Sunday, 29 March 2015

La Bayadère - The Ninth Life

Théophile Gautier
Photo M. Berthali Wikipedia

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance's La Bayadère - The Ninth Life at the Linbury yesterday lasted about an hour but it was one of the most intense hours that I have ever spent in the theatre. I had come to the performance expecting a transposition of the story of the ballet into bharatha natyam or some other Indian dance idiom but it was nothing like that. That would have been too easy and it is clear from the list of her works on her company's website that Jeyasingh doesn't do easy. Instead, it compared and contrasted a modern Indian's perception of one of the classics of Western dance with Théophile Gautier's perception of Indian classical dance.

At least I think that is what it was about. My friend and colleague Gita Mistry understood it much better than I did. She has studied bharatha natyam (see Our Three Hundredth Post - Now we are a Team 21 Feb 2015) and picked up on cues like the counting of time and the sharp heel movements that had passed me by. She explained her understanding of this work to me patiently over dinner (a curry as it happens) and the long drive back to Yorkshire. I admired the virtuosity of the dancers and I came reasonably prepared for the show having read everything I could about it but without Gita's commentary it would have been very much harder for me to appreciate the show.

The performance opens straightforwardly enough with a blogger and his computer. He is an Indian man in a check shirt sitting on the floor as the audience arrives and takes their places. The lights dimmed. He began to type and words appeared on the screen. On a visit to London, he explains, a friend had taken him to the ballet to see La Bayadère. He found it a remarkable experience. He set out the story noting that it set near modern Hyderabad. He listed the characters - Nikiya, Gamzatti, Solor, the holy man - each of whom appeared behind the screen. "I've never seen a holy man move like that" he mused to the audience's laughter. The plot he described as "pure Bollywood" the only authentic bit being the protracted Indian wedding. And finally the entry of the shades.

The next scene focused on the words of Gautier who saw real bayadères or temple dancers from Pondicherry when they visited Paris in 1838.  At first came wonder and appreciation for the dancers - their wonderful soft skin and teeth - but then disdain - blue gums, the ears riddled with holes, the gifts of tobacco, the dancer's feet one toe separated from the others like a bird's foot - and this refrain was repeated with the temple dancer manhandled on stage.

Gita told me that much of the dancing in that scene had been bharatha natyam which I might have worked out for myself had Indian instruments been played but there were no hints of that in Gabriel Prokofiev's score. This was a combination of voice with percussion and other sound. The soundtrack from this trailer will give some idea. As I say above, Jeyasingh does not do easy.

Listening to Gauthier's words which were repeated several times, it dawned on me why India unlike China, Japan and Korea appears relatively unmoved and uninfluenced by Western ballet or for that matter classical music. I had considered that conundrum several times in this blog (see, for example, More on Ballet in India 4 Sept 2014). Gauthier, the author of Giselle, never really understood or appreciated an Indian dance form that has subsisted for more than two millennia. Why should an Indian pay regard for an art form which in its modern embodiment is barely two centuries old!

As I said above I found the show intense. Gita felt it too.  Both of us would have preferred a different score. I would have liked Indian instruments and rhythms. But we are both glad to have seen the show. Armed with the knowledge that I now have I should like to see it again. It is going on tour but only in places like Eastleigh, Exeter and Watford. "Why not bring it North?" I asked the choreographer whom I approached after the show. She replied that she would love to do so.

Further Reading
31 March 2015   La Bayadère  

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