No matter how many times I see American Ballet Theatre's production of La Bayadere, I still don't love it (more on that below) as a whole even though there are perennially wonderful and unique elements. Also on the plus side, each performance seems to have different highlights, each dancer brings something different to each of the lead roles. And, like in this performance, when someone brings something special to one the non-dancing character roles - it can become a more balanced, slightly more credible story.
Gillian Murphy's portrayal of Nikiya, the poor jilted temple dancer, exceeded my expectations. She was particularly effective in the opening scenes at the temple, where with her hair in a long braid and a glittering costume she looked the most beautiful I've ever seen her on stage. The unusual, Asian-inspired arm movements particularly suited her in a way that avoided my usual complaint with Gillian's performances - I often find her upper body to be stiff and her neck visibly straining. But in the opening temple dances and pas de deux with guest artist Denis Matvienko's Solor, she successfully evoked a tragic (if somewhat pathetic) heroine. Was I moved by her acting? No. But I enjoyed her performance in the way that I enjoy her in Fall River Legend or Pillar of Fire. She never seems to really let herself feel her characters in the way that Alessandra Ferri, Stella Abrera or Jared Matthews seem to, but she successfully executes the choreography of the emotions. For me, Gillian continues to resemble a movie musicals star of the 1940s and 1950s - she doesn't give you realism, but the drama and glamour are generally there, as well as some of the most solid pirouettes and impressive chaînés around. I found her less believable in the later Act I scenes opposite Simone Messmer's Gamzatti - Gillian was not as sympathetic as Nikiya really needs to be to make me care about the story. But her technique was solid in Act II Kingdom of the Shades, and her leaps gorgeous in the Act III wedding scene.
Denis Matvienko's Solor was an interesting experience for me. In some ways he has a similar look and masculine attitude on stage as Ethan Stiefel, but with less of a sparkle in his eyes. My one planned guest artist exception this season, I've enjoyed Matvienko when I've seen him on previous occasions in other venues, and I enjoyed him at this performance. He didn't wow me, but I enjoyed him. He has a lovely quality on stage relating to the women around him - I wish Gillian had let go a little more and really joined him in the honest emotion he was giving off. Although you could see this was a new partnership, I felt Matvienko really held up his end and gave us a balanced leading couple (which is not always the case for me when I see Gillian perform). His jetés en manège were beautiful and I particularly enjoy the shapes he makes with his arms. Like Marcelo Gomes or Jared Matthews, his arms added to his performance and made each movement more beautiful, rather than getting in the way. I also appreciated some of the little details Matvienko brought - certain moments when he would look or interact with Gamzatti during Nikiya's solo in Act I were quite poignant.
Simone Messmer's New York debut of Gamzatti was equally successful. Although not nearly as heartbreaking as Stella Abrera's version of the unloved princess, Simone was cool and regal without being too bitchy. She had the perfect entitled air about her. Usually a favorite of mine in contemporary works, I was the tiniest bit skeptical about seeing her dance a principal classical role, but I left impressed. One of her diagonal solo sequences was slowed down to an uncomfortable point - whether by mutual decision or by a momentary brain fog by Ormsby Wilkins I don't know - but generally she was strong and commanding. Her attitude positions were particularly attractive. She doesn't have the presence Stella has, but like Murphy she has a classic, almost retro feel to her dancing that made the whole principal cast seem very well matched. Her pas de deux with Matvienko was also quite strong (it looked to me like she was enjoying taking full advantage of dancing with a more experienced partner than she is usually given). The one negative for me was that Simone continues to have a bad habit of separating her ring and pinky fingers on both hands, and she seems to have relatively short fingers, so it has the effect of cutting off the line of her arm rather than extending it.
My favorite part of Simone's performance was actually the result of something external. Alex Hammoudi's portrayal of her father, the Radjah, was absolutely perfect, and brought a usually background character deliciously into the plot in a way I haven't seen before. Hammoudi's Radjah was regal and arrogant, and although he played him old enough to credibly be her father, he had a younger, more powerful air than I've seen from other dancers in the role. Hammoudi's Radjah was fearsome, a force to be reckoned with. Because of this, and because Simone's character was so well suited to his, I could see exactly how Gamzatti became who she is. When Hammoudi whispers to the servant to get the flower basket with the snakes - it seems that it is his idea that Gamzatti agrees with, rather than her idea with her impotent little father wrapped around her finger as in other performances. This also helped the plot with regard to Solor's powerlessness to resist marrying Gamzatti instead of Nikiya. This performance is making me salivate in the hopes ABT will cast Hammoudi as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet - (though I'm excited to see his Romeo as well if I can).
The Act I d'Jampe dancers were better today than on Wednesday, with Sarah Smith again the clear standout - reminding me of Kristi Boone or Marian Butler's command in past viewings. In particular the d'Jampe dancers' alternating attitude jumps were in sync and well done. The temple dancers in were also particularly lovely - Adrienne Schulte and Courtney Lavine in particular.
The pas d'action corps were not quite as well matched in this performance - the four tall girls seemed to have some issues compared to the four shorter ones - they were a little stiff and too varied in style, and Nicola Curry continues to dance on the down movement instead of the up.
Alexei Agoudine was a terrific head fakir - who ever is coaching this role this season deserves some credit, as both he and Jeff Golladay gave my favorite executions of this role to date. He was a longer, lankier fakir, with gorgeous extended leg lines. I also noticed one of the "underling" fakirs, which I'm pretty sure was Joseph Gorak because of the height and extension of his jumps. He stood out initially for being much smaller than the other fakirs but once he took flight was eye catching.
Arron Scott gave a repeat of his terrific Bronze Idol, perhaps a tad less sharp than on Wednesday but still near perfect.
As much as I enjoyed Matvienko, I did secretly wish they would have cast Gillian opposite Sascha Radetsky - whom I've yet to see this season. The times I've seen the two of them paired have been my favorite performances from them both, and Gillian seems to relate to him better than all of her other partners, on a more real level. Sigh. More unfilled wishes by ABT this season.
Now, all that being said.....
The more times I see La Bayadere, the more I realize it is a ballet entirely devoid of a real hero or heroine. Although the three main characters have a lot in common with many other famous ballet characters, I'm always left mostly ambivalent at the end, no matter how expertly danced. Almost more of a parable than a tragic love story, La Bayadere could almost benefit from an epilogue, something like a parent finishing a bedtime story to a young prince or princess, or one of the characters waking up to show us the whole ballet was a dream.
In many ways, La Bayadere shares its main love story with Giselle or Swan Lake. A dashing aristocrat falls in love with the wrong woman: a temple dancer, a peasant, a girl transfigured into a swan. But, alas, the dashing young man can't marry his beloved: he is compelled, or already engaged, or bamboozled to marry the princess. Then the heartbroken jilted girl dies: killed by a snake, a heart condition or suicide. The real difference is what comes next. In Giselle, the heroine's spirit saves Albrecht from his own guilt and Myrtha's vengeful band of Willis. In Swan Lake, Siegfried's guilt leads him to follow Odette right off that rock and plunge to his watery death below. But in La Bayadere, Nikiya gets bit by a snake right in front of him and Solor's answer is to walk off with his betrothed princess and then hit the opium pipe, hallucinate, and cause death and destruction by continuing to have visions of Nikiya during his wedding. He doesn't stand up for himself pretty much, ever. Also, while death by snake-bite may have been a disproportionate response, but let's not forget that Nikiya did go after Gamzatti, the Radjah's daughter, with a knife. If she had succeeded, would she really have been a worthy bride-heroine?