Joffrey’s “La Bayadere” Worthy of Cecil B. DeMille

October 17, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times Voices
Hedy Weiss

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THE JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘LA BAYADERE: THE TEMPLE DANCER’
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
When: Through Oct. 27
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $31-$152
Info: (800) 982-2987; www.joffrey.org/labayadere
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with two intermissions

Had Cecil B. DeMille choreographed ballets rather than directed motion picture epics he would have created “La Bayadere: The Temple Dancer.” This 19th century ballet, first danced in Russia in 1877, and now on stage at the Auditorium Theatre, where the Joffrey Ballet is performing Stanton Welch’s flamboyant adaptation of the original choreography by Petipa, draws on the whole grand-scale vocabulary.

Set in an extravagant palace and wild jungle of a fanciful royal India, “La Bayadere” includes a man-eating Bengal tiger and a basket full of live snakes, metallic-tinted gods, a warrior prince in competition with a high brahmin, a hashish-smoking hero and dagger-wielding heroine, midriff-baring women who beguile in this world, and veiled spirits who move in miraculous ways in the next world.

“La Bayadere,” with exquisite painted curtains and bejeweled costumes by Peter Farmer, also includes many sequences of fiendishly difficult dancing. And while its melodramatic story of a complex love quadrangle can sometimes elicit laughter, its many demanding pas de deux and (no doubt terror-inducing) third act showcase for the female corps generate pure pleasure.

The story, in brief: After Solor (Dylan Gutierrez) saves the temple dancer Nikiya (Victoria Jaiani) from a rampaging tiger the two instantly fall in love. The problem is, the High Brahmin (Fabrice Calmels), also is in love with Nikiya, who rejects him. In addition, to reward Solor for his act of courage, the Rajah bestows on him the honor of marrying his daughter, princess Gamzatti (April Daly), but Solor’s heart belongs to Nikiya. Much anger and jealousy, chaos and grief ensue.

Gutierrez, tall, slender and ideally proportioned, has emerged as a major leading man with wonderfully light leaps, big barrel turns, perfectly nailed landings and a direct, unaffected acting style. He also has grown into a superb partner, supporting Jaiani in many heartstopping lifts and Daly in a series of whiplash turns. The two women are each splendid in their own ways, with Jaiani both sensual at court and the true mistress of the spirit world with her feathery arms, and Daly full of flash and fire and powerful balances as the proud Gamzatti.

The towering Calmels, his head shaved, needs only stand in place to exert his power, while Derrick Agnoletti, as the spylike Kalum the Fakir, darts around the stage like a dangerous wildfire. Erica Lynette Edwards is wonderfully scheming as Gamzatti’s handmaiden. The easily airborn John Mark Giragosian and dramatic Rory Hohenstein dance the gods of Fire and Dreams, with Miguel Angel Blanco as the paternal Rajah and Raul Casasola as his comical servant.

Solor’s third act Kingdom of the Shades hallucination is the centerpiece of any “La Bayadere” — a test of balance and nerves as 18 dancers in pearl white tutus gradually fill the stage. moving slowly down a steep ramp and into formation in a series of precision-tuned arabesques. Cara Marie Gary, Anastacia Holden, Jeraldine Mendoza, Amber Neumann and Amanda Assucena were the standouts in a pas de trois and series of solos here.

The Chicago Philharmonic is a great asset to the Joffrey, and its conductor, Scott Speck, not only makes the most of this ballet’s Ludwig Minkus score, but shapes every beat to enhance the dancers in this somewhat overstuffed work of exotica.