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La Bayadère

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Title: La Bayadère  
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Subject: List of Russian ballet dancers, Ludwig Minkus, Marius Petipa, Natalia Makarova, Patrick Bissell
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La Bayadère

La Bayadère (en. The Temple Dancer) (ru. «Баядерка», Bayaderka) is a ballet, originally staged in four acts and seven tableaux by French choreographer Marius Petipa to the music of Ludwig Minkus. La Bayadère was first performed by the Imperial Ballet at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 4 February [O.S. 23 January] 1877. A scene from the ballet, known as The Kingdom of the Shades, is one of the most celebrated excerpts in all of classical ballet.

Nearly all modern versions of La Bayadère are derived from the Mariinsky Ballet's production, which was originally staged in 1941 by Vakhtang Chabukiani and Vladimir Ponomaryov. Natalia Makarova's 1980 production for American Ballet Theatre has also been staged by several theatres throughout the world and is itself derived from Chabukiani and Ponomaryov's version.


  • Origins 1
    • Plot outline 1.1
  • Early productions 2
  • Vaganova's revival 3
  • The Kirov Ballet's revival of 1941 4
  • La Bayadère in the West 5
  • Natalia Makarova’s production 6
  • Rudolf Nureyev's production 7
  • The 1900 reconstruction 8
  • Ekaterina Vazem on the first production of 'La Bayadère' 9
  • Sources 10
  • External links 11


La Bayadère was the creation of the choreographer Marius Petipa, the renowned Premier maître de ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The music was written by the composer Ludwig Minkus, Petipa's chief collaborator, who from 1871 until 1886 held the official post of Ballet Composer to the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres.

Plot outline

Petipa's La Bayadère (meaning The Temple Dancer or The Temple Maiden) tells the story of the bayadère Nikiya and the warrior Solor, who have sworn eternal fidelity to one another. The High Brahmin, however, is also in love with Nikiya and learns of her relationship with Solor. Moreover, the Rajah Dugmanta of Golconda has selected Solor to be the fiancé of his daughter Gamzatti (or Hamsatti, as she is known in the original production), and Nikiya, unaware of the arrangement, agrees to dance at the couple's betrothal celebrations.

In his effort to have Solor killed and have Nikiya for himself, the jealous High Brahmin informs the Rajah that the warrior has already vowed eternal love to Nikiya over a sacred fire. But the High Brahmin’s plan backfires when, rather than becoming angry with Solor, the Rajah decides that it is Nikiya who must die. Gamzatti, who has eavesdropped on this exchange, summons Nikiya to the palace in an attempt to bribe the bayadère into giving up her beloved. As their rivalry intensifies, Nikiya picks up a dagger in a fit of rage and attempts to kill Gamzatti, only to be stopped in the nick of time by Gamzatti’s aya. Nikiya flees in horror at what she has almost done. As did her father, Gamzatti vows that the bayadère must die.

At the betrothal celebrations Nikiya performs a somber dance while playing her veena. She is then given a basket of flowers which she believes are from Solor, and begins a frenzied and joyous dance. Little does she know that the basket is from Gamzatti, who has concealed beneath the flowers a venomous snake. The bayadère then holds the basket too close and the serpent bites her on the neck. The High Brahmin offers Nikiya an antidote to the poison, but she chooses death rather than life without her beloved Solor.

Ekaterina Vazem costumed as Nikiya for Act II of La Bayadère. St. Peterbsurg, 1877.
Lev Ivanov costumed as Solor for Act I of La Bayadère. St. Petersburg, 1877.

In the next scene the depressed Solor smokes opium. In his dream-like euphoria he has a vision of Nikiya’s shade (or spirit) in a nirvana among the star-lit mountain peaks of the Himalayas called The Kingdom of the Shades. Here, the lovers reconcile among the opulence and supreme order of the shades of other bayadères (in the original production of 1877 this scene took place in an illuminated enchanted palace in the sky). When Solor awakes, preparations are underway for his wedding to Gamzatti.

In the temple where the wedding is to take place the shade of Nikiya haunts Solor during his dances with Gamzatti. When the High Brahmin joins the couple’s hands in marriage, the gods take revenge for Nikiya’s murder by destroying the temple and all of its occupants. In an apotheosis the shades of both Nikiya and Solor are reunited in death and eternal love.

Early productions

La Bayadère was created especially for the benefit performance of Ekaterina Vazem, Prima ballerina of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The role of Solor was created by the forty-three-year-old Lev Ivanov, Premier danseur of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The classical dances of the character Solor were performed by the danseur Pavel Gerdt. The celebrated ballerina Maria Gorshenkova created the role of Gamzatti (or Hamsatti, as the character was known in the original production), while the role of the High Brahmin was created by Nikolai Golts. Dugmanta, the Rajah of Gulconda was created by Christian Johansson, former Premier danseur of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres and an influential teacher. The lavish décor was designed by Mikhail Bocharov for Act I-scene 1; Matvei Shishkov for Act I-scene 2 and Act II; Ivan Andreyev for Act III-scene 1 and Act IV-scene 1; Heinrich Wagner for Act III-scene 2 The Kingdom of the Shades; and Piotr Lambin for the Act IV-scene 2 Apotheosis.

Petipa spent almost six months staging La Bayadère. During the rehearsal, Petipa clashed with the Prima ballerina Vazem over the matter of her entrance in the ballet's final Grand pas d'action, while also experiencing many problems with the set designers who constructed the ballet's elaborate stage effects. Petipa was also worried that his new work would play to an empty house, as the Director Karl Kister increased the ticket prices to be higher than that of the Italian Opera, which at that time were expensive. The most celebrated and enduring passage of La Bayadère was Petipa's grand vision scene known as The Kingdom of the Shades. Petipa staged this scene as a Grand pas classique, completely devoid of any dramatic action. His simple and academic choreography was to become one of his most celebrated compositions, with the Sortie des bayadères of the thirty-two member Corps de ballet of shades arguably becoming his most celebrated composition of all.

Petipa's final revival of La Bayadère was first given on December 15 [O.S. December 3] 1900 especially for the dual benefit performance of the Imperial Theatre's Premier danseur Pavel Gerdt and the Prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Among Petipa's most striking changes for this revival was the change of setting for the scene The Kingdom of the Shades from an enchanted castle in the sky on a fully lighted stage, to a dark and rocky set at the peaks of the Himalayas. Petipa swelled the number of dancers in the Corps de ballet from thirty-two to forty-eight, making the illusion of descending spirits all the more effective in the famous Sortie des bayadères.

In March 1903, the scene The Kingdom of the Shades was performed independently during a gala performance at Peterhof Palace in honor of a state visit from Kaiser Wilhelm II. This is the earliest known occasion where the scene The Kingdom of the Shades was performed as an independent concert piece.

Vaganova's revival

On December 13, 1932 the great pedagogue of the Soviet Ballet Agrippina Vaganova presented her version of La Bayadère for the Kirov Ballet (the former Imperial Ballet). Owing much of her production to Lopukhov's 1920 redaction (including his "new" ending), and never straying too far from Petipa's original design for the dances, Vaganova nevertheless revised the Ballerina's dances for her star pupil Marina Semenova, who danced Nikiya. This included triple pirouettes sur la pointe (on the toes), and fast piqué turns en dehors. Although Vaganova's revival did not find a permanent place in the repertory, her modifications to the Ballerina's dances would become the standard.

The Kirov Ballet's revival of 1941

In 1940 the Kirov Ballet once again made plans to revive La Bayadère, this time in a staging by the Balletmaster Vladimir Ponomarev and the Premier danseur Vakhtang Chabukiani. This version would be the definitive staging of La Bayadère from which nearly every subsequent production would be based. The Ponomarev/Chabukiani revival of La Bayadère premiered on February 10, 1941 to a resounding success, with Natalia Dudinskaya as Nikiya and Vakhtang Chabukiani as Solor.

The choreography for the character of Nikiya went through a renaissance in when performed by the virtuoso ballerina Dudinskaya, whose revisions to the choreography remain the standard. Although her interpretation of the tragic Nikiya was looked on as unsuitable for the stellar ballerina, she nevertheless excelled in The Kingdom of the Shades, where Petipa's strict academic patterns prevailed. In the Variation de Nikiya (a.k.a. the Scarf Duet) she studded the choreography with multiple tours en arabesque, and included, for the first time, airy splits in her Grand jetés during the Entrée de Nikiya, as well as adding fast piqué turns in the Grand coda. The choreography for Solor went through a renaissance as well with the great Premier danseur Chabukiani in the role. Although the dances for the role of Solor had become far more prominent since La Bayadère had been performed in Imperial Russia, Chabukiani's revisions to the choreography would become the standard for all proceeding male dancers.

In 1977, the Kirov Ballet's 1941 Ponomarev/Chabukiani production of La Bayadère was filmed and later released onto DVD/video with Gabriella Komleva as Nikiya, Tatiana Terekhova as Gamzatti, and Rejen Abdeyev as Solor.

La Bayadère in the West

Although La Bayadère was considered a classic in Russia, the work was almost completely unknown in the west. The first western production of the scene The Kingdom of the Shades was mounted by Eugenia Feodorova at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It premiered on April 12, 1961 with Bertha Rosanova as Nikiya and Aldo Lotufo as Solor. But it was to be the Kirov Ballet's performance of The Kingdom of the Shades at the Palais Garnier in Paris on July 4, 1961 that roused widespread interest in this almost totally unknown ballet from the Imperial/Petipa repertory. Two years later, Rudolf Nureyev staged the scene for the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn as Nikiya. Minkus's music was re-orchestrated by the Royal Opera House's composer/conductor John Lanchbery. The premiere was a resounding success, and is considered to be among the most important moments in the history of ballet.

Marius Petipa's final revival of La Bayadère, with the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre shown in the scene The Kingdom of the Shades. In the center is Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Nikiya, Pavel Gerdt as Solor and the Corps de ballet. The three soloist shades are seen kneeling to the left: Varvara Rhykhliakova, Agrippina Vaganova and Anna Pavlova performed the shade's variations. St. Petersburg, 1900.
The dance critic Arlene Croce commented on Petipa's The Kingdom of the Shades in her review of Makarova's staging of the scene in The New Yorker:

Nureyev's version of The Kingdom of the Shades was also staged by Eugen Valukin for the National Ballet of Canada, premiering on March 27, 1967. The first full-length production of La Bayadère was staged by the Balletmistress Natalie Conus for the Iranian National Ballet Company in 1972, in a production based almost entirely on the 1941 Ponomarev/Chabukiani production for the Kirov Ballet. For this production Minkus' score was orchestrated from a piano reduction by Robin Barker.

Natalia Makarova’s production

The Royal Swedish Ballet in Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadère. Pictured here is the final moment of the Grand coda from the Grand pas d’action. Stockholm, 2007. Photo by Mats Bäcker.

In 1974 Natalia Makarova mounted The Kingdom of the Shades for American Ballet Theatre in New York City, being the first staging of any part of La Bayadère in the United States. In 1980 Makarova staged her own version of the full-length work for the company, based largely on the Ponomarev/Chabukiani version she danced during her career with the Kirov Ballet. Makarova’s production premiered on May 21, 1980 at the Metropolitan Opera House, and was shown live on PBS during the Live from Lincoln Center broadcast. Makarova danced the role of Nikiya herself, but was replaced by Marianna Tcherkassky due to an injury during the first act. The principal roles included Anthony Dowell as Solor, Cynthia Harvey as Gamzatti, Alexander Minz as the High Brahmin and Victor Barbee as the Rajah. The décor was designed by Pier Luigi Samaritani, with costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge. The premiere was a triumph for American Ballet Theatre, and the company has performed it consistently ever since.

In 1989, Makarova staged her version of La Bayadère for the Royal Ballet in a totally un-changed production, including copies of Samaritani’s designs for the décor, and new costumes by Yolanda Sonnabend. In 1990 her production was filmed, and later shown on PBS in 1994 and later released onto DVD/Video. The cast included Altynai Asylmuratova as Nikiya, Darcey Bussell as Gamzatti and Irek Mukhamedov as Solor. Makarova has since staged her production for many companies throughout the world, including the Ballet of La Scala (who have recently filmed their production and released it onto to DVD), the Australian Ballet and the Royal Swedish Ballet.

Rudolf Nureyev's production

In late 1991, Rudolf Nureyev, artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, began making plans for a revival of the full-length La Bayadère, to be derived from the traditional Ponomarev/Chabukiani version he danced during his career with the Kirov Ballet. Nureyev enlisted the assistance of his friend and colleague Ninel Kurgapkina, former Prima Ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, to assist in staging the work. The administration of the Paris Opéra knew that this production of La Bayadère would be Nureyev's last offering to the world, as his health was deteriorating more and more from advanced AIDS disease. Because of this, the cultural administration of the Paris Opéra gave the production an enormous budget, with even more funding coming from various private donations.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the scene The Kingdom of the Shades as staged for the Royal Ballet, London, 1963.

Nureyev called upon the Italian opera designer Enzio Frigerio to create the décor, and his wife opera designer Franca Squarciapino to create the ballet's costumes. Frigerio took inspiration from the Taj Mahal and the architecture of the Ottoman Empire, as well as drawings of the original décor used for Petipa's 1877 production - Frigerio called his designs "a dream of the Orient through Eastern-European eyes". Squarciapino's costume designs were inspired by ancient Persian and Indian paintings, with elaborate head-dresses and hats, colorful shimmering fabrics, and traditional Indian garb, with much of the materials coming from Parisian boutiques that imported directly from India.

Nureyev's production of La Bayadère was presented for the first time at the Palais Garnier (or the Paris Opéra) on October 8, 1992 with Isabelle Guérin as Nikiya, Laurent Hilaire as Solor, and Élisabeth Platel as Gamzatti (and was later filmed in 1994 and released onto DVD/video with the same cast). The theatre was filled with many of the most prominent people of the ballet world, along with throngs of newspaper and television reporters from around the world. The production was a resounding success, with Nureyev being honored with the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Minister of Culture. The premiere of Nureyev's production was a special occasion for many in the world of ballet, as only three months later he died.

The danseur Laurent Hilaire later commented on Nureyev's revival:

The 1900 reconstruction

In 2000 the performance history of La Bayadère came full circle when the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet began mounting a reconstruction of Petipa's 1900 revival.

In order to restore Petipa's original choreography, Sergei Vikharev, the Balletmaster of the company in charge of staging the production, made use of the Stepanov Choreographic Notation from the Sergeyev Collection. The most anticipated passage of the work to be restored was the long deleted last act. This scene included the lost Danse des fleurs de lotus (Dance of the Lotus Blossoms) and Petipa's original Grand Pas d'action, which up to that point had been performed during the second act in the revised Ponomarev/Chabukiani choreography.

For the majority of the 20th century Minkus's original score for La Bayadère was thought to have been lost. Unbeknownst to the company, the Mariinsky Theatre Music Library had in their possession two volumes of Minkus's complete, hand-written score of 1877, as well as three manuscript rehearsal répétiteurs in arrangement for two violins, which included many notes for ballet masters and performers. Sergei Vikharev commented on the restoration of Minkus's score:

The Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet opened the 10th International Stars of the White Nights Festival with their reconstruction of La Bayadère at the Mariinsky Theatre on May 31, 2002, with Daria Pavlenko as Nikiya, Elvira Tarasova as Gamzatti, and Igor Kolb as Solor. The reconstruction received a rather mixed reaction from the St. Petersburg audience, which largely comprised the most prominent persons of the Russian ballet. The celebrated Ballerina of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet Altynai Asylmuratova was seen weeping after the performance, allegedly because of her shock at seeing the ballet presented in its original form. When the company included the production on their tours, it caused a sensation around the world, particularly in New York and London. To date the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet only perform the reconstruction on special occasions.

Ekaterina Vazem on the first production of 'La Bayadère'

Here is an account by Ekaterina Vazem, Soloist of His Imperial Majesty and Prima Ballerina of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, on the first production of La Bayadère.


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