Some vital ideas underpin Shobana Jeyasingh’s Bayadere – The Ninth Life. It’s an intriguing critique of imperialism, orientalism and the male gaze that struggles to turn theory in theatrical alchemy. The source material is Marius Petipa’s 1877 La Bayadere (The Temple Dancer), a bastion of the classical ballet repertoire that’s full of sinuous choreographic inflections and gauzy harem pants.
There’s plenty to unpick in this imperialist vision of Indian culture as entertaining divertissement. Russian stagings have often been known to include troupes of capering children in blackface as ‘native’ fan-bearers. At least in the Royal Ballet’s most recent restaging by Natalia Makarova the more culturally offensive trimmings have been excised, though the wild-eyed fakirs remain.
At the centre of it all, of course, is the bayadere. In terms of the ballet, Nikiya is one of the great, testing roles – the ballerina must display a plush sensuality and yearning in the first act and an assured technical purity in the second, when she appears as a ghostly vision.
Jeyasingh overlays her own dance with extracts from the diary of French critic and librettist Theophile Gautier, who observed the first performances of Indian dancers in Paris. His commentary, detailing and listing the dancer’s body parts and piercings, combines a pseudo-scientific, phrenological impulse with a kind of lascivious fascination. Here is the white male gaze writ large – inspecting a female body like it’s an imported foreign product. The voiceover accompanies the grappling action onstage, which starts off arrestingly. The temple dancer (performed here by a man) is manipulated, tweaked and stroked by onlookers – and the rapacious push and pull dynamic is refracted in successive duets amid the grey-clad ensemble. The Victorian enthusiasm for categorising and classifying so evident in Gaultier’s diary entries finds a physical echo in Tom Piper’s set, a series of moveable frames in which the temple dancer is displayed and caught.
Jeyasingh’s use of a male bayadere is perhaps an attempt to heighten the theme of strangeness – that fragrant foreignness that Gautier so revelled in – but it’s also a frustration to the work’s refreshing feminist persuasion. When Gautier mentions the dancer’s breasts, for example, what we see on stage is a man’s bare torso – a section of skin largely free of all the anatomical and cultural complications endured by the female chest.
Proceedings also become slightly diffuse when the dancers begin unhooking some large brass coils that descend to the stage on wires. Are these contemporary objets d’art, to be gazed at like the temple dancers once were in a form of unequal cultural exchange? Perhaps they’re somehow symbolic of industrialised India, a pollution-choked reality that runs completely counter to the fantasy of pungent exoticism in La Bayadere? It’s not quite clear. As Gabriel Prokofiev’s score stretches Minkus’ original into eldritch sonorities, the dancers continue with their fraught physical encounters, in which traces of Petipa are apparent. The impact is dulled, however, especially by the rather imprecise rendering of a corps de ballet’s classical line. (It’s difficult for any company, classical or not, to tackle the entrancing opening to Bayadere’s second act, in which a procession of supernatural ‘shades’ perform a sequence of 39 synchronised arabesques.) Though the dance becomes a bit underpowered, the work’s intellectual energy is admirable.
Bayadere – The Ninth Life was performed at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.