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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre revives Russian classic 'La Bayadere'

| Saturday, April 11, 2015, 8:39 p.m.
Christopher Budzynski and Gabrielle Thurlow perform in a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Christopher Budzynski and Gabrielle Thurlow perform in a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Principal dancer Alexandra Kochis perform in a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Principal dancer Alexandra Kochis perform in a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Dancers perform a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Dancers perform a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Christopher Budzynski and Gabrielle Thurlow perform in a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Christopher Budzynski and Gabrielle Thurlow perform in a full cast rehearsal for the upcoming production of “La Bayadere,” at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District on Monday April 6, 2015.
Alexandra Kochis in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere'
Duane Rieder
Alexandra Kochis in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere'
Christopher Budzynski in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere'
Duane Rieder
Christopher Budzynski in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere'
Alexandra Kochis in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere'
Duane Rieder
Alexandra Kochis in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere'
Yoshiaki Nakano in 'La Bayadere'
Duane Rieder
Yoshiaki Nakano in 'La Bayadere'
Julia Erickson as Nikiya in PIttsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere.'
Duane Rieder
Julia Erickson as Nikiya in PIttsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere.'

A bold new production of a classic, Romantic-era ballet will provide the culmination for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 45th season.

“It's the biggest project we've ever put together,” says company artistic director Terrence Orr.

Set in ancient India, “La Bayadere” will feature a cast of more than 100 in its first Pittsburgh performance.

“It's one of my most favorite classical ballets,” Orr says. “It has a higher technical level in all categories of dance, from principals and soloists to the corps. You have to have much more technique than any other classical ballet.”

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present “La Bayadere” from April 17 to 19 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Charles Barker will conduct the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra.

The ballet was created by Marius Petipa, with music by Ludwig Minkus, for the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, where it was first performed on Feb. 4, 1877. Petipa revised it in 1900, and many choreographers have made their own versions.

“The story is Shakespearean, about eternal things: love, jealousy, betrayal, retribution, the choice between love and duty. As humans, we are always interested in this,” says Natalia Marakova, who staged “La Bayadere” for American Ballet Theatre in 1980. Bayadere means a Hindu dancer, particularly a temple dancer.

The plot is a romantic triangle. Noble warrior Solor is in love with Nikiya, a temple dancer. They take an oath of love. The rajah, however, rewards Solor with marriage to his daughter, Gamzatti. While Solor is attracted to Gamzatti, he sees no alternative to the rajah's command. After Nikiya is bitten by a snake and refuses an antidote, Solor dreams of being united with Nikiya in the afterlife.

One of the most well known parts of the ballet is the “The Kingdom of the Shades” for the corps de ballet.

Orr agrees with Marakova about the Shakespearean scope of “La Bayadere,” and he admires the “wonderful complex story.” But his version will try to make often confusing details of the plot easier for the audience to understand.

“I generally wanted to not do the ABT production,” he says. “I went to the original placement of the ‘Shades' in the third act. I made the arranged marriage between Solor and Gamzatti produce visions and emotions in his head because he knows he's not supposed to do it. The Bronze God, who has the power to destroy the world, drives Solor away from the marriage.

“The ballet finishes in a much more poetic, supreme-being kind of place, where lights come up and they take ramps up into the sky.”

Orr says he has been working on his version of “La Bayadere” for more than a year.

“Trying to figure out the original score with Charles was the first thing,” he says. “He's come out several times so we could go over the music and find out its order.

“It's been an immense project,” Orr says.

“We're using the original Minkus score for better and worse,” Barker says. “The thing that Minkus had was the ability to write a melody, and he wrote scads of them. What he didn't do was fill it in with (much) harmony or countermelody. There's a lot for the first violins, but, then, Minkus had been concertmaster of the Paris Opera orchestra.”

Barker had to change his mindset from what he does with great ballet scores by Pieter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev.

“I have to worry about what's going to stand, what I can do with the little bit of music to shade the drama. How are we going to make a crescendo here to convey Solor at his deepest depression? Telling the story is Terry's job, but I can lend a hand,” he says.

The costumes and scenery are rented from Boston Ballet.

“They are really beautiful, lots of silks, velvet, brocades and chiffon,” says Janet Campbell, Pittsburgh Ballet's costumier. “For a lot of the girls, their midriffs are exposed. When they try them on they say, ‘Oh, I have 10 days to work on my abs.' They're enjoying how nice they look.”

Campbell notes that the makeup for the Bronze God is tricky to use.

“It's very complex to put that makeup all over the body because the skin can't breathe. You have to be very careful how long you have it on,” she says.

Two of Pittsburgh Ballet's principal dancers who are taking starring roles performed smaller ones in Boston Ballet's 2000 production, and they are excited to be returning to “La Bayadere.”

Christopher Budzynski says Solor is “a wonderful role, sort of a complete role. You're a warrior on one hand, so at the beginning, the way you hold yourself is very noble, a leader high up the ladder. Once everyone goes off, you're looking for your love, Nikiya, so your whole demeanor changes. No one is expecting you to become way more romantic.”

Budzynski characterizes Solor's marriage to the rajah's daughter as “somewhat forced. He has his love, but the rajah is powerful, Gamzatti is beautiful, as well all the riches that will be his. I feel the biggest thing is that the rajah says this (marriage) is going to happen, and he has the final word.”

Alexandra Kochis says the role of Nikiya is “incredibly challenging and runs the gamut.

“The first act is very Julietesque, romantic lyrical themes with tons of acting, which I love sinking my teeth into,” she says. “Nikiya is what everyone wishes to be: humble, pure, with inner strength and true to her convictions. She takes her oath of love seriously. She flies in the face of the powers that be that she shouldn't rise above her caste, and challenges Gamzatti. The third act is wonderful to dance in its purity and requires a lot of challenging technique.”

Mark Kanny is the classical music and dance critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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