Set in a kingdom in mythical, ancient India, La Bayadère is a story of crop tops, unrequited love, and questionable decision making. It’s a story that could easily be told in five minutes, but has been stretched into a two hour affair with a bunch of characters dancing in roles that have nothing to do with plot development, and entire acts that don’t seem to relate to one another. It’s an ode to glitter, gold, and gauze.
Now, here’s the tricky part: this ballet (as originally staged) has some dodgy bits. Its lavish portrayal of medieval India is historically inaccurate, set to distinctly inauthentic music, and laden with cultural clichés and stereotypes. The religion represented is… I’m not even sure where to start. Cringe-worthy representations of religious figures, and a jumble of sacred fires, opium and sexed-up temple dancers. It’s pretty obvious that Marius Petipa, the choreographer, really got into the idea of harem pants and exposed midriffs, and thought children in blackface might be a nice addition to the show. (It was not.)
Many dance companies have reworked the ballet, others simply perform snippets or single acts. Some steer clear of it completely. I think we can agree that most famous ballets aren’t exactly steeped in reality or historical accuracy, and you can find many faux pas in the classics. La Bayadère debuted in 1877 – a time when stories about far away places and the exotic were still en vogue in the dance world. Travel and the interwebs weren’t what they are today, so let’s assume that has a little to do with some of the culturally insensitive elements in this ballet. I don’t know that Petipa meant any harm; I do know that he really needed Google.
That said, the act featuring The Kingdom of Shades is one of the most celebrated and beautiful ballet scenes of all time. It is absolutely stunning. Dozens of ballerinas (the Shades) in white tutus descend from a long ramp, sparkling under soft stage lights like moonbeams dancing across the stage. Minimalism at its best and most breathtaking.
To sum: I KNOW. I know ballet has it’s shortcomings. But I’m quite sure it won’t give you herpes, so this month I will continue my mission to explain/destroy famous ballets with a retelling of La Bayadère. The storyline is hilarious, and will probably do a good job of making you feel better about your life choices. It’s one of the world’s most famous ballets and is still adored by many, including yours truly. It’s a giant sack of stupid, and we’re going to open it next week…