The Kingdom of Shades takes about 9 minutes, with 32 dancers in white, lined up, one by one, going down on a ramp in perfect sync. It’s two steps forward, arabesque in plié, followed by port de bras, tendu, and again. It’s pure poetry in a 3D vision (literally). Created 144 years ago and still enchants classical ballet fans. A masterpiece made by Marius Petipa is still popular just like it was in 1877.
“La Bayadère is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, classical works in ballet history… Poetically it is unmatched in the classical repertory”, Mikhail Baryshnikov said once.
As often happened in the 1800s, exotic themes were crucial for ballets like La Bayadère. The tragic story of Nikiya is told in 4 acts and 7 scenes. It is still one of Petipa’s hits but it was only “discovered” in the west in the late 1960s.
Petipa created La Bayadère for Imperial Ballet‘s star, Ekaterina Vazem. backstage was full of fights and drama, but the ballet became her favorite, naturally.
Ludwig Minkus was inspired by his music. We know Petipa was very specific about tempo and such, leaving room for melody which was entirely for the maestro.
Many Historians point out that the Kingdom of Shades stands alone as a symphonic ballet, decades before George Balanchine‘s. The group combinations that Petipa came up with are so beautiful. He gave hints in Le Corsaire and Don Quijote, and later in Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, but not like La Bayadère.
The version we usually see is the revised one of 1941 by Kirov Ballet. La Bayadère got “stuck” in the Soviet Union for years. The first version of Kingdom of Shades out of the Iron curtain was Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro’s Ballet, in April 1961, produced by Eugenia Feodorova and starred by Bertha Rosanova. In the very same year, Kirov Ballet‘s European presented the same piece and the audience gasped.
A young Rudolf Nureyev was the star and it was the very same Nureyev who made the Kingdom of Shades to dance with Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet, in 1963.
After recreating the Kingdom of Shades in 1974, six years later, Natalia Makarova made the full version for the American Ballet Theatre.
She danced as Nikiya in the first act but had to be substituted by Marianna Tcherkassky after getting hurt. What a night. The cast, by the way, included Anthony Dowell and Cynthia Harvey too.
Makarova’s version is still o ABT‘s programs. In 1988, with Princess Diana in the audience, her version was also included in Royal Ballet‘s repertoire.
It was destiny. Already ill, and not long before his death, exactly 30 years after his leap to freedom, Nureyev left his full version of La Bayadère for the same stage in Paris in which he became an international star. Already very ill, he couldn’t even walk anymore. He was with his dancers for the encore. It was his farewell, he passed away three months later.
The cast that danced that night, Isabelle Guérin, Laurent Hilaire, and Elizabeth Platel filmed the ballet one year later. Very moving.
See Nureyev’s Kingdom of Shades: