Asian Music and Dance

Bayadère – The Ninth Life

This was a work of depth and substance, educative and visually stunning. It was political. It was a commentary on Petipa’s 1877 ballet La Bayadère, a subversion of it and a positioning of contemporary dance in the present moment. Words – those of the blogger, commenting on his experience of La Bayadère, and the voiceover, quoting from Théophile Gautier’s account of a visit to Europe in 1838 of five temple dancers from South India – were integral to the piece.

The first sections provided humour, as the blogger observes the fantasy India of the ballet (the frenetic fakir, the dance of the golden idol as almost a joke Nataraja, and the comment that the story was pure Bollywood), but as the figures appear, clothed, the projection unclothes them – perhaps suggesting colonisation as the rape of a country, or an image of the work itself, stripping the ballet, revealing what lay beneath. 

The narrative, aural and visual, was strong and effective. Gautier’s words describing the bayadère (‘temple dancer’) are repeated, allowing them to sink in and also to become oppressive. There is an air of luxury and sensuality: ‘sunshine, mysterious, profane… something strange, mysterious, charming, unknown to Europe… pale golden skin… imaginations are stirred.’ But it is ‘imperative that we should pass judgement on these bayadères’, and we are shocked and distressed by what we see and hear: the descriptions are anthropological, ‘head oval, skin tawny, ankles slender, nose straight’ – and animal (‘lizard’). The bayadère is treated like an exhibit: ‘we often went to see her to take her a packet of tobacco’ and she is almost taken apart, thrown around and examined like a piece of meat.

Sooraj Subramaniam as the bayadère is ‘seminal’, ‘outstanding’ (audience members). The choice of a male dancer here subverts the gender specificity of classical ballet and draws on the South Asian tradition that allows either sex to become either gender.

The last section adapted the celebrated ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ from the ballet, introducing it with the blogger’s words: ‘Heaven??? Bayadères???’ In this opium dream, the graceful, floating arabesques of the ballet are transmuted into forceful zigzagging patterns. The physicality of the bodies is emphasised, pulling or pushing. Those unfamiliar with contemporary dance were not sure what it was conveying – it was movement of bodies in space, when they were looking for a narrative. However, if ‘western’ audiences have to make an effort to understand and appreciate ‘eastern’ dance, the reverse is also true. There was a general agreement that the section was a bit over-long.

The dancing itself, the ‘liquid choreography’, the juxtaposition of ballet mime with mudras, the music and staging (with the backdrop forms, possibly images of DNA, red in the east, white in the west) were thought ‘stunning’. The costume of the bayadère was liked (with the Japanese style suggesting an orientalist conflation of easts); those of the other dancers less so.



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