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Classic in retrograde
The Kirovís La Bayadère, plus Sally Silvers in Concord

NEW YORK ó Weíre into the second century since the great Russian classicist Marius Petipa choreographed La Bayadère for the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg (now the Kirov) in 1877. Bayadère survived as an evolving stage work, woven from remnants, updates, and successive interpolations, but the ballet as originally done is effectively lost, with only its reputation intact. Last year the Kirov decided to go back to Petipaís final revision, for which considerable documentation exists, and itís this 1900 relic that opened the Lincoln Center Festival and the Kirovís two-week engagement early last week.

La Bayadère was very successful at its premiere, cementing Petipaís reputation as a creator of stage spectacle and dance novelty. It went out of the repertory when the ballerina for whom it was choreographed, Yekaterina Vazem, retired. Petipa brought the work back in 1900, with changes, and the dances in this version were recorded at the time in Stepanov notation by regisseur Nikolai Sergeyev. The score is presently housed in the Harvard Theater Collection; it was one of the major sources consulted when the Kirov undertook a full-length restoration. Despite the extensive research and authentication, with a team headed by Sergei Vikharev, the ballet is still a mix of old and new ideas.

This Bayadère occupies an odd position in history. Having the dances in notated form adds to their credibility, but we donít know the relationship of the 1900 score to the 1877 Bayadère. Petipa was 82 in 1900. He had been in charge of the Mariinsky for 30 years; his ballets were grand ó and formulaic. The era of art modernism was germinating, not to mention the Russian Revolution. Michel Fokine, the great reformer and first choreographer of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, was standing in the wings. It seems reasonable that a 23-year hiatus would have inspired Petipa to fresh thoughts about the revival, even if he couldnít have anticipated the vastly different ballets and ballet dancers that would emerge in the next 23 years.

When Natalia Makarova staged a gorgeous, streamlined Bayadère for American Ballet Theatre in 1980, the first full-length production outside the Soviet Union, it provoked dance historyís eternal questions. How much can we expect from a revival of a 19th-century ballet? Should it satisfy us in modern terms? Can it satisfy us in its original terms, even if we think we know what those terms were? I longed to see the mime and divertissements that Makarova had omitted. Well, the Kirovís new production supplies these, along with fussy, semi-period costumes, and reams of Ludwig Minkus music that weíve mercifully never heard. Now I think that Makarovaís Bayadère made sense. It wasnít an abstraction, like the all-dance ballets of George Balanchine, but it brought a new appreciation for the old genre by acknowledging modern taste.

The plot of La Bayadère, which is set in a fictional ancient India, has love, jealousy, secrets, murder, disloyalty, and despair; exotic dancing girls; the dazzling ceremony of two coexisting potentates, one secular and one monastic; a drug-induced vision of Heaven and a cataclysmic earthquake. None of the characters is thoroughly good or evil, but the spiritual life, symbolized by classical dancing, triumphs over worldliness.

Ballet was one of the few opportunities the public had to see mass effects before the development of movies. Given the limitations of indoor photography in the late 19th century, most of our impressions of the Russian ballet spectacles come from highly exaggerated engravings that were widely published. In the fine-drawn graphic style of these images, the stage looks detailed and expansive. There are immense, vaulted banquet halls, forests and fountains, crowds of curious villagers, battalions of Amazons and hussars, live animals, and innumerable busy servants. On stage these productions may not have been quite so extravagant, but the operatic scale and density was what struck the audience.

Ballet shared the Mariinsky Theater with opera in those days. The performances were long and the audience could wait for the spectacle to unfold. Possibly they came late to miss an act or so. Extensive miming was needed to tell the story and reveal the characters. When Fokine came along, he threw out the bombast, pared the miming down to a few essential gestures, and integrated the dancing with the story line in smooth-flowing, stylistically coherent one-act formats. Bayadère circa 1900 shows why Fokineís reforms were so badly needed.

Although the Kirov production labored on for three and a half hours, it somehow didnít seem grand enough. Processions introduced several scenes, but they looked skimpy and rushed, as if on opening night the company hadnít adjusted its timing to the huge stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. The group dances in diverse styles seemed like diligent exercises, each with an exotic twist or device ó a garland dance, a dance for girls with parrots on sticks, a dance for a girl balancing a water jug on her head. As they streamed out one after another, they looked more and more academic to me.

The first two acts have almost no dancing at all, and we plod through long mime passages of " You! Renounce him! " " I wonít give him up! " " Heís mine! " " But he swore to me. " " [Two vigorous hand claps] Servant! Take this woman away! " The dancers whaled into this claptrap led by Svetlana Zakharova as Nikiya the temple dancer; sheís a thin, snaky modern ballerina with arms and legs like vines and a torso that seemed pushed forward and sprung backward at the same time. Igor Kolb, her lover, looked a bit bumbly, and you could see why he would fall for a glamorous rajahís daughter at the first opportunity, though he turned out to be a good dancer when given the chance. The Gamzatti, Elvira Tarasova, looked a little bit like Barbara Stanwyck, a bad girl who invites your sympathy, if only because she was compelled to wear low-heeled shoes until the fourth and last act, when she also proved to be a fine dancer.

By the time act three rolled around, the audience members were applauding deliriously for the Kingdom of the Shades, either because they recognized the scene that has come down the most consistently through time as a paradigm of pure classicism or because they were so happy to get their teeth into some dancing. In fact, the Shades worked wonderfully well, though the impressive 32-member corps de ballet was only two-thirds the size of the 1900 ensemble. There were moments, with the lines of white tutus floating forward in unison, when you seemed to be flying in a clear space above a cloudscape.

NEW YORK DOWNTOWN DANCER Sally Silvers, who opened a three-week Meet the Artist performance series Thursday night at Concord Academy, was the perfect antidote to the Kirovís long-winded artfulness. Silvers is a small sturdy woman who often improvises in performance with the composer John Zorn. Both of them have perfected a style you could think of as an apocalyptic Bronx cheer ó rude, raucous, and somehow uneasy. Zorn didnít appear live in Concord, but Silvers showed a solo and a video accompanied by his collage from the Brecht-Weill show Happy End.

In Along the Skidmark of Recorded History (1990), Silvers skittered around in a tight black mini-dress with striped black and white tights. She gestured dramatically, and there seemed to be a dire story of some kind that she was remembering but trying not to tell. She was being chased, or putting up a brave fight, or drowning. All the musical fragments that I recognized were from introductions to songs and were cut off before the melody began. The whole thing had the feeling of a cartoon.

The video, Little Lieutenant, was made four years later by Silvers and Henry Hills, with, it seemed, the same music and the same scenario. The story had some specifics attached to it, but there was the same threatening atmosphere: crowds, marching soldiers, a bar with a sleazy singer and somebody trying to grab her, a factory making anti-aircraft guns.

The dancing and the music in both these pieces was made of tiny but compressed clashing scraps of stimuli, violent images that carried provocative meanings but moved off your attention screen too quickly for anything but momentary shock.

In Shouting Out Loud, an undated solo, Silvers seemed somewhat calmer, but this only revealed how bizarre her movement was. She hopped, lunged, tiptoed on one foot while kicking it with the other foot, braided her toes together. Everything seemed not quite finished, purposely off the mark.

Silvers also let the audience watch her choreographing some phrases for two works in progress, one with students in the Concord Academy summer dance program, one with faculty members Edisa Weeks and Dan Joyce. Like the finished pieces, these interludes were elusive and opaque, prompted by feelings that didnít necessarily add up. I felt reprieved not to have to put " meaning " onto dancing.

Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
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