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'Bayadere' closes Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre season in great fashion

| Sunday, April 19, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Gabrielle Thurlow as Nikiya in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere'
Rich Sofranko
Gabrielle Thurlow as Nikiya 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'
Julia Erickson as Nikiya in PIttsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere.'
Duane Rieder
Julia Erickson as Nikiya in PIttsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'La Bayadere.'

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre concluded its 45th season with a spectacular production of “La Bayadere,” a 19th-century Russian ballet with the potential to showcase all the aspects of a major ballet company.

“La Bayadere” was created in 1876-77 by Marius Petipa, chief choreographer at the Russian Imperial Ballet and sometimes called the father of classical ballet.

The piece is set in ancient India, the context for the love between Nikiya, a temple dancer or bayadere, and Solor, a warrior. The striking sets and beautiful costumes seen at the Benedum Center, Downtown, run with the exotic locale.

Pittsburgh Ballet's production is by artistic director Terrence Orr, whose dramatic decisions sought to create clarity in a story that grows complicated in its details.

“La Bayadere” opens expansively. There are three main sections in each of the two scenes in Act 1. Those who took the time to read the synopsis in the program were amply rewarded.

The depth of talent in Pittsburgh Ballet's roster of dancers permitted it to offer a different cast for this technically challenging piece at each of the four performances in the run.

The ballet opens at a sacred temple in a forest with a hunting party led by Solor, who was performed with memorable athleticism by Alejandro Diaz on the afternoon of April 18. His turns, leaps and mid-air leg work consumed the stage. Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev created a vivid portrait of Magedaveya, a fakir and Solor's loyal friend.

Nikiya is a role with more dimension than Solor, and was performed with remarkable dramatic accents and sterling technique by Julia Erickson. After she rebuffed the inappropriate advances of the High Priest, well played by Andres Reyes, in the second part of the first scene, Erickson reached one of her many high points in “La Bayadere” at the end of the first scene in which Nikiya and Solor consecrate their love.

The second scene takes place at the Radjah's palace, where he shows his daughter Gamzatti a portrait of the man chosen to be her husband, Solor. Gamzatti was performed with passionate intensity by Elysa Hotchkiss. The first act's second scene concludes with Nikiya and Gamzatti in open conflict, very well staged in this production.

After a needed intermission, Act 2 is tauter. It is the wedding of Gamzatti and Solor and features festive dancing. Nikiya is required to dance for the couple, a cruel moment transformed by Erickson's expressive dancing. Then, Nikiya is fatally poisoned.

The ballet turns supernatural in the final act, which opens in the Temple of the Golden Idol. Solor is conflicted about his marriage and his sacred vow of love to Nikiya. Masahiro Haneji danced in full body makeup with frightening angularity as the Golden Idol, displeased over Nikiya's death.

Solor retreats in despair to his quarters, where he smokes opium and dreams.

The final scene is the ballet's most famous, set in The Kingdom of the Shades. Nikiya is among the spirits of bayaderes who descend with precise, repeated movements to earth. They are in rows four deep in an exquisite design. Saturday, the dancers were perfectly aligned, so that if you looked at the four dancers straight ahead as they extended their arms and legs, the image was akin to one of the multi-limbed Indian sculptures — except in motion.

Nikiya and Solor dance joyously, offering plenty of seized opportunities for Erickson and Diaz to impress, before ascending the staircase to heaven.

Charles Barker and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra made the most of the original music by Ludwig Minkus, performing with irresistible style. The music's weight isn't much different from Johann Strauss Jr.'s, though without the Viennese composer's genius for melody and orchestration.

Mark Kanny is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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