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The last 2016 La Bayadère and new debuts

28 October 2016

A full-length production of La Bayadère was put on Bulgarian stage for the first time as late as 2012. Until then, only excerpts from the ballet were performed: Act III, The Kingdom of the Shades scene or certain variations[1].

The reason for such a late staging in this country is in its monumental scope. Four acts and seven scenes in the original score, involving in fact a large number of performers, both principal dancers and extras, which, accordingly, requires an array of costumes, sumptuous sets and exotic solutions[2]. Statistical data show that 187 new costumes were designed for the recent production. Actually, it was principal dancer Masha Ilieva’s financial support that made the production possible[3].

The staging of the full-length version of La Bayadère in Sofia, 135 years after the ballet’s premiere in St Petersburg[4], was the real thing for ballet lovers. Marius Petipa’s choreography was translated by director Pavel Stalinski, and Boryan Belchev and Hristiyana Mihaleva designed the sets and the costumes.


Fortunately, four years later the production, though difficult to maintain, still garners full houses and new performers are engaged. After all, many children, students at the National School of Dance are dancing onstage along with renowned soloists and this necessitates additional coordination in rehearsal.

The performance of end-October 2016 marked 4 years since the Sofia premiere of La Bayadère (8 October 2012), and the next is scheduled to take place as late as 11 March 2017. Still, the maintenance of this grand production is well worth the effort, providing an opportunity both for training in the style of the Romantic ‘grand’ ballet and for contribution not only by the soloists, but also by many understudies and ensembles excellently tutored by coaches Maria (Masha) Ilieva, Yasen Valchanov, Sara-Nora Krysteva, Ivanka Kasabova.

La Bayadère’s score by Ludwig Minkus (librettists: Sergei Khudekov, Marius Petipa) suggests an association with Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni) both in terms of the affinity for fascinating ancient civilisations (India, in La Bayadère; Egypt, in Aida), and of the storylines. The temple dancer Nikiya’s love for the warrior Solor (very much like Aida’s for Radames, Captain of the Egyptian Guard) is thwarted by her rival, the Rajah’s daughter, Gamzatti in the ballet (and by the King’s daughter, Princess Amneris in Verdi’s opera). Naturally, this traditional triangle hits more potholes: a second love triangle formed in the ballet by the High Brahmin’s secret love for the temple dancer Nikiya, while in the opera, it is an ‘honour triangle’ between Aida’s father, the King of Ethiopia, Aida and Radames. Amonasro wants Aida to glean from her lover the route the Egyptian army will take the next day, so his Ethiopian forces can ambush them. Aida faces a tough choice between her love for Radames and her loyalties to her father and her country, as she is, after all, the Ethiopian Princess. Nikiya also has to choose but in love alone: either to remain faithful to Solor and die from the snakebite (sent by Gamzatti), or accept the High Brahmin’s love. The final decision in both works is made in favour of love. Still, in a romantic pattern, love is possible only in the hereafter, where there are no worldly or social, or religious differences: Nikiya dies for her love for Solor to reunite with him in the eternity as a ‘shade’; Aida chooses to be entombed alive with Radames. This aesthetics of the impossible romantic love render the two works, composed and premiered almost simultaneously, similar (La Bayadère had its premiere in 1877, in St Petersburg and Aida, six year earlier, in 1871, in Cairo). A parallel may well be drawn between their structures: both the ballet[5] and the opera have four acts.

La Bayadère has a typical of its time number structure. Each act of La Bayadère opens and closes with a pantomimic scene, and has a divertissement in the middle, solved as a suite of character dances (Acts І and ІІ) or the classical Grand pas d’ensemble (Acts ІІІ and ІV). The same event is more often than not retold many times by various characters, using mostly pantomimic gestures.

Act I, scene 1 is in fact the exposition of the action. Two love triangles are given in broad strokes: between Nikiya, a temple dancer, the warrior Solor and the High Brahmin (scene 1) as well as between the bayadère Nikiya, the warrior Solor and the Rajah’s daughter Gamzatti (scene 2). The relationship of Nikiya and Solor is solved by dancing, while the relations between the female protagonist and the High Brahmin, by using pantomimic gestures, and the preference given by the choreographer to Nikiya and Solor is discernible in this distinction. Curiously, when exposing the second love triangle between Nikiya, Gamzatti and Solor, the latter is not present and the two rivals fight for him in front of his portrait. This confrontation between Nikiya and Gamzatti is in fact the exposition.

Act II is, in its present interpretation, the betrothal of Gamzatti and Solor. Dramaturgically, this is the rising action, the climax and the denouement. The dances offered here are entirely divertissements, not connected with the rising action: a procession of the characters, the scarf dance; flower dance; the dance of the Golden Idol; Manu (the jug-carrier) solo (dancing while balancing a jug on her head, ably supported by the two charming younger girls); the dance of the men with percussion instruments and of a couple of soloists.


The classical Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti, accompanied by four women and two men, inserted in Act II, definitely looks utterly irrelevant, which is evidences by the costumes: Gamzatti and the four girls wear classical tutus, while the rest of the characters, including Nikiya wear Indian salwars.

Nikiya’s Variation (Dance with a Flower Basket) comes only after the classical Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti. Moving the Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti from Act ІV into Act ІІ just makes the construction heavier rendering it much more awkward and after so many dances, the Dance with a Flower Basket fails to have the effect of a climax. The Variation has five parts: the temple dancer mourns her lost love, hoping for a miracle and for Solor to find the courage to speak of his love. Nikiya is given a basket of flowers, which she thinks are from Solor, but which have actually been sent by Gamzatti with a poisonous snake hidden among the flowers. The snake bites Nikiya as she lifts the basket to smell the flowers. The High Brahmin offers her an antidote to the poison, in return for marrying him. Nikiya refuses, as there is no point to live further without Solor. Solor’s response comes only after Nikiya’s death. This scene feels like a climax and denouement, as with Nikiya’s death the two love triangles coercively fall apart. Still, since such a denouement is solved by using pantomimic gestures, another act is added to reach a denouement through dancing.

Act III is in fact the dance climax of the performance: Grand pas d’ensemble in The Shades scene is preceded by the appearance of Solor in the temple, where he smokes opium, falls asleep and the entire Grand pas d’ensemble in The Shades scene is presented as unreal one, as Solor’s hallucination.

Grand pas d’ensemble or The Shades in La Bayadère is independent in form to such an extent that it may well be performed as one-act ballet not bound up with a storyline. It is a standard one in terms of its from: a general entry of the ensemble (32 ballerinas), the three coryphées and the soloists, Nikiya and Solor; first and second adagios of the soloists; variations of the three coryphées and only after that, of the female protagonist Nikiya (a variation of the male protagonist, Solor is missing); a coda, preserving the succession in the entry: the ensemble is dancing first, then the three coryphées and in the end, the soloists.

Act IV is a continuation of the cancelled betrothal of Gamzatti and Solor. The dances (as in Act ІІ) are of divertissement nature. It was here where the classical Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti accompanied by four women and two men was meant to be as the ballet’s dance denouement and generally, of the two love triangles. The Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti is standard in form: a general entry, adagio of the soloists, variations and a coda. It is in Act IV that Gamzatti wears a tutu. An earthquake and a fire hit the wedding ceremony. The infuriated gods destroy the temple, burring everyone, including Solor and Gamzatti under the ruins in revenge for the death of their priestess (the bayadère Nikiya). The spirits of Nikiya and Solor are reunited in the netherworld. This is also the conceptual denouement of the story: for the protagonists love is possible only after death.

Following the revolution in Russia, part of the sets of Act IV was destroyed beyond repair in a fire and some of the dancing episodes were forgotten, the classical Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti accompanied by four women and two men had to be moved to Act II.[6] La Bayadère was then staged without the final Act IV and The Shades scene was used as a finale. La Bayadère though seemed incomplete as Gamzatti and the Rajah were not punished for committing outrages and the temple dancer’s death was not avenged.


photo Victor Victorov

The score evinces no music themes or leitmotivs uniting the acts. Choreographically, a uniting theme of a kind is discernible in Nikiya’s part alone. The movements of Nikiya’s choreographic theme are outlined in the variation in front of the temple in Act I, while in the basket scene in Act II these have already evolved into entire combinations and in Act III, in the Grand pas d’ensemble of The Shades scene, Nikiya’s choreographic themes (modifications or quotations of her combinations from the previous acts) are developed in the dances of the ensemble, the three soloists and the duets of Nikiya and Solor. This gives grounds to think of La Bayadère as of a quite extended theme and variations regardless of the fact that musically, this musical form has a very different rendering.

Nikiya is presented with four variations: in front of the temple (Act I, scene 1); in the palace as an entertainer of Gamzatti (Act I, scene 3); at the wedding ceremony (this variation makes a connection with scene 1 through the similar choreographic thematic invention and some literal quotations of Act I); the final variation is in Act II, in The Shades scene.

There are two duets of Nikiya and Solor: in front of the temple (Act I) and in Act III, The Shades scene.

Gamzatti has a final duet with Solor in Act IV, during the interrupted wedding ceremony. This duet has later been moved to Act II, where it is apparently irrelevant, as following the logic of the action, Gamzatti is still uncertain about her success for she has not eliminated her rival. As a result of the translation of this duet into Act II, the performer of Gamzatti confronts a dilemma, as she ought to sound triumphant in her duet, and before Nikiya’s elimination too, while after the latter’s death, she leaves the stage in indignation, which does not chime with the logic of the image of her earlier triumph. Gamzatti has one variation.

Solor traditionally has no variations. He is a partner of the two rivals. His giving preference to Nikiya is built on the larger number of duets with her.

The High Brahmin is solved entirely pantomimically, which conditions Nikiya’s choice in favour of Solor as the latter dances, while the High Brahmin, regardless of his demonstrated power, is in fact a walking character. In the second love triangle between Nikiya, Gamzatti and Solor, Nikiya is dancing much more than Gamzatti either.

In the Sofia staging, Pavel Stalinski has very successfully reduced some of the pantomimic episodes, finding a convincing motivation for what the characters do. Only in the case of Solor it is difficult to explain his behaviour due to moving the Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti from Act ІV into Act ІІ.

The production has two casts.

Nikiya: Marta Petkova and Katerina Petrova. Solor: Nikola Hadjitanev and Tsetso Ivanov. In my opinion, Katerina Petrova’s performance is more emotional, closer to the romantic idea of an impossible love. Tsetso Ivanov is very handsome as Solor. The two perfectly complement each other in the unattainable dream of requited love.

Sara-Nora Krysteva and Vesa Tonova perform the role of Gamzatti and Venera Hristova debuted in the recent performance; she is still not categorical when it comes to her frame of mind, accentuating mostly on show and gesticulation.

Triphon Mitev, a principle soloist, who has a proven track record with many classical roles, gradually opting for a more sparing character repertoire, played the High Brahmin for the first time. His immense experience allowed him to build a memorable character with a powerful and categorical stage presence.

The Golden Idol is brilliantly rendered by Alexander Alexandrov. The variation is very difficult with its many powerful leaps and turns. Alexandrov, however, excelled both in the premiere and the regular performances.

Boryan Belchev’s sets are sumptuous with oriental motifs typical of the staging. Given the specific situation, the costumes by Hristiyana Mihaleva are a delightful treat: the advertisings have it that 187 new costumes have been designed and tailored, impressing with their rich colours, but also comfortable to dance in, a requirement not necessarily met in ballet productions. Especially striking are the new tutus for The Shades scene and the oriental costumes in Acts I and II.

The stars of Sofia Ballet were drawn as tutors: Maria (Masha) Ilieva, Yasen Valchanov, Sara-Nora Krysteva. The outcome is an even ensemble, pure lines, and precisely perfected details.

The production impresses with its magnificent oriental splendour and spectacular dances (especially in Act II), with the translucent whiteness and unreality in the Shades scene.

Boris Spasov, a conductor of long standing, leads the orchestra steadily, in suitable dancing times and varied colours. La Bayadère has enjoyed warm reception, garnering full houses for four years now (it was premiered in October 2012). The new members of the crew as well as the maintained high standards of performance that have never lowered also make difference.

Now we are looking forward to the next performance of La Bayadère on 11 March 2017.

[1]  The Kingdom of the Shades scene choreographed by Marius Petipa was brought to Bulgaria by Russian ballerinas Feya Balabina (1978) and Irina Kolpakova (1987). Excerpts from La Bayadère would be performed on and off in concerts given by the National School of Dance or were staged for tours abroad by Lubov Fominykh (1995) and Zhelka Tabacova (2003).

[2] The ballet has its setting in ancient India.

[3]  ‘The staging of this ballet has been postponed on more than one occasion due to the costly production’, Sara-Nora Krysteva, Deputy Director in charge of the ballet said at today’s press conference. She went further to say that the production was financed by Masha Ilieva, ex-director of Sofia Opera. Cf. Sofia Ballet Presents a Grand Production of La Bayadère for the first time, in:, 8 October 2012.

[4] La Bayadиre, first performed in St Petersburg on 23 January 1877, was choreographed by Marius Petipa (to music by Ludwig Minkus). The original cast featured Ekaterina Vazem (Nikiya), Lev Ivanov (Solor), Maria Gorshenkova (Gamzatti).

[5]  La Bayadère is running 195 min, which is almost the duration (about 240 min) of the full-length version of the ballet Sleeping Beauty with its introduction and four acts.

[6]  The same costumes, tutus are, however, meant to be worn by the soloist and the four women; still, these attires almost fail to match the rest of the costumes: Indian salwars worn by the other performers, including Nikiya. Even the garments indicate that the classical Grand pas d’ensemble of Solor and Gamzatti does not belong here.

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