23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 54

La Bayadere (Royal Opera House)

Morbid fantasies

Giannandrea Poesio

Marius Petipa's 1877 La Bayadere is to ballet what Giuseppe Verdi's 1871 Aida is to opera. The parallel is anything but casual, given their many structural and dramatic similarities. Both have a valiant warrior whose love for a slave enrages an evil, possessive princess (the temple dancer of the ballet is, after all, a slave); both have

plenty of local colour whether musical or choreographic; both end with people being buried alive — even though the ballet hero is transported to a better world by the ghost of the temple dancer. And, more significantly, both works belong to that well-affirmed 19th-century theatre tradition of setting events in, for want of a better word, the Orient. In ballet, the far-away land had long been the ideal location for stories that would have been regarded as morally or socially unacceptable in any Western European country.

No wonder that La Bayadere, which in the advertisement for the current Royal Ballet season is summarised as a tale of 'dark deeds in the Himalayas', was set in a much-idealised India, namely a country that was miles away from home. By placing the narrative in such a remote location, 19th-century choreographers and ballet librettists could indulge in all sorts of morbid fantasies, for the benefit of those audience members for whom ballet was more than just mere entertainment. Many may have recognised themselves in the lustful High Brahmin who is willing to give up his position for the favours of a pretty temple dancer, or in the opium-addicted hero who tries to forget all about the death of his beloved, bitten by a snake craftily placed in a flower basket. It is probably because of these themes that the ballet was an immediate success and remained, except for one short period, one of the unsinkable titles of the Russian repertoire.

It was only in 1980 that Natalia Makarova staged the first full-length version in the West (Rudolph Nureyev, however, had previously restaged the third act or 'Kingdom of the Shades' for the Royal Ballet), and it is that version that is now in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet. Makarova's staging, however, was created at a time when choreographic faithfulness and historical philology were not considered to be that important and was thus heavily pruned of all those parts that were ballelically 'unfashionable'. More than 20 years later, the same production, luxurious and lavish though it may be, now looks odd and suffers from the inevitable comparison with other and more recent restagings, such as the superbly spectacular and choreographically faithful production staged for the Paris Opera by former Soviet star Ninel Kourgapkina and Rudolph Nureyev, shortly before the latter's death.

With hindsight, Makarova's heavy pruning has had a dire effect on the work. The so-called 'Kingdom of the Shades', namely the act taking place in an Indian underworld populated by the ghosts of the dead bayaderes, is the section that is most badly affected by the cuts. To have only 24 dancers, instead of the standard 32 (or 48 as in the original), greatly reduces the theoretically mesmerising effect of the celebrated entrance of the ghosts — one after the other down a slope, in what appears to be an endless line of restless souls descending from another dimension. Even the reinvention of the long-lost final act, too short and too choreographically out of line, does not contribute much to a production that needs some serious rethinking, particularly in the light of the new historical findings on the 1877 work.

The ballet, however, remains a superb vehicle for the female protagonist and provides some good dancing for other members of the company. The night I went, Nikiya, the temple dancer, was Alina Cojocaru. Although I do not like indulging in sensationalism. I cannot avoid saying that Cojocaru is one of the best interpreters I have ever seen. She is capable of rendering the most improbable story into a perfectly believable one, while displaying a unique technical talent. Few dancers I have seen could and can boast the perfect blend of artistry and technique this very young ballerina has. Not only did she make my evening, but she also made me forget that the rest of the cast, and the corps de ballet in particular, was everything but fantastic, with the sole exception of her partner, Angel CoreIla. Cojocaru will soon be Giselle. Do not miss it if you want to see a real star.