on him 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 act. 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.

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



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  • Mariinsky Ballet: Souvenir program for La Bayadère. Mariinsky Theatre, 2001