With its yearning male seeking his lost love beyond the grave and its unattainable female refracted to infinity by the corps, the vision scene in "La Bayadere" represented a definitive statement of moonstruck 19th-Century classicism.
However, the rest of this 1877 Petipa/Minkus ballet-spectacle was something else: a preposterous tale of forbidden love and violent death in ancient India replete with lurking servants, leaping fakirs, a murderous Radjah, a horny High Brahmin, a dancing statue and a temple conveniently collapsing on everyone to punish their impiety.
Extensively rechoreographed by Natalia Makarova and recomposed by John Lanchbery in 1980, the $500,000 American Ballet Theatre version boasted sumptuous settings by Pier Luigi Samaritani and ornate costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge still manage to retain their impact even in the wide-open spaces of Shrine Auditorium.
Moreover, judging from three casts over the weekend, Ballet Theatre may at last have mastered the flamboyant mime style that is as important as classical dancing in making the full-length "La Bayadere" more than a curiosity.
Certainly, Victor Barbee (the Brahmin) and Leslie Browne (Gamzatti) put on such a heady demonstration of heavy-breathing, nostril-flaring, eye-popping histrionics on Friday and Saturday night, they all but revived the art of silent-film melodrama. They were wonderful, exactly on target.
Browne also danced strongly, especially when partnered (superbly, as usual) by Patrick Bissell at the latter performance. Bissell, of course, has long been a brilliantly fiery Solor. But on Saturday night, his intensity both in the bravura variations and the complex dramatic choreography of the last act proved thrilling beyond anything he has previously achieved.
At the Saturday matinee Ross Stretton made a cooler, more conventionally cavalierish Solor--his dancing very polished, his partnering occasionally unreliable--and Amanda McKerrow danced Gamzatti with greater distinction than she showed in her well-coached but subdued mime scenes.
Similarly, Michael Owen tried to underplay the High Brahmin, but, alas, public displays of overwhelming lust and jealousy are no occasion for restraint, subtlety or good taste. However, John Gardner offered an extravagant display of skulking, cowering, slithering and flailing as the matinee Fakir. His evening counterparts--Gil Boggs on Friday, John Wey Ling on Saturday--jumped just as well, but didn't matter as much.
The Friday Solor, Kevin McKenzie, danced powerfully and embodied the character's plight with rare depth. On the same night, Johan Renvall danced the Bronze Idol with spectacular force and clarity. Ling (Saturday afternoon) and Julio Bocca (Saturday evening) each had his moments, but Renvall went beyond mere virtuosity to suggest the might of the gods waiting to crush human weakness. Magnificent.
Of the two excellent, familiar Nikiyas, Martine van Hamel (Friday) capitalized on great majesty and purity of style, while Marianna Tcherkassky (Saturday afternoon) conveyed the character's emotions with exceptional freshness and sincerity. New to Los Angeles, Susan Jaffe's interpretation (Saturday night) had all the heat and sensuality that her Gamzatti had lacked four years ago along with the dazzling technique that Jaffe now lavishes on every role.
Corps dancing ranged from ragged in the palace divertissements to respectable in the vision scene. Stewart Kershaw (Friday) and Jack Everly (the Saturday performances) each conducted the fine orchestra effectively.