Choreography: Shobana Jeyasingh
Composer: Gabriel Prokofiev
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Shobana Jeyasingh is a well-established and much-respected British choreographer whose work is rooted in her own British Asian experience and the classical Indian dance she grew up studying.
Several years ago she saw a production of the now relatively little-seen (outside London) classical ballet La Bayadère. Created by the legendary Marius Petipa in 1877, La Bayadère is a European ballet set in India, the story of a bayadère – an Indian temple dancer – and her doomed love affair with a warrior named Solor. While delighted with the classical ballet Jeyasingh was puzzled and disconcerted at the depictions of India and started to wonder what was known of this aspect of India at that time.
Her research uncovered the visit to Europe of five Indian temple dancers and three musicians in 1838, who performed all over the continent, many times in London. Jeyasingh traced the line of documentation and reportage almost directly to Marius Petipa. But she was intrigued by what had been edited or lost in translation.
Her own production revisits the original narrative of the ballet through a modern lens – starting with a British Asian man (Adi Chugh) stuck on business in a hotel room in Hyderabad. To the constant sound of traffic and with nothing of interest on TV he shares a WhatsApp chat with a friend in London, who was taken to the ballet the previous night. He recounts the basics of the narrative, introducing the characters of La Bayadère via online messages – cleverly projected onto a screen – and gradually his friend is unexpectedly drawn into the story, which comes alive as his hotel room dissolves in a cloud of metaphorical opium smoke…
The dance proper begins – after the character introductions – with Jeyasingh’s interpretation of The Kingdom of the Shades, the most often-performed scene of the original ballet which is shown as a classical ballet excerpt more often than the full ballet these days. This is where the warrior – now married to another – imagines his lost love – the bayadère Nikiya – in the spirit world among the other spirits. This scene is rather lovely as the large cast appear one after another performing the same Indian flavoured choreography until they become a hazy blue swirl of bodies, at once unified and blurry. The business man becomes the temple priest – the actor replaced by dancer Sooraj Subramaniam – costumed and bejewelled accordingly.
The remainder of the work searches through fact and fantasy for the origins of the temple dancer herself – the mysterious bayadère – by means of finely blended, exquisitely-crafted ballet deeply-infused with classical Indian flavours. If this section of the ballet is intended to be narrative in nature this is difficult to discern but the technically-challenging choreography is hypnotic and beautifully performed by a talented and diverse cast.
The stage design – by Tom Piper – is extravagantly simple – a bare stage with simple moving ‘curiosity boxes’ and impressionistic sculptural copper pipe clouds. Gabriel Prokofiev’s original score is appealing without being especially memorable.
The conceptual loop that links culture and heritage and appropriation from a 19th century classical ballet from India to Europe and back again via a contemporary ballet is intelligent and intriguing. Whether any clear conclusions are drawn from this intense research and consideration is left drifting like smoke clouds among the mountains of imagination.
Reviewed on 28 September 2017 | Image: Jane Hobson