The worst moment in the generally fine Universal Ballet production of "La Bayadere" is the moment the audience wants most to see: the celebrated entrance of 32 women, one by one, down a ramp at the beginning of the Act 3 vision scene.
This sequence has become a touchstone of classicism because of its stark simplicity: the same step endlessly multiplied by a growing number of dancers as a metaphor for eternity.
But someone in Seoul, South Korea--the home of the 17-year-old company--decided to put the dancing behind a semi-transparent gauze curtain, and to project bright moving clouds across it, so Marius Petipa's sublime 1877 choreography is now smeared and diminished by special effects. Only when the clouds vanish and the gauze rises does its power return.
Happily, Universal Ballet's Friday opening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion held few such lapses and mostly confirmed the exemplary training and coaching so unmistakable in the company's first local visit three years ago. With former Kirov Ballet artistic director Oleg Vinogradov now heading the troupe, Korean excellence has been supplemented by a growing number of Russians on staff and among the dancers. But, if anything, the change has brought a welcome dramatic edge to the unanimity of style that the troupe displayed in 1998.
Moreover, the "Bayadere" staging (credited to Vinogradov and Natalia Spitsyna) delivers Petipa with greater accuracy and integrity than the much revised and cheapened Paris Opera Ballet version seen in Costa Mesa just two months ago. And the Koreans also trump the French musically, with conductor Pavel Bubelnikov coaxing more majesty and sheer passion from Ludwig Minkus' problematic score than seems possible.
Where the Universal Ballet "Bayadere" loses to its Paris counterpart is in Marianna Zentchenko's scenic design: cramped in some scenes, garish and in conflicting styles elsewhere. And, from the corps to the principals, there's still a sense of strain--the strain of a young company dancing up to an international standard, rather than inheriting it from a previous generation.
That strain will, of course lessen in time (it has already lessened somewhat from its prominence in the Vinogradov "Swan Lake" three years ago). Right now, however, the dancers in Universal Ballet seem to believe wholeheartedly in "La Bayadere," but not always, alas, in how really good they are at dancing it.
When it comes to Hye-Kyung Lim as Nikiya, only a tendency to grow clenched or brittle in major technical challenges such as the veil duet and final bravura display in Act 3 keeps this distinctively slender, pliant and expressive young artist from meriting all the superlatives.
Hers is an enchanting performance, even when the partnering of Artem Shpilevsky as Solor proves less than ideally smooth. Blessed with a powerful jump and promising acting abilities, Shpilevsky lacks only greater experience to give him the authority and finesse the role demands.
As Gamzatti, Seh-Yun Kim plays regal contempt as if to the manner born and conquers most of the role's technical challenges despite an undistinguished jump.
Min-Young Cho finds a scary, inhuman sharpness in the virtuosity of the Golden Idol, and Nikolai Ostaltsov brings so many different dramatic colors to his performance as the High Brahmin that his over-the-top histrionics do not become wearying--as they do in Joo-Hwan Cho's one-note portrayal of the fakir, Magadaveya.
The all-important women's corps in Act 3? Admirable, but at its spirited, precise peak in the allegro passages rather than slower choreography.
Like many companies, Universal Ballet doesn't reconstruct the lost last act of "La Bayadere," which ends the story in supernatural cataclysm. But the troupe does emphasize drama throughout--and it helps, even in the moments of inescapable kitsch (the scenes with the fake parrots, snakes and elephant, for instance).
Finally, in a rare step away from tradition, this staging manages to keep the junior corps in Act 2 out of blackface, a wise policy in a ballet with no real knowledge of the non-European cultures and dances that it depicts. Now if the company could only dump those ruinous billowing clouds ....
Universal Ballet dances the full-evening "Shim Chung" on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. $20 to $65. (213) 365-3500.