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‘Bayadère – The Ninth Life’: Shobana Jeyasingh’s reworking of ballet classic is powerful and enjoyable culture marker (review)

‘Bayadère – The Ninth Life’: Shobana Jeyasingh’s reworking of ballet classic is powerful and enjoyable culture marker (review)

La Bayadère is one of the most classical and most popular of all ballets, so what happens when one of the most creative choreographers of our time takes it apart and puts it back together again…

By Suman Bhuchar

SHOBANA JEYASINGH DANCE (SJD) company make beautiful work and this show has been inspired by director and founder Jeyasingh wanting to question the orientalism* present in this ballet which was first performed in Europe around 1877.

It is also a big moment for the choreographer as it’s the first time she has worked with Sadler’s Wells, which is widely regarded as the home of British dance.

While ‘La Bayadère’ is a ballet, Jeyasingh mixes this up with contemporary dance and there are also signs of bharatanatyam, the classical South Indian dance form in which Jeyasingh and lead dancer Sooraj Subramaniam trained.

In order to help audiences who don’t know the story, we have an introduction to the tale.

It comes in modern form with a young man who is texting his friend and they are discussing what he has been doing – well, he has been taken to see a ballet, ‘La Bayadère’ – which means Temple Dancer, by his girlfriend – and the audience get to see the story in quick shorthand.

Basically a temple dancer, ‘Nikiya is in love with the warrior ‘Solor’, but he is ordered by the Rajah (king) to marry the princess, ‘Gamzattiat’. At the wedding Nikiya dances but has been bitten by a snake.

Later Solor smokes opium and in a state of intoxication he thinks he is seeing her and then dies. These short scenes are played out in a screen like design made by Tom Piper (who designed, award-winning play ‘Red Velvet’, and the much heralded ‘Sea of Poppies’at the Tower of London) and there are live projections in the background.

The rest of the production is then an interpretation of this story, where a group of ten dancers act out the tableaux scenes of the story overlaid with text.

Shobana Jeyasingh by JP Masclet

It is recited in voiceover (by Benedict Lloyd-Hughes) which is attributed to the French critic, Theophile Gautiér (1811-72), where he talks about his encounters with real life temple dancers who came to perform in France in 1838.

He describes how he didn’t know what to expect, “her skin was tawny like a deer” and “her teeth were white” and even notices the “gap in her toes” but to challenge the audience, Jeyasingh has opted to use the male dancer, Subramaniam, as the Nikiya Temple Dancer protagonist, initially putting him in red harem pants, which he later changes into a white dhoti (subverting the original idea of exotica).

The music by composer, Gabriel Prokofiev is superb and uses approaches of the original music by Ludwig Minkus, while the sets borrow the idea of the tableau vivant (living picture), motifs of the original ballet but appropriating it for their own purpose.

There is some repetition of the text, and the last scene with gold wires is somewhat unclear. Jeyasingh is challenging us to look at the ballet in a different way and all the performers are superb in the execution of their craft. It’s a bold experiment and overall, I enjoyed it.

ACV rating: **** (out of five)

Suman Bhuchar saw the performance yesterday (Monday October 16) at Sadler’s Wells in London. This is a totally revamped version of the premiere performed in the UK last year.

*Orientalism was a popular viewpoint in the West at the time; much of the culture and art from the East was regarded as exotic and sensuous and suggested people from the region could not be intellectual or very smart. Mostly this philosophy helped bolster European colonialism for much of the 19th and the early 20th century.

We have been using the #dancedemystified hashtag to break down the mental barriers some people have with dance. Jeyasingh’s work is highly accessible to someone who has never seen, or not much knowledge of, modern dance. Her Indian sensibilities are drawn from her understanding and familiarity with bharatanatyam, making her both one of the most creative and widely watched choreographers in Europe today. And that, with a wider UK tour has to be where this production is surely headed…be fascinating to see what the Continent makes of this. (Editor’s note)

Pictures: Jane Hobson (production)

TODAY – Tuesday, October 17 – 7.30pm – Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4TN
Box Office: +44 (0)20 7863 8000

Interview with Shobana Jeyasingh about Bayadère – The Ninth Life

Shobana Jeyasingh 25 years in dance –

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture