A new production of La Bayadère opened at La Scala a week later than planned after a Covid outbreak forced cancellations of the first performances. The television cameras waited patiently for the planned recording, but the delay took away the dancers' security blanket of knowing that an edit was always possible if the worst came to the worst: the last time that the ballet was performed was to open the 2008-2009 season so most of the company's dancers were new to the ballet, and all were new to Rudolf Nureyev's version which has replaced that of Natalia Makarova.
Of the opening night cast, only Nicoletta Manni remained as Nikiya, with Solor, Gamzatti and the Golden Idol all being slotted in from other casts. Timofej Andrijashenko, due to dance with Svetlana Zakharova in the final performances next year, was moved to the first night causing a rush to finish his costume and for him to prepare for his role debut more than two weeks earlier than planned. To cover all the roles meant reducing the parrot dancers from twelve to eight, and because there were also infections among the students at the theatre's dancing school all the children were removed from the production, so their dance was eliminated (which had been changed from “la danse des negrillons” to the children's dance) and the two girls who participate in the Danse Manu (in the programme: Danza “Manou”, with quotation marks), or jug dance, were replaced with corps de ballet dancers.
It is admirable that the production arrived before an audience at all. With a television relay and the atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the company the general assurance of all onstage was commendable, and in the circumstances small slip-ups were easily forgiven.
Manni's aplomb has often been associated with an icy disposition, but there was nothing cold about her Nikiya who, though dignified in her first appearance as the temple dancer, melted as her passion for Solor overwhelmed her. Her second act sequence, which sees her moving from feelings of betrayal to those of joy at receiving the basket of flowers, was danced superbly, and all ballerinas should be excused incidents with the scarf in the white act.
Nureyev finishes the ballet with Nikiya and Solor reunited in his opium-induced dream, surrounded by Nikiya's shadows. The set and costume designer Luisa Spinatelli has created large pancake tutus which frame the dancers beautifully in penché, the backlighting creating a halo effect. Spinatelli's other costumes are ornate with seductively asymmetric designs for the men's tunics and the women's bodices, and bold juxtapositions of colours – the fan dance and parrot dance women are particularly striking, and the result was spectacular when they intermingled before Nikiya's second act entrance.
Andrijashenko was born to dance Solor with his elegant lines and soft jumps, and although he's been in Italy since he was fourteen it is certainly his Latvian DNA that gives him his generous ‘Soviet' port de bras and expansive gestures like no other in the company. Maria Celeste Losa played Gamzatti as a spoilt little Rajah's daughter, her authority coming from her social position rather than her demeanour. She is generally sure in her technique which allowed her to get through her hastily rescheduled role debut without incident. Federico Fresi, who was the Golden Idol in the Makarova version, is a dancer who always gives 110% though sometimes sacrifices the neatness of the steps for showiness, but here he was admirably controlled and effective.
Of the many fine soloists, it is worth picking out the delightful Agnese Di Clemente, who performed the ‘jug dance' with two of the smaller members of the corps de ballet as there were no children available; Stefania Ballone who gave credible character-dancer energy and abandon to the drum dance; and Domenico Di Cristo who was suitably spirited as the head fakir. Kevin Rhodes conducted with brio, though the orchestra too had had its rehearsal time reduced, which showed at times.
There is work to do, but today's announced postponement of all the performances until the end of January (unfortunately replacing a planned contemporary dance programme) should give time for the nerves to settle… Omicron permitting.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.