Bellydancing Lessons For Paloma!: ABT's Bayadere

Gene Schiavone for ABT

So, last night was my first Bayadere of the season and I have mixed feelings. Everyone danced perfectly beautifully, I finally got my big huge sweeping overhead lifts that Herman and Xiomara left out of their “Romeo and Juliet” on Monday night, or just “Romeo,” rather 🙂 (thank you for those, David and Paloma and Gillian!), and all three aforementioned principals were just full of stunning virtuosity in their turns and leaps and partnering.

My main problem is with the, for lack of a better word, stylistics. This is a ballet set in historical Royal India and is the story of Nikiya, a bewitching temple dancer, (or bayadere) who is the object of infatuation of the High Brahmin but who falls hopelessly in love with Solor, a noble warrior whose war deeds have won him betrothal to the Radjah’s daughter. Paloma Herrera — the bayadere, as beautiful a ballerina as she is, completely lacked all of that gorgeous Indian or Middle-Eastern styling. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen a lot of bellydancing lately, but I wanted so much for her to do something so much more with her wrists and arms, move her hips in a rounded, hula motion. I just wanted authenticity. At one point, I just wanted to get up and shout “wrists, wrists!” Indian and bellydancing is so amazingly beautiful, what those women do with their limbs and upper bodies, why couldn’t they have some of that here? Does ballet have to exist in this rarefied stratosphere where it can’t incorporate some of the sublime elements of other forms of dance? I mean, look at these gorgeous wrists here at Terpsichore Musings – and these are students!

This made me think of that now infamous article written by Lewis Segal for the LA Times. It was an overarching and pretty harsh criticism of Ballet in general, which I personally think was mainly a tongue-in-cheek effort to wake up the ballet world and get people thinking about why box office sales were dwindling, but I think one decent point he had was about the “Orientalist” ballets (click here for a definition of that term), of which Bayadere is one. I disagree with Segal that these ballets are too inherently goofily Orientalist to speak to young people today, who are much more worldly than previous audiences, because I think the themes they deal with — doomed love, class issues, fate and justice — are timeless, but I do think they need to be authenticated and updated. Dance being the essence of a ballet obviously (as opposed to a play), the ideal way to do that is to incorporate some of those beautiful Middle-Eastern movements. Perhaps the story-line needs to be made a little more sophisticated as well, and the costumes, such as those used in the ensemble “Kingdom of Shades” parts, pictured above (copyright Gene Schiavone) should be made more Indian-looking as well, but the movement is a start…

Jennifer Dunning reviewed the same female cast in the NY Times, here. Interestingly, she says, a bit critically, that these dancers exhibit what she calls a “21st Century” method of showing character more through movement than “acting.” Maybe that is what I was inadvertently reacting to when I saw the opposite at NYCB, which I characterized as overacting and melodramatic; perhaps I’m just a 21st Century dance-goer and am used to seeing more sublelty in the facial expressions and the drama located more in the movement than in traditional ballet “miming.” Dunning also said she liked Paloma’s back arches, but I’ve seen Latin dancers do far more pronounced ones.

The best part for me was David Hallberg as Solor. I just can’t say enough good things about him. He takes my breath away just with his walks alone, forget all of those amazing jumps (which he did plenty of); he can just walk all over the stage for an hour and I’ll sit there completely mesmerized. He’s so regal, so noble, such a beautiful man, and such a classic male ballet dancer. And he certainly doesn’t do any overacting. He also doesn’t make a big huge pompous stink when he comes onstage (and there’s NOTHING in my mind wrong with those who do, by the way 🙂 — they’re some of my favorites of course of course — like this one, and that one, and of course him 🙂 🙂 ); he’s “just” all about stellar, captivating dancing. I would go see anything he’s in just because he’s in it.


  1. You bring up some interesting ideas about possible modern versions of Bayadere. Maybe it’s time someone did a modern version with more authentic movement, I can see this as a future Mark Morris or Matthew Bourne project. In fact I think I remember that one of the Mark Morris pieces that ABT did at City Center a few seasons ago had a distinctive Indian flavor – so who knows!

    But the reason most people come to see this version is to see Makarova’s staging of the Petipa choreography. And I love it soooooo much! Keep in mind that this was never supposed to be authentic even when it was new – this was a French ballet master’s fantasy of Indian exoticism presented for the entertainment of Imperial Russia’s upper class. Adding real Indian movement might make it more authentic but then it would no longer be classical ballet…which is ABT’s niche. And the idea of making the shades costumes more Indian looking sounds counterproductive to me – that’s one of the “signature” icons of La Bayadere – it’s like taking away Odette’s arabesque or her swan tutu. The shades scene has been referred to over the years as the 20 most beautiful minutes in classical ballet, it represents their spirits in Paradise and is supposed to be classically pure after all the Indian exoticism of the first act.

    Are you going to see any other casts? I didn’t see the Paloma/David cast but I saw them at the gala and she (IMO) tends to separate dance & acting much more than some other ballerinas. I saw Vishneva and her plastique was not Indian per se – but her dancing in the first act had a very exotic feeling to it punctuated by the use of many hyper flexible back positions and sinuous arm movements. She & Ethan also acted very well and she especially really acted through the steps rather than on top of them. I’d go see them on Saturday night if you can. I’d also bet that Part & Gomes bring a lot more heat to the story than Paloma & David did (though I do love David & I’m sure he was fabulous).

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you go to see either of those casts.

  2. Ah, so you were there last night – so was I! Would that I had known. I was sitting in the Grand Tier and for some reason I had a hunch you might be there and I went out onto the Grand Tier lobby during intermission but didn’t see you there. So where were you sitting?

    I happen to like Bayadere, even though I think the first act drags a bit (well, maybe more than a bit). I go to see it mainly for Act II, which is absolutely wonderful. I can never get enough of the Kingdom of the Shades – it touches my soul every time I see it (I remember the first time I saw a little piece of it in the opening minutes of the film, “The Turning Point”) and I also enjoyed immensely the pas de deux for Solor and Nikiya in that act. I’m a big Paloma fan and I love her virtuosity so I didn’t really notice the lack of Indian or Middle Eastern styling in her dancing. While Paloma is beautiful in the story ballets, she would also be very comfortable in the Balanchine choreography across the plaza. Gillian danced splendidly but somehow left me cold – I I think the problem for me was not so much with her dancing as her character – it’s hard to feel too much for Gamzatti. As for DAvid Hallberg, his dancing was also excellent but I did think he over-acted a bit (ha – just wanted to see if you really do read these comments!).

  3. Look for some exciting stuff on the blog soon 🙂 I think you’ll be happy. Glad to know that you enjoyed the show, although it’s so true Bayadere can come across quite silly at times. That’s classical ballet for you though, I guess. Not always derivative of the time and place in which it is set.

    Interesting idea about Morris or Bourne reworking it although I’m looking forward to seein what Bourne does with Romeo. I don’t want him to put anything else on his plate right now! Did you ever get around to reading that New Yorker profile on him?

  4. I’ve thought about this a lot myself. The problem with fusing realistic Middle-Eastern (or other ethnic dance style) into classical ballet usually starts with the music, which is distinctly not authentic to the region in which the ballet takes place (a very simple example would be the second act of “The Nutcracker” – I can’t figure out for the life of me how the “Arabian Dance” is supposed to give the feel of Arabic music – instruments or rhythm). So much of Middle Eastern dance is moving organically with the music and I’m not totally sure how that would work with decidedly Western music behind it. However, I think “Bayadere” could be infused with more Indian positioning. Indian dance has so much beautiful classical poses that could be adopted as a way of giving additional flavor without having the simple rhythm problems – the issue is making it look traditionally Indian rather than like a Western ballerina miming it – guess coaching would be in order.

    And I do love that picture!! **blushes**

  5. Thanks for all the smart thoughtful comments, you guys!

    Parker, I had forgotten about the music issue — you’re right; I guess there would need to be more of a complete overhaul to make it really authentic. I think I meant more of what you’re saying though — the positioning. I just LOVE your wrists! Just the hands and arm movements I’ve seen in bellydance are so beautiful, and they seem like they would work really well here. I actually just got back from seeing Veronika Part perform it (with Marcelo and Michele) and liked her better than Paloma, which I was going to blog about soon… (and I finally met Delirium!) but I would still love to see more of those beautiful Middle Eastern poses.

    Susan, your suggestion about Morris or Bourne doing a re-make is really interesting. But also, just in terms of what’s considered “classical,” didn’t Balanchine kind of bring forth a new kind of classical ballet by infusing some American jazz moves with traditional ballet? Tharp does the same I think — ballet with American swing, etc. — but she’s definitely contemporary — which ABT does, but, yeah, not during the Met season!

    Yes, Bob, I do read the comments 🙂 I was sitting in the back of the orchestra last night.

    M, I’m so curious now — I can’t wait! No, I never got a chance to see Acocella’s profile on Bourne! I subscribe to so many magazines I don’t always realize what wasn’t delivered in a certain week. I hope it’s online; I’ll look for it — thanks for reminding me.

  6. yes, as a ballroom dancer, i’m sure it was frustrating to see ballet dancers belly dance! i feel the same way when ballet dancers do modern dance; the parallel lines don’t really come naturally to a ballet dancer, i think, not like a tharp dancer or mark morris company member.

    hey, salsa dancing doesn’t come naturally to me either (my hips definitely don’t move that way; I learned ballet at a young age!) but doesn’t stop me from trying 😉

  7. I think Balanchine definitely brought forth a new kind of ballet, but I wouldn’t call it classical. I think there are a lot of different opinions out there as to terminology etc. but to my way of thinking Balanchine is neoclassical by definition. I mean, he took classical ballet (read: Petipa) and made it bigger, faster, higher etc. Just take something like Theme & Variations or Ballet Imperial as examples. Both are based on Russian classicism, but they’re not classical – the attack is sharper, the angles are more acute, extensions are higher, everything is done faster. Balanchine’s style grew out of classicism, but he created a new style. By the way, I really like Paloma in Balanchine, and in most of the contemporary things I’ve seen her do.

    I also just got back from ABT! Loved Veronika & Marcelo, Veronika especially brought a real romanticism to the role, and she is so beautiful. But the more I think about it the more I think that Vishneva & Stiefel were really amazing on Wednesday. I hope you get to see them because I think she brings the style you’re looking for to Nikiya- very sinuous, exotic & passionate. I’d go again tomorrow night but I really want to see La Somnambula, and tomorrow will be my only chance…

  8. Thanks for that astute commentary on Balanchine, Susan — you are so knowledgeable! I took your advice and will see Diana tonight. I’m so excited!

    Jennifer, I still can’t move my hips properly for Latin and I’ve been doing it for two and a half years now :S …

  9. “Le Corsaire” is another one that could use a little help in this department come to think of it. …

    When do you leave for Blackpool, and tell me you’re going to be blogging regularly from England! I need to live vicariously through you! Don’t forget to root for Tone and Basil for me!

  10. I know, I thought about Le Corsaire too, but I feel that one is a little different in that I don’t think anyone takes it seriously as a moving, beautiful, serious drama — I think everyone pretty much accepts that it has a completely corny story-line and people mainly go for the great bravura dancing. Bayadere though is considered a very serious, beautiful ballet. You’re right though — they both could use re-working though in the stylistics department… I just feel like if I brought my friends who know nothing about ballet to Corsaire, they would find the pyrotechnics great fun and would get a real kick out of watching the crowd go nuts over Angel Corella, etc. But if I brought them to Bayadere I feel like they might either, at best, laugh and shake their heads, or, at worst, may even be offended, thinking “oh sure, these are Europeans trying to be real Indians” you know… I don’t know, just a thought. I did think, as Susan said, that Diana was much much better than the first night I saw it and am going to blog about that soon!

    I’m off later this week. I HOPE to blog from there, but my ability to post pictures is going to depend on whether I can get wireless access on my computer, or whether I can get an internet connection through my cell phone … I know there is an internet cafe nearby, so I can at least write – blog in increments, but I need a hook-up to transfer pictures through my digital camera… I will definitely lookout for Tone and Basil!

  11. The thing that baffles me is… If the music, costuming, and dancing all do not evoke India, then the only thing Indian about the ballet is that the synopsis in the program claims that it is set in India? It seems like the simple solution is just to ditch the setting and “move” it somewhere else. It doesn’t really matter, since the costuming, music, and dancing could just as easily “not belong” somewhere else! 😉

    Yes, it sounds funny, but it is extremely common in the opera world to goof with settings, put things even in odd and non-sensical places. I saw a production of The Magic Flute in Zurich where the whole thing, instead of being in an enchanted forest, took place in a masonic library. It was odd, yet memorable.

    Though I do want to jump in with one little pedantic thing: It is very common for people to talk about Middle Eastern and Indian dance together, but they are two completely different things. Not only are then not related from a cultural or historical perspective, but movement-wise, they just don’t overlap very much. Indian dance includes little in the way of torso articulation, while middle eastern dance does not have any tradition of poses with assigned meanings. Though you are right that both include very expressive hand and wrist movements. There is a story that turns up in newspaper articles and the like periodically that talks about belly dance being traced back to Indian temple dances – it is an amusing fiction, but absolutely not the case. It unfortunately comes up a lot when teachers want to assign mother-goddess-y origins to belly dance, even though it is the performance form of social dances done by women *and* men all over the middle east.

  12. Oh thanks for that, Natalia. I think I have heard that story before of bellydancing originating out of Indian temple dancing, so thanks for correcting me! I mean, I overall just meant I wanted this to be more authentic and was referring mainly to the expressive wrists and hands. I know they could set it elsewhere, but I love both forms of dance so much, I just wanted to see them somehow combined even if it was just in a bit of the styling!

  13. As far as the re-setting thing, I think it can sometimes even improve a show. I’ve been thinking about it all evening.

    I went to see the St Louis Opera’s production of the Mikado last weekend, and they didn’t do anything really outlandish with it, but they did modify the setting to be in modern Japan, with the schoolgirls in Japanese school uniforms, and a cameo by Godzilla and Pikachu. It was actually simultaneously fresher and truer to the original than the traditional setting. Since the whole core of the Mikado is lampooning 19th century British fascination with Japan – setting it up to lampoon modern America’s fascination with Japan worked extremely well.

    I think there’s some potential in the Orientalist ballets to explore the way idealization of “exotic” cultures still happens, just framed in different ways.

Comments are closed