“La Bayadère" (chor. Natalia Makarova after Marius Petipa)
Dutch National Ballet
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
February 2007

by Marc Haegeman
copyright ©2007, Marc Haegeman

Last February the Dutch National Ballet premiered “La Bayadère” in the ubiquitous version by Natalia Makarova. The Amsterdam-based company already had “The Kingdom of the Shades” in the repertory, in different stagings since 1964, yet the full-length ballet was until now never performed. Since his appointment in 2003, artistic director Ted Brandsen has been carefully balancing his company’s repertory between the old and the new. He clearly understands the value of performing the great classics and “La Bayadère”, which he rightfully considers “an enormous technical and artistic challenge” for the whole group, makes a welcome addition to an already extensive list of 19th-century ballets.

The production came with the costumes by Yolanda Sonnabend and sets by Pier Luigi Samaritani, well-known from London’s Royal Ballet staging — although I can’t remember them being that sparsely lit as they were on the vast stage of Amsterdam’s Muziektheater.

The company did splendidly in the performances I saw in the second week of the run. Soloists and corps had obviously been well coached, primarily by Olga Evreinoff and of course Natalia Makarova herself, and there was a common sense of conviction running through the ranks. Especially the corps de ballet made — the few obligate wobbles notwithstanding — a favourable impression in the “Kingdom of the Shades.” That their descent down the slopes of the Himalayas wasn’t as hypnotic as with some troupes, may have as much to do with the scale, the tempo and the rhythmic structure of this passage in Makarova’s staging, as with the quality of their performance. On the other hand, not all the demi-soloists were as distinguished. The individual variations of the Shades ideally need more precision and neither Nicholas Mishoe nor Andy Rietschel were unforgettable Bronze Idols. But Nicolas Rapaic was a convincing High Brahmin and Alexandre Tardy had authority as the Radjah.

The company was able to field five different casts, of which I saw two. One cast resembled almost a Vaganova Academy graduates reunion. With Larissa Lezhnina as Nikiya, Artem Yachmennikov as Solor and Ji-Young Kim as Gamzatti, Dutch National came about as close to a Petersburg-schooled performance it will ever get. Larissa Lezhnina, the former Kirov Ballet soloist who has been one of Amsterdam’s leading ballerinas since 1994, remains one of the company’s most beautifully gifted talents. She is also one of the purest Vaganova exponents around. Although Nikiya was a debut for Lezhnina — she only performed the “Kingdom of the Shades” before — the moment she entered the stage she showed total understanding of the role. Always ravishing in plastique (the breathtaking arabesques in the short solo before her meeting with Solor come to mind), true in drama, intense in focus, she had the heart of the matter in her dancing from start to finish. It wasn’t just a beautiful woman the Brahmin unveiled, it was Nikiya, the Temple Dancer, pure, proud, and very aware of her status. Her refusal of the Brahmin made all the more sense, while I have hardly ever seen Nikiya’s solo with the basket at the betrothal as poignantly evoked as here. Lezhnina’s Shade was equally magnificent by her dulcet legato dancing, her musicality, and her shifts in tone. It’s the old-style (in the noblest sense of the word) Vaganova-schooling, reminiscent of Altynai Asylmuratova, Irina Kolpakova and the likes. And you will have a hard time finding anything like it in today’s Mariinsky Theatre itself.

Artem Yachmennikov has joined the Dutch National Ballet at the end of last year. He graduated from the Vaganova in 2001 and danced five seasons with the Mariinsky Ballet. As a true danseur noble he should prove a tremendous asset to the Amsterdam company. (Characteristically the Mariinsky wasted him in character and demi-character parts.) He was in any case a most credible Solor, youthful, eager, passionate, and bold. Above all he provided the character an emotional force and like his two leading ladies he illuminated the drama with admirable stylistic flair. There wasn’t a dull moment when he was around. Even sitting at the table with Gamzatti, playing chess, or watching Nikiya in full embarrassment, were little theatrical gems. True, his dancing needs polishing and there were times he lost his nerve, as in the Shades Act solo, but overall this was a highly promising debut and hopefully the beginning of a rewarding career in Amsterdam.

To complete this remarkable leading trio, second soloist Ji-Young Kim was an excellent Gamzatti. South-Korean Kim also studied at the Vaganova Academy (with Inna Zubkovskaya, who was also Lezhnina’s teacher) and danced with Korean National Ballet before joining Dutch National in 2002. She is a laureate of several international dance competitions, among others Paris in 1998. Her Vaganova training didn’t go unnoticed either by the scale of her dancing, the delicacy of her port de bras and her overall stylistic intelligence. She was in many ways an ideal match for Lezhnina’s Nikiya. (In another cast Kim also danced Nikiya.) The mime duel in the first act was pure delight, with the two ladies sharply determined to stand their ground and when Lezhnina ran after her rival with the knife I really feared for Kim’s life. Her variation in the Grand Pas was attractively phrased and highlighted her beautiful jump, while the bravura of the coda was delivered with oomph and assurance.

The premiere cast had Igone de Jongh as Nikiya, guest artist Inaki Urlezaga as Solor, and Marisa Lopez as Gamzatti.  As the only Dutch female soloist in a company which is more cosmopolitan than Amsterdam itself, de Jongh features as the balletic pride and hope of The Netherlands. She partly trained locally but graduated from London’s Royal Ballet School in 1995, joining Dutch National the following year. Her Nikiya was undoubtedly a fine debut, although she is obviously still discovering the role and never quite made the same impact as Lezhnina. Beautiful de Jongh has a slender, delicate figure, with a flexible torso and fine arms. She wasn’t always that comfortable in the adagio passages, where the mix of steely pointework and softness of plastique seemed to elude her, which accounted for the occasional touch of blandness in her dancing. Some problems in the scarf variation were enough to throw her out of concentration for a few moments.

In any case she deserved a better Solor. Urlezaga made a very pale and dullish warrior. He basically did what he had to do, partnered fairly well, and even pulled out some wow-effect moments of solo dancing when required, but everything was presented with such lack of involvement and phlegm, one couldn’t care less. As a character he was non-existent. Yet as we remember Urlezaga from his years with the Royal Ballet, as soon as he is no longer centre stage, the lights go completely out with him. How women should fight over such a guy is a mystery.

Second soloist Marisa Lopez joined the company from San Francisco Ballet. I found her Gamzatti nowhere near as interesting as Kim’s. Lopez is small, too small when paired with de Jongh, which isn’t necessarily an issue as long as other qualities prevail. She has a striking stage face and presence, and the mime scenes were generally well rendered. Yet in her dancing she missed the finesse as well as the stamina of Kim. The Grand Pas in the betrothal scene lacked brilliance, with a correct but unexciting variation and a far too tame coda.

Boris Gruzin of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted the Holland Symfonia. Used to a different Ludwig Minkus score back home he emphasized other accents and brought out unheard colours, yet his tendency to slow tempi was neither beneficiary for John Lanchbery’s arrangement, nor for the dancers.

Photos, all by Marc Haegeman:
Front page: Igone de Jongh as Nikiya.
Igone de Jongh and Inaki Urlezaga
Marisa Lopez as Gamzatti

Volume 5, No. 10
March 12, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Marc Haegeman

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