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Houston Ballet

By Clare Croft

Houston Ballet
Wortham Center for the Arts
Houston, TX
February 18–28, 2010
Reviewed by Clare Croft


Sara Webb and Conor Walsh as Nikiya and Solor in Stanton Welch's La Bayadère.

 

La Bayadère is a recurring problem. The ballet’s best choreography—the gorgeous Kingdom of the Shades’ unison—does not arrive until the third act. By then the audience has been sufficiently confused by the complicated story of a love triangle among an Indian warrior, a princess, and a temple dancer. Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch’s new Bayadère does not fully solve these conundrums, nor did the generally serviceable dancing help the audience overlook them often enough.


As Solor and Nikiya, the temple dancer, Connor Walsh and Sara Webb labored under the story’s burden. The two principals displayed great chemistry in their opening pas de deux. When Walsh first touched Webb’s bare waist, her slow rise to pointe seemed a sensual response. But since Solor and Nikiya quickly find their love impossible due to his engagement to Gamzatti, Webb and Walsh were stuck for most of the ballet acting sad while trying to dance boldly. Webb fared slightly better inside this paradox, but Walsh’s Solor lacked gravitas.


As Gamzatti and her servant Ajah, Kelly Myernick and Jessica Collado took full advantage of their sinister characters. In the wedding celebration, Myernick turned jumps into displays of arrogant bravado. Earlier Collado introduced her character by balancing in arabesque long enough to wink at the audience with spite. Nao Kusuzaki was the other strong soloist, dancing the leggy adagio solo with great attention to the music. Kusuzaki’s fellow Shades lacked extension in their famous entrance, but their precision in the subsequent unison choreography proved Houston is solid at all levels—from corps to soloist, even though this production overall did not rise to spectacular heights.


But it didn’t lack spectacle. Peter Farmer’s new sets are absolutely sumptuous, though they trade not in Bollywood’s style as touted in company publicity, but rather in the same tired Orientalism that made Bayadère popular in 19th-century Russia. In Bayadère, India is not a real place but a fantasy—a Taj Mahal-esque temple on the edge of a far-away ocean, as Farmer’s opening drop cloth depicted. The temple’s fakir (Christopher Gray), a yogi-like figure in Muslim Sufi culture, was choreographed as a crab-like animal, not a man, repeating centuries-old racism. Welch included a final scene in which most of the characters stab each other, leading to Solor and Nikiya’s afterlife reunification and the temple’s collapse. It wasn’t exactly a surprise ending; there were cracks in this ballet much earlier.