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The temple dancer Nikiya and Prince Solor have secretly sworn eternal fidelity beside the holy fire. But then Solor is chosen to wed the daughter of the mighty Rajah. When the Bayadère Nikiya is forced to dance at the wedding celebrations, she kills herself in front of her horrified lover. He seeks oblivion in opium, and in his intoxication has a vision of his beloved in multiple reflections. For the Semperoper, Aaron S. Watkin reworked Marius Petipa’s classic narrative piece »La Bayadère« from 1877, creating a visionary and opulent oriental ballet. The highlight of the work is the dream sequence with its trance-like image of female dancers executing the arabesque penchée. »La Bayadère« combines the ideals of the Romantic era with the dream of the Orient to create a sophisticated Gesamtkunstwerk of dance.
»La Bayadère« is a milestone of ballet literature. Its now legendary final act, the »Kingdom of the Shades«, approximately half an hour of «ballet blanc», has gone down in dance history: The purest dancing, totally self-sufficient, with no dramatic link to the story, which presents a vision of ballet in the 20th century. Together with it, furthermore, a ballet type took shape that followed a very specific formula in a production that takes advantage of all available technical and personal possibilities and that could not be grand and spectacular enough: The romantic «Grand Ballet» with a Russian influence – as an artistic reflection of the ornateness of the Tzar’s court. It conformed to a technique that was forced by Petipa to ever greater virtuosity, which required one thing above all, from the corps de ballet to the ballerina: dancing perfection.
Marius Petipa had already been at the service of the czar for three decades when he wrote »Bajaderka«, which premiered in 1877 in St. Petersburg. The story line contains the obligatory love story, with all its typical romantic conflicts – jealousy, intrigue, murder and revenge. At the end, the soul of a loving woman releases the guilt-ridden man from his earthly entanglements. It is no coincidence that there are similarities to »Giselle«, which was written in 1841 in Paris: As a young dancer, Petipa assisted Jules Perrot, who wrote the ballet and rehearsed it at the Tzar’s court. The subject of Indian temple dancers, which Petipa used in his ballet, was nothing new. Since the beginning of the 19th century, they were one of the fixed characters of European music theaters, where they inspired their viewers’ fantasy, which originated mainly in the spirit of European colonial aesthetics. It is no surprise, however, that Hindi temple dancing girls became one of the most popular figures of the Romantic period; after all, the dancers completely fulfilled the female ideal of this epoch. Their dual nature as priests and dancers corresponds to the characteristic dichotomy in the Romantic view of women: saint and sinner, unattainable and desirable at the same time.
The Dresden Watkin version, for which conductor David Coleman rearranged the music of Ludwig Minkus, in which stage designer Arne Walther lets Old India rise again and for which costume designer Erik Västhed prowled through the Indian textiles markets in London, is presented in only two acts. Aaron S. Watkin has a clear view of his ballet: »Authentic. Classic. Elegant. Exotic. The complete richness of India – its brilliance, its colors, its secret, its scent.«
In front of an Indian temple
Solor, the noblest warrior in the land, wishes to offer a tiger as a gift to the powerful Rajah. He sends his best friend Ekavir along with his Kshatriya warriors off hunting. Once alone he asks the fakir Madhavan for a rendez-vous with the temple dancer Nikiya. They are interrupted by the arrival of the High Brahmana Kanj who orders Madhavan to prepare the festivities to honour the Sacred Fire. The Devadasis appear and among them is Nikiya, the holiest of the temple dancers. Kanj has long been overwhelmed by her beauty and confesses his love to her who rejects his advances as he is a man of God, and he is deeply hurt. Madhavan informs Nikiya of Solor’s message. Nikiya agrees to meet him. Solor and Nikiya swear their eternal love to each other in front of the Sacred Fire. Unbeknown to them, Kanj is watching the secret love and swears revenge on Solor.
In the palace of the Rajah
With festivities the Rajah and Rani Dugmanta of Golconda announce the upcoming wedding between their daughter Hamsatti and Solor. Unexpectedly, Kanj appears and tells the Rajah that Solor has sworn his eternal love to the Bayadère Nikiya in front of the Sacred Fire, hoping that the Rajah would dispose of Solor. However, in a blind fury the Rajah declares that it is Nikiya who must die and that the wedding between Solor and Hamsatti, who have been betrothed since childhood, will go ahead as planned. Hamsatti overhears their conversation and sends for Nikiya. She tries to impress her by offering her gifts of jewels, which Nikiya humbly refuses. Hamsatti, irritated and realizing that her attempts are of no avail, tells Nikiya that Solor is betrothed to her and they will marry. Nikiya shocked by this sudden news and in a fit of rage, grabs the Rajah’s dagger and charges towards Hamsatti. Just before stabbing her she stops herself horrified at what she has done and runs from the palace. Hamsatti swears to the Bayadère’s death.
»Misri«*– The Engagement Ceremony of Hamsatti and Solor
In the Palace Gardens
Festivities are presented in honour of the engagement of Hamsatti and Solor. Upon orders from Hamsatti, Kanj brings Nikiya to dance at the celebration. A basket of flowers, apparently sent by Solor, is handed over to Nikiya and her spirit brightens. However, a poisonous snake is hidden among the flowers, which were actually sent by the Rajah and Hamsatti. Nikiya is bitten by the snake. Kanj offers her an antidote to the poison, but Nikiya sees Solor being led away by Hamsatti and she decides that she would rather die than live without his love. Kanj rushes to Nikiya, ridden with guilt at what he has provoked.
Despondent and depressed by Nikiya‘s death, Solor smokes opium, given to him by Madhavan to numb his grief.
The Kingdom of the Shades
Solor in his dream-like euphoria hallucinates and conjures a vision of Nikiya’s shade (spirit) a thousend times among a star-lit sky in the kingdom of the shades. Solor reminisces about their dance of love by the Sacred Fire.
Waking from his trance, the wedding preparations can no longer be stopped. His friend Ekavir tells him he needs to hurry. But Solor’s thoughts are only with Nikiya. He attends the preparations absentmindedly. Hamsatti, who has not failed to notice Solor’s condition, tries to calm him to ensure that the wedding takes place as planned.
»Shaadi«** – The Wedding Ritual
In front of the Temple
The Brahmanas prepare everything for the wedding ritual, a golden idol dances to honour the gods. But Solor can not escape his thoughts of Nikiya. A vision of her appears to him repeatedly and keeps interrupting the ritual. Mysteriously Nikiya’s deathly basket of flowers appears, shocking everyone.
Hamsatti, nervous that Solor will figure out she is responsible for Nikiya’s death, urges her father to complete the wedding ceremony. The Rajah orders Kanj to finish the wedding ritual immediately. When Kanj joins the hands of Solor and Hamsatti under the Mandap***, the infuriated gods take vengeance for Nikiya‘s death by destroying the temple with a cyclone and burying everyone under its ruins.
Nikiya’s spirit forgives and embraces Solor’s with all her love. Joined together forever in love, they head to nirvana.
*Misri marks the beginning of an Indian wedding.
**Shaadi – the final religious ritual in a traditional indian wedding, led by a Brahmin, where the bride and groom take their vows before god, symbolized by the Sacred Fire.