A lovely friend of mine and I are having a ballet year. We’re going to see the Bolshoi Ballet performing ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in a week or so (streamed live from Moscow via Fathom Events) and have already seen the Bolshoi’s ‘La Bayadere.’
I have issues with ‘Bayadere.’
It’s a very 19th-century story. Boy meets girl, insta-love, vows and promises, abandonment, tragedy. The production we saw condensed what I understood to be an originally four-act structure into three, in which 90% of the actual story occurs in Act I; Act II is a pageant, ending with the heroine’s untimely demise; and Act III is the alleged hero having smoke dreams about his lost love and probably dying. I didn’t care about him at that point, although he was beautifully danced by a beautiful dancer.
Beauty only goes so far, son.
Anyway, almost immediately I started thinking about how this ballet could be improved upon by rewriting that story. Perhaps this does not surprise anyone who’s read more than three of my blog posts.
So basically, Act I had some promising material. The ‘hero,’ this beautiful prince who falls in love with the temple dancer, is coerced or persuaded or bribed to abandon her in favor of a princess. Meanwhile, a priest is madly in love with the temple dancer. (This priest was so well-played that frankly I wanted him to get the girl, and in my version he would.) Toward the end of Act I, the temple dancer goes to the palace and tries to get the prince back, but fails because he’s a faithless SOB and also the princess isn’t about to let go of him. Her father, the Rajah, is helpfully nefarious in this regard. The priest comes to the palace as well and tries to persuade the Rajah that this whole prince-princess thing isn’t good - he’s not in favor of the prince-temple dancer thing, but he doesn’t want her heart broken. Because he’s the good guy.
A hint: I like happy endings in my love stories. Now, to proceed:
Act II is the whole wedding-pageant thing, distinguished by some nice company dancing, a gorgeous solo by David Motta Soares as the Golden Idol, and some ill-advised use of company students in blackface. (Yes that happened. I was appalled.) Nothing happens story-wise in Act II until the temple dancer comes out and does a piteous solo, is given a basket of flowers in which is hidden a venomous snake, is bitten and dies. Because she refuses the antidote offered by the priest. Stupid girl.
In my version, most of the pageant could stay although obviously we will lose the blackface, and there needed to be more cultural references in the dancing. The thing is supposedly set in India. The sets and costumes were very good, but the choreography was very conventional, classical ballet, which doesn’t speak very persuasively to me. (Matthew Bourne needs to fix this ballet. I will help, Matthew! Call me!) Anyway, it seemed to me that the entire thing was a bit long but the ballet audience does not cavil at three acts, so let’s just make a little more happen in Act II, shall we? Like, say, the temple dancer doesn’t refuse the antidote!
Then we could have the prince and princess having a fight over who poisoned the temple dancer; we could have the Rajah exposed as the villain of the piece (instead of the princess; let’s face it, she just wanted to get with the prince, and he did have very nice legs); and we could have another romantic, suspenseful (will she recover?!) scene with the priest caring for the temple dancer.
Act III of the staging we saw was all an opium dream. There is a long setpiece, apparently legendary, that I had never heard of because I am a bit undereducated when it comes to classical ballet. Anyway, it involves a zigzag ramp affair at the top of the stage, down which the 32-woman corps de ballet proceeds in a long, slow, hypnotic sequence of arabesques. That is literally all they do: step step, arabesque; step step, arabesque, until all of them are down the ramp and onto the main stage. It’s extremely effective. This was part of that dumb-ass prince’s dream. I think it should be part of the temple dancer’s dream.
The rest of Act III was the prince dancing with various company members, or short bits featuring company members, and is all in the dark, moody ‘land of shadows’ set framing the arabesque thing. I would cut all of that and take it back to the temple, where the temple dancer would be recovering (thanks to the priest! He’s the good guy!) and learning to live - and possibly love - again.
Should she love again? Well I think so. That prince was not much of a prince. Maybe we give him and the princess a scene in Act III where they deal with the consequences of the Rajah’s chicanery. Maybe they actually come together as a reasonable pairing, instead of a couple of self-indulgent, destructive twits.
But it’s all about the priest here, if you ask me. Girls, if someone offers you an antidote, TAKE IT.