La Bayadère, Ballet by Ludwig Minkus
La Bayadère has a special place in the history of ballet. The work, which bridged the Classical and Romantic eras, received its premiere at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg on 4 February 1877 (23 January in the Julian calendar). Yet not a glimpse of it was seen outside Russia until 1961. Its most famous scene, The Kingdom of the Shades, was first staged that year in Brazil. Then, the Kirov Ballet performed the same extract at the Palais Garnier in Paris, part of the tour during which the company’s principal dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, defected to the West.
Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, and set to music by Ludwig Minkus, La Bayadère is an exotic depiction of the desperate measures that some will take to defeat their rivals in love. Solor, a warrior, falls for Nikiya, the temple dancer of the ballet’s title. The Rajah however wants Solor to marry his daughter, Gamzatti.
The High Brahmin desires Nikiya for himself and hopes, by revealing Solor’s fascination with Nikiya, that the Rajah will have Solor killed. To his dismay, the Rajah decides to have Nikiya eliminated instead. Poisoned by the bite of a snake, hidden in a bouquet of flowers by a jealous and vengeful Gamzatti, Nikiya dies. A distraught and delirious Solor finds himself transported to the Kingdom of the Shades where he sees Nikiya’s ghostly figure.
La Bayadère returning to Prague is an exciting prospect. It is a ballet that has never ceased to exert a hold over those who choose to stage it. There have been many revisions, most notably Vakhtang Chabukiani and Vladimir Ponomarev’s revival for the Kirov Ballet in 1941, and Natalia Makarova’s in 1980 for the American Ballet Theatre. All are inspired by Petipa's genius, drawing a line right back to La Bayadère’s original production.
The very first ballet movement Nureyev choreographed himself was The Kingdom of Shades, for The Royal Ballet in London’s Covent Garden in 1963. La Bayadère was also his last choreography, for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1992. There can be no better recommendation to see this ballet than the devotion of an artist considered by many to be one of the greatest dancers that ever lived.