One month before the ballet "Swan Lake" premiered March 4, 1877, at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, the ballet "La Bayadere" opened at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Guess which was the big hit of the season?
Right. "La Bayadere."
Moscow, after all, was still the provinces. St. Petersburg was the place to be.
Although "Swan Lake" was not the disaster that legend incorrectly remembers it, it took many years for the ballet to enter the standard repertory.
"La Bayadere," on the other hand, never left the repertory, at least not in the Soviet Union.
The legendary Diaghilev Ballets Russes ballerina Tamara Karsavina, who created roles in Fokine's "Les Sylphides," "Firebird" and "Le Spectre de la Rose," among other classic works, reminisced about what "La Bayadere" meant in her glory days.
"It was classed," she wrote in the monthly British magazine "Dancing Times" in 1964, "in the category of 'holy' ballets. Only fully initiated ballerinas were allowed to dance it."
Karsavina, of course, did dance the work and remarked that the ballet demands "dramatic power, lyricism and technical perfection."
Certainly, "La Bayadere" did not survive because of the serviceable but mediocre score by Alois Minkus.
Nor because of its typically convoluted plot. Nikia, a bayadere or temple dancer, loves the warrior Solor, who despite his love for her agrees to marry someone else. Nikia is treacherously killed, Solor dreams of finding her in the land of the dead and he and his bride-to-be are killed when the gods destroy the temple where the marriage is taking place.
If all that sounds rather unpromising, it does not take into account the element of genius--choreographer Marius Petipa, often called "the father of classical ballet."
Petipa created exotic, pseudo-Indian dances, character vignettes, scenes of operatic pageantry and processionals, and one act of achingly, classically pure dance--Solor's drug-induced dream vision (the "Kingdom of the Shades") in which the inconstant hero finds the spirit of his departed beloved.
By the time Kirov Ballet star Natalia Makarova defected to the West in 1970, however, "La Bayadere" had long been stripped of its final act for various reasons.
Eventually, she would restore it.
Makarova first staged the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene for American Ballet Theatre in 1974, coincidentally, the premiere occurring three days after Kirov superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov defected while on tour with a group of Soviet dancers in Toronto.
Baryshnikov had danced Solor and in his book, "Baryshnikov at Work," wrote, "You will notice in the choreography that Nikia is most of the time either in front of Solor or just above him in lifts, always in some way slightly out of reach. She embodies all the classic female virtues: loyalty, self-sacrifice, serenity."
Makarova went on to create a full-length version of "La Bayadere" for ABT in 1980. This is the version currently being danced at the Performing Arts Center. (Makarova came to Costa Mesa this week from London to oversee final rehearsals.)
Because the choreography for the last act had disappeared, Makarova had to construct her own. She also eliminated much of the mime and made other changes in the Kirov version she had danced.
When Los Angeles saw her full-length version in 1981, Times dance critic Martin Bernheimer dubbed it a "kitsch extravaganza."
"Still," Bernheimer said, "this version does put the miraculous 'Shades' scene in its proper context, does provide us with a practical demonstration of a long lost--happily lost--mode of ballet, and does offer a beguiling camping trip to any terpsichorean traveler not only willing but eager to suspend disbelief."
What: American Ballet Theatre dances "La Bayadere."
When: Thursday, March 21, and Friday, March 22, at 8 p.m.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: One block east of South Coast Plaza shopping center.
Wherewithal: $12 to $49.
Where to Call: (714) 556-2787.