This scene – known as the Kingdom of the Shades – is revered in ballet circles as the template for the art form’s most iconic moments. It was of this scene that Mikhail Baryshnikov was thinking when he wrote in his autobiography, “La Bayadére is one of the great, if not the greatest, classical works in the history of ballet … Poetically it is unmatched in the classical repertory.” It was of this scene that the renowned dance critic Clive Barnes was thinking when he said, “If you don’t enjoy La Bayadére, you don’t really enjoy ballet.”
In Act III of La Bayadère, something remarkable happens. The gilded exoticism, the heated passions, the murderous intrigues recede, leaving the stage clear for a pristine display of classicism that hints at the perfection of heaven.
20 Aug 2014
The hero Solor smokes opium to ease his heartbreak after his murdered love dies in his arms. In a vision, she comes to him as a wraith from the heights of the Himalayas, accompanied by the ghosts of her fellow temple dancers. The procession of the Shades down the mountain, inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Paradisio, is a hypnotic repetition of low arabesques and sweeping port de bras, a rigorous test of the corps de ballet’s stability and precision.
Natalia Markarova, who staged La Bayadère in New York after her defection from Russia, doing much to popularise the ballet in the West, said of the Kingdom of the Shades, “In this ballet, the corps de ballet is the leading role and each member of it should feel like a ballerina. Yet the corps must always work together as a unified whole, they must dance and breathe as one.” The dancers of the corps, all in cloud-white tutus and veils, form delicate patterns that fan and arch to frame the soloists. It’s a motif that Petipa would repeat in Giselle with the dances of the wilis. Lev Ivanov, who danced Solor in the premiere of La Bayadère, would bring it to its apotheosis in his choreography for the “white” scenes of Swan Lake.
The soloists (Nikiya and Solor, plus three leading Shades) have their moments as well, chief amongst them a lovely, yearning pas de deux for the lovers that is danced at the length of a filmy white scarf. It’s a symbol both of their separation by the veil of death, and the sealing and binding of their love in the hereafter.
Perhaps Arlene Croce, erstwhile critic of The New Yorker, said it best: “The subject of the Kingdom of the Shades is not really death, although everyone in it except for the hero is dead. It’s Elysian bliss, and its subject is eternity … [it is] a poem about dancing and memory and time … This is dancing to be felt as well as seen, and Petipa gives it a long time to creep under our skins.”