Thanks to a stroke of luck and no will to resist the desire to see Stella Abrera's only Gamzatti this season (and Jeff Golladay's last soloist role on the Met stage), I impulsively raced up to Lincoln Center, hit the box office with 7 minutes to spare and settled myself into a fabulous center orchestra seat for American Ballet Theatre's La Bayadere. Never one of my favorites, La Bayadere is lighter on plot than most and doesn't boast the richest of scores. As a result, I've never seen a full principal cast bring it entirely to life, and this viewing was no exception. It did, however, have its moments. And most of those were delivered by Stella Abrera.
As Nikiya, the jilted temple dancer, Paloma Herrera gave a solid but underwhelming and somewhat lagging performance, in part due to a lack of chemistry with her Solor, danced proficiently by Cory Stearns. Usually a stronger actor than all-around dancer, the still young and developing Stearns seemed uneasy with the character and underplayed him, so that the effect was to lose the entire weight of any relationship between Nikiya and Solor. Had I not read the program notes or known the story, I would not really have known these two were in love until the Kingdom of the Shades. There are really only seven plot points in the ballet: Solor and Nikiya are in love, the High Brahmin loves Nikiya, Solor agrees to marry Gamzatti, Gamzatti tries to bribe and then indirectly kills Nikiya, Solor dreams of Nikiya, Solor and Gamzatti's wedding rains down destruction and kills everyone. Without feeling the depth of the love affair, the rest of the plot really suffers. (Also, in my opinion, the hat worn by Solor throughout the ballet does no favors for any of the usually gorgeous men of ABT.)
Nevertheless, Roman Zhurbin as the High Brahmin and Stella Abrera as Gamzatti did pretty much everything they could to hold up their ends of the plot. Consistently the best character dancers at ABT, both Roman and Stella were phenomenal and I'm really looking forward to seeing Roman in a principal dancing role opposite Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo in Ratmansky's Firebird in a couple of weeks. Stella, of course, is the eternal bridesmaid of ABT since injury vaporized her chance to debut as Giselle a few years ago. Her principal roles seem to be fewer and farther between (and stuck at weekday matinees), while her beauty, skill and confidence seem as strong as ever. Hers was the first Gamzatti that I pitied - she had the flashing eyes, poise, steely resolve and desperation of Vivian Leigh's war-hardened Scarlett O'Hara. The subtle angle changes of her head and arms brought Gamzatti's motivations leaping off the stage. And all this before she even danced the breathtaking tutu-ed variations at the end of Act I. Stella was present, sharp and simply gorgeous, and well partnered by Stearns. (Although I did catch of glimpse of Alex Hammoudi in the pas d'action nearby, and found myself imagining an Abrera/Hammoudi Nikiya/Solor for a second or two). There was a feistiness in Stella throughout the performance - so much so that her expression during the curtain call made me wonder if the unwanted, unappreciated Gamzatti speaks a little louder through Stella than any artistic director in his right mind should let be the case. While her fans already see her as a principal in deed if not in name, ABT needs to give Stella real opportunities to prove herself as a leading lady. Why she is relegated to playing every jealous, jilted bridesmaid in the repertoire when she'd be such a glorious, romantic, tragic bride continues to baffle me completely. No one breaks your heart again and again quite like Stella. No one commands attention quite like Stella. Why are the audience and the other dancers the only ones that see it?
Corps veteran Jeff Golladay was wonderful as the head Fakir - his over-fire jumps were the highest and cleanest I've seen from him, his character was clear and cagey and his performance rivaled anyone else I've seen in the part. Similarly, the underused Arron Scott danced the Bronze Idol beautifully; he really captured the essence and lines of a god-statue come to life. His legs in particular were strong and swift.
The highlight of La Bayadere is always the breathtaking corps of Shades in Act II. Gemma Bond was a skilled leader, but I admit my eye was more drawn to Skylar Brandt as the ladies made their way through the interminable arabesques down to the front. Having such a terrific center view, I was impressed at how perfectly aligned the Shades remained throughout Act II - in particular the diagonal V of double arabesques framing Nikiya in one of her re-entrances was perfection. I was especially impressed because today's cast included most, if maybe all, of this year's new additions to the corps. The soloist variations were well executed by Maria Riccetto, Luciana Paris and Misty Copeland, but I continue to find the choreography of these sections to be ill-fitted to the music. I don't know whether it is the coaching at ABT or the choreography itself, but I'm always a little puzzled at these solos.
The Act I d'Jampe dancers didn't fare quite as well as the Shades, despite being well-fronted by Luciana Voltolini and a standout Sarah Smith. The d'Jampe corps seemed under-rehearsed and while their dancing was relatively in synch, the angles of their scarves never matched, giving a muddled and messy effect. The corps women made amends with cleaner unison and sharper feet in the Act III candle dance, which had some unexpected and much appreciated oomph to it - it's not the most exciting of moments in this not-so-exciting ballet. Skylar Brandt and Nicole Graniero also again showed gorgeous, almost inhuman unison in their Act I small group variations. These two are somewhat of a miracle of nature and should continue to be paired and highlighted at every opportunity.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that while I was unmoved by Cory Stearns' acting on this occasion, I was pleasantly surprised at the height and solidity of some of his overhead lifts, and the growing gravitas of his solo variations. Unfortunately for Cory, he's in the company of Marcelo Gomes and David Hallberg who have some of the most beautiful grand jetes I've witnessed, and so Cory's grand jetes, and in particular those en manege, stood out as lacking sharpness and I saw a few bends of the knees in the air. I can only hope he (or any of the other men of ABT) is not being overtly or covertly encouraged to sacrifice line for height to keep pace with the unattractively tigger-esque guesting Ivan Vasiliev. If ABT's great men of the past two decades teach the current crop nothing else, it should be that greatness is found in individuality. Gomes, Carreno, Stiefel, Bocca, Corella, Cornejo - none of these dancers is at all like the others. But the crowds appreciate(d) and love them all.