Pennsylvania Ballet’s La Bayadére premieres amid protests

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit Alexander Iziliaev

Pennsylvania Ballet’s company premiere of La Bayadére opened with expected controversy over the ballet’s notorious history of offensive depictions of Indian culture. Created in 1877 by Marius Petipa about a temple dancer and a warrior Prince in a fatal love story, the ballet is teaming with racial and religious missteps of so called ‘orientalism’ of the era as a backdrop to Russian Imperial Ballet, by design, already a grossly distorted cultural misappropriation. The demeaning racist stereotypes it represents cannot be ignored.

To get in front of these issues Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella attempted to erase and neutralize the ballet’s negative image, and justify re-staging it primarily on the merits of choreographer Marius Petitpa’s iconic choreography.

To get in front of the controversies Corella invited Professor Dr. Pallabi Chakravorty, an Indian dance scholar and choreographic specialist in classical dance from the Northern region of India.  Dr. Chakravorty worked in studio with the dancers to make corrections to the gestures and steps of the temple dancers, The Bayadere.  Their hand dances, finger positions and gestures are specific to sacred liturgy from both Hindu cultures in India.

In February Corella brought together a panel to discuss the issues at the Guggenheim in New York and at PAFA in Philadelphia. The panel was moderated by Phil Chan whose ongoing project The Final Bow to Yellowface partners with ballet and opera companies to clean up the racial and cultural offenses in these archaic classics. Also on the panel were dance scholar Laura Katz, Dr. Chakravorty and PAB principal dancer Zechang Liang, cast as the warrior Solor, one of the premier ‘danseur’ roles in ballet.

During the presentation Corella acknowledged that the ideal situation would have been to re-choreograph the ballet with Indian classical dance and music, but he said he had to be realistic with the resources he had to mount the production. In his program essay ‘Why La Bayadére’ , Corella explains “there are certainly aspects of the ballet that are problematic…. Pennsylvania Ballet’s La Bayadére  is in no way evocative of authentic Indian culture.”

Those explanations for some in the PAFA audience were not good enough.

The Backlash

The first confrontation was over the poster image of the Bronze Icon on the PAB poster art announcing the production. The company was accused of being a depiction of yellowface of the character of the Bronze Idol, a temple statue that comes to life in the story.  The actual error though was that the dancer who posed for the photo was holding their fingers in a way to convey a gesture of prayer, which indeed was completely wrong, so it was re-shot and the image corrected. Meanwhile, other protests were surfacing fast and furious.

By opening day of the production on March 5, the backlash came very publicly on when a MoveOn.org petition was circulated on social media for Pennsylvania Ballet to halt the run of the production.  The arguments put forth are in the petition are a well-argued list of the ballet’s freighted racial issues. By curtain time there were hundreds of signatories, and will undoubtedly build steam during the show’s ten-day run.

Petipa’s classic distortions

Petitpa’s choreography requires exacting execution of a particular school of dance training and artistry of 19th-century Russian ballet. It is essentially the only thing that ignites this hothouse fantasy tragic love story. It is no surprise that Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov danced scenes from the ballet at auditions and competitions at the start of their careers. Corella notes that La Bayadére “helped me define my career…pushing me as a dancer and an artist.”  He thought mounting it, as part of their professional experience with the company, would be important for their careers.

In 2020, these are important questions to answer.  Obviously white dancers wearing Yellowface or black/brownface makeup would be inexcusable. Is it acceptable for white dancers portraying Indian characters to portray fantasy characters of another race? Are the choreographic aspects of classical Russian artistry enough reason for dancers with the technical ability to want to perform it?

There was perhaps unintended irony as the curtain went up to reveal that the elephant was already literally in the room via a proscenium tapestry with the image of an elephant carrying Royal cargo depicting a colonial era street scene in India. The real elephant in the room was choreographer Marius Petipa’s 1877 story ballet teaming with European ‘orientalism’ and supposed exotica to entertain the aristocracy at the Russian Imperial Ballet.

None of that seem to be on the minds of a sizable crowd filling the Academy of Music, an offhand guess would be that the floor seating and first two balconies were 70-75% full on opening night.

Petipa’s representation of the sacred temple dancers and dances, however stylized, deluded, lifted for ballet purposes is indelibly offensive. But his Franco-Russian ballet vocabulary that makes up most of Corella’s production is classicism at its highest level and one guesses that was what this audience was here for.

The Dancers & the Dance

As unnerving as all the backlash could have been to the performers on stage and in the orchestra pit, they still performed with distinction.  The production is so big that the full roster of dancers, including the members of PBII and the company apprentices were onstage.

The sets, on loan from Boston Ballet, the temple edifice, palace interiors and mystical realms fit right in to the environs of the Academy, an old-world jewel box opera house that clearly enchanted this audience.

Corella streamlines the original four acts into two, minimizes the pantomime acting and focuses on the ballet as a fast-paced fantasy love story.

Oksana Maslova plays the temple dancer Nikiya who is in love with the warrior Prince Solor, but they must meet in secret after he breaks off his engagement with the Rajah’s daughter Gamzatti. So, a set up for temple trysts, palace intrigue and a spoiled jealous princess.

As Solor, Zechang Liang aerial work just floats, he lands those famous knee drops with polish and flair. His lyrical quality present in pristine centered grande pirouettes. Oksana Maslova is the Temple dancer Nikiya, her technical artistry stellar and her pacing thrilling. The partners particularly impressed silkily performing Petipa’s demanding lift variations.

Mayara Pineiro also impresses acting-wise in her fiery portrayal of Gamzatti, the Rajah’s daughter, who threatens Nikiya and seals her fate. Albert Gordon delivers a breakout solo as the Bronze Idol that comes alive in gold body paint with glitter added. His limbs in held in angular sculpted position through mach-speed spins, tours en ‘l air and jetes that brought the house down. Ashton Roxander was also explosive as the Lead Fakir, commandeering the loin-clothed ascetics who barrel role and cower around the temple for alms.

The first night audience was clearly tuned into the pyrotechnical and lyrical elegance of the choreography, applauding the principals and soloist lustily throughout the production.

Corella has wanted to stage La Bayadére for some time. Now, six years into his tenure as PAB’s artistic director, he felt he had the corps de ballet strong enough to meet the ballet’s technical requirements for The Kingdom of the Shades scenes.

A title projection on the curtain introducing the scene where Solor escapes his grief by smoking opium, is met with laughter and met humorous approval from the audience who seemed all in for the famous Shade scenes. He hallucinates about Nikiya, and dreams that he finds her in this netherworld.

The Shades act is more known in Europe, but is as representative of the classical canon as Giselle, Swan Lake, and La Sylphide. Through a mist 26 ballerinas descend down a ramp in classical white tutu in a slow moving, snaking processional. each step phrase finished in uniform penche arabesque.  The ensembles steel and supple control petit jumps and pointe work variations altogether dazzling.  A pas de trois and solo variations were all exquisitely danced by Yuka Iseda, Naraya Lopes and, Thays Golz.

Conductor Beatrice Jona Affron led the PAB orchestra in a robustly detailed performance of the lumbering Ludwig Minkus score, that in this version mixes in selected inlays of music from Mikhail Glinka. Fortunately, there are shimmering solo passages by 1st violinist Luigi Mazzocchi, harpist Mindy Cutcher and cellist Jennie Lorenzo. Minkus doesn’t even try to stylize any classical Indian music or sampling into the score – another marker that the whole purpose of the ballet was to please Russian royals – and in hindsight, a wise decision even it was for a tone-deaf reason.

What now?

However, reimagined, ‘La Bayadére’ will never be able to live down its inherent racism and stereotypes.  So the issues swirling around it remain. In a program insert Corella writes about his production and the dancers “While we are proud of these efforts, we now realize that much more about this production.  Corella plans to hold a follow-up platform for discussion at PA Ballet studios “for a community conversation about this production.”  to “welcome the opinions of all.”  Stay tuned.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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