Friday, May 6, 2016

Dancing Women

Back in the middle of March, while still immersed in the world of Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain and Mary Doria Russell’s Doc and Epitaph, I promised to explore the reimagining of the devadasis into the ballet La Bayadere.

I didn’t quite make it, because a ton of things landed on my desk: books for interviews, books for blog posts, my own book in final preparations for release, and projects that had nothing to do with fiction but nonetheless demanded my attention. After a while, I forgot. But today I remembered, and since La Bayadere is a topic close to my heart (I based my Kingdom of the Shades on it, as the title indicates), I decided it was time to pick up the thread.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Bayadere is not as well known in the West as many other classical Russian story ballets. Choreographed in 1877 by Marius Petipa, the great imperial ballet master, it was a great favorite at the tsar’s court. Often only the third act was performed, and more than one person has written to ask whether I’ve ever heard of the ballet Kingdom of the Shades. But unlike Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Giselle—even the far less coherent CorsairBayadere did not make the leap to the West after the 1917 revolution. The full production arrived only around 1980, when Natalya Makarova staged it for American Ballet Theater.

The plot is typical of nineteenth-century ballets. Nikiya, a temple dancer (devadasi, bayadère) falls in love with a young military hotshot named Solor, who loves her too. But the Brahmin in charge of the temple wants Nikiya for himself. When she refuses, he spies on her with Solor and, beside himself with rage, threatens to kill his rival. Meanwhile, the local Rajah decides to marry his daughter, Gamzatti, to Solor. Solor resists, but what the Rajah wants, he gets. The temple sends Nikiya to bless the young couple, and the Brahmin seizes his opportunity to tattle on Solor to the Rajah. Alas, the Rajah wants to kill Nikiya rather than sacrifice his plans.

When Gamzatti overhears that her husband-to-be wants another woman, she sends for Nikiya and tries to buy her off. Nikiya retaliates by throwing in Gamzatti’s face that Solor has sworn over the temple’s eternal flame to love only Nikiya. The two women get into a catfight and Nikiya runs out, unaware that she now has two people gunning for her: the Rajah and his daughter.

Fast forward to the wedding: celebration and pageantry, a full orientalist display involving everything from elephants to peacocks to a golden idol (even today attended by children in blackface in the Bolshoi production) and a set of wild drummers who may be Gypsies or nomads or something else altogether. The temple, having failed to learn its lesson, again sends Nikiya to dance for the bride and groom. A snake mysteriously appears in a basket of flowers that Nikiya believes come from Solor, and before you know it, Nikiya is bitten. The Brahmin offers her an antidote if she will yield to him, but no. She would rather die than lose Solor.

Distraught and alone, Solor smokes opium. He dreams he has been transported to the Kingdom of the Shades—a garden of ghosts who enter, one by one, down a ramp in ongoing procession. When done properly, this is one of the most stunning entrances in ballet: thirty-two young women in white repeating the same two steps in perfect precision until they all reach the stage and line up. The shades dance in various combinations, then Nikiya appears, and through the course of a long pas de deux she and Solor are reconciled. But he must eventually return to the everyday world and marriage to Gamzatti, while she remains forever beyond his reach. Originally, the ballet finished with a fourth act in which the gods avenge Nikiya’s murder and reunite her with Solor after death. This fourth act can be seen in the Royal Ballet production, but it dropped out of the Russian version of the ballet after the revolution for technical reasons (it involved too many trap doors and pulleys for a cash-strapped state). In emotional terms, the ballet works better without it.

What makes Bayadere interesting despite its old chestnut sensibilities and its rampant orientalism is the triangle at its heart. This is the element I explore in Kingdom of the Shades, and you can find out much more about it in that book. But if we look at it as distorted history, what we see is a Victorian attempt to cope with a very non-Victorian situation. Certain elements of the story have parallels in the lives of real devadasis: the sacred dancer who has a secular patron; the potential for abuse created by that dichotomy; the reality of political marriage and the unlikelihood that a member of the military caste could choose his own wife, especially among the devadasis; the fragility of life. But the story transforms Nikiya into a perfect Victorian maiden, a ghost of the air. She loves and loses in a romantic tale that differs little from those of Giselle and Odette, themselves bowdlerized versions of ancient folklore (for more on Giselle, see my Desert Flower; The Swan Princess, although it has nothing to do with ballet, draws on another version of the story that gave rise to Swan Lake).

Of course, the devasis, too, had little control over their lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, when Petipa would have heard this story, the older system of patronage, itself unequal, had cracked under pressure from the British Raj. The status traditionally accorded to temple dancers also declined, since the new rulers could not distinguish between sacred women and their sisters on the street. Even the thought of divine dancers probably gave staid colonial moralists hives. Christianity had outlawed dancing in its churches more than a millennium before, precisely because of its appeal to the senses.

In that sense, perhaps Nikiya’s fate is not so inappropriate after all.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. The photograph of the ballerinas dancing the Entrance of the Shades from La Bayadere (2011) was released under a Creative Commons 3.0 license by the photographer, who goes by the name of WhiteAct.

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