Boston Ballet's La Bayadère last weekend, and the corps de ballet began the first of many arabesques cambré - pointed head-downward on a descending ramp - you could sense the entire audience holding its breath. This long, slow entrée probably beats the second act of Swan Lake (by a feather) as the most difficult and exposed sequence for the corps in the entire repertory. Just a few weeks earlier, at the Ballet's "Night of Stars," the hypnotic synchronicity of all those rising legs and drooping arms had wobbled well out of focus, and the spell of this geometrically-perfect dream had been broken.
But on opening night, it seemed some sort of miracle had been wrought in the "Kingdom of Shades" (as the scene is known): the corps bowed and rose in perfect synchronicity, and Marius Petipa's grand vision of death as a dimension of symmetry and peace floated before us with ravishing serenity.
"The Kingdom of the Shades" isn't the only treasure in Bayadère, but it's the grandest, and the key to its success - utter technical control - is really the key to the whole ballet. Choreographed by Petipa (below left) in mid-career flight, and acclaimed as his greatest masterwork to date, La Bayadère could nevertheless never be called original: it may be set, exotically enough, in India, but it's basically Giselle Goes to Bangalore. (Or Coppélia Goes to Bangalore. Or [Insert name of nineteenth-century ballet] Goes to Bangalore.) Boy meets girl, but he's already betrothed to another girl (surprise!), things go badly and . . . well, let's just say no nineteenth-century ballet is ever complete without a heroine returning from beyond the grave, is it. (Petipa's original wrapped with a vengeful cataclysm wrought by the gods, but the Boston Ballet version closes with a romantic clinch in a dreamscape of the dead.) Meanwhile there isn't a trace of Indian influence in the music - by Minkus - which follows a familiar "Dance-of-the-Hours" template, and only a few hints here and there in the choreography. To be honest, this ballet is "exotic" only in its costumes and backdrops.
But what costumes, and what backdrops! At any rate, what made Bayadère a landmark at its premiere wasn't its story or setting but its scope (it even includes a life-size elephant), which Boston Ballet brings off triumphantly. Still, such innovations as the development of character through dance was yet to come - and audiences may miss that tiny detail, at least until the grandeur seriously kicks in after the slow first act. Even as the scenic stakes grow bigger, however, Nikiya and Solor, the ballet's doomed couple, remain pretty much stock figures - tellingly, when we meet them, they're already in love, a narrative fact established immediately by a few ecstatic lifts; their movements declare rather than develop their mental state - and at other key emotional moments, Petipa repeatedly resorts to mime rather than dance.
"Dance" is instead reserved for divertissements (among both the living and the dead), as well as novelty numbers over burning fires, or with balanced jars, fans, scarves, or parrots, or by golden idols, slaves and whatnot. This is where that "utter technical control" kicks in - most of these dances are essentially graceful exercises, at times almost studious explications of particular positions and jumps - and luckily, the Ballet has a lot of technical control these days. Light, mischievously lovely work was done by Rie Ichikawa (with that balanced jar), and Misa Kuranaga, Adiarys Almeida and Whitney Jensen glimmered exquisitely as the reigning sylphs in the Kingdom of Shades; meanwhile, as the Other Woman, a radiant Kathleen Breen Combes brought more sympathetic complexity to her role than perhaps the choreography deserved.
Center stage, however, as the eponymous temple dancer, I found Lia Cirio somehow unconvincing. I adore Cirio in contemporary dance, in which she always has a confident, aquiline attack - she's a huntress by temperament, I think. Demure suffering is not her bag, and while her dancing as Nikiya was sinuously graceful, for once in Bayadère, technique alone isn't enough (complicating matters was the fact that Breen Combes actually had more chemistry with Solor than she did).
Said Solor, of course, was the big news of the evening - freshly-minted principal Lasha Khozashvili, who had already made a huge impression at the "Night of Stars." That impression only deepened here. Khozashvili has long, lithe legs that don't betray the power he has at his command; leap after leap, tour after tour seemed to be merely tossed off, each more effortlessly than the last. Top that with an easy romantic manner, and by the final scene, the crowd was even more in love with him than Nikiya was. His only rival for the crowd's affection was another new addition to the Ballet, Joseph Gatti (at right), who in the "Golden Idol" dance blew through a series of spinning jumps and pirouettes that left the audience amazed. He won a roaring ovation for his efforts - one that was only topped by the repeated applause for the ultimate technical achievement of the evening, that grand tableau - as exquisitely mournful and Gatti was exuberant - in the Kingdom of the Shades.