Inside Bayadère

Inside Bayadère

Four of the protagonists of Bayadère by Nureyev talk about some of the most invaluable aspects of their roles

La bayadère   il corpo di ballo. ph Brescia e Amisano ©Teatro alla Scala  (5)

An India of legends provides the backdrop for La bayadère, a masterful ballet of the classical repertoire. Nureyev's production, the last of his interpretations of the great classics, came to La Scala for the first time to inaugurate the 2021/2022 ballet season with a brand new staging by Luisa Spinatelli. It will return to the stage from May 26 to June 21. Virna Toppi, Alice Mariani, Claudio Coviello and Nicola Del Freo are some of the protagonists interpreting the intrigue and love dramas between the beautiful Nikiya, a temple dancer coveted by the High Brahmin, the noble warrior Solor, devoted to his love for her but ensnared by court plots and forced to marry Gamzatti, the Rajah's daughter. They spoke about their Bayadère and how the dynamics between the three main roles are reflected in the style and technique.


Virna Toppi is set to debut as Nikiya after tackling the role of Gamzatti in 2021

La bayadère is a wonderful production: story, costumes, choreography, the charm of the Orient...I fell in love with it right away, hoping one day to dance it. Three years ago I had the honor of playing Gamzatti, the antagonist; now a new challenge in the opposite role. Both are very strong female figures.  Gamzatti is the strength of power. Surrounded by beauty and wealth, she is confident but finds a rival, because love wins over wealth and power. In Act I, the role is completely theatrical. She has no technical steps; her strength emerges from her stage presence, and from her first entrance she inspires awe. Her entrance in Act II is also impressive, with the very difficult grand pas that has an equally arduous variation and coda: here Gamzatti conveys the ideal of a beautiful, strong and majestic woman, and although she is not the protagonist, in Act II she is the real queen of the stage.


But then Nikiya's entrance turns the tables. On Gamzatti's role, I had worked right from the Act I entrance, and on the personality, then developing this character throughout the rest of the ballet. Rehearsing Nikiya now, I have a clearer understanding of the dynamic between the two: Bayadère is entirely based on action and reaction; and while clashes and duels usually involve the male leads, here there is a female clash, not based on physical force or swords, but on subtle danced words. It is a clash between two forces, that of power and that of love. In fact, in my work on Nikiya that I am tackling, I started from the two-step in the first act, in other words, with her encounter with love. In the Kingdom of Shadows I imagine Nikiya delicate, a vision, ethereal, but always with a strength, that dictated by feeling.


Bayadère is a complete ballet that highlights a dancer's artistry like few others, which must also consider the motivations that give value to the scene and the story, as in the famous solo in Act II, which ends with Nikiya's death after being bitten by a snake hidden in the basket of flowers. Nikiya enters at the end of the grand pas, in despair, having realized that Solor has chosen Gamzatti; her solo begins with despair, then she receives a floral tribute, which she is made to believe is a gift from Solor. Here, then, the second part of the solo has an abrupt change in style: believing it is Solor's, she thinks she has hope, until she realizes that it is Gamzatti who has run the show; she decides not to take the antidote, there is no point in a life without love.



Alice Mariani plays a double role, reprising Gamzatti and adding her first Nikiya


La bayadère is one of the greatest pieces in the classical repertoire, and for us dancers to be a part of these productions is important; it is an honor and a great source of enrichment to therefore play two roles, both brilliant and very different, almost opposite. They are both strong women, but Nikiya, of humbler status, has a good nature; Gamzatti has no qualms about getting where she wants, she has always gotten what she wanted, every wish granted: you will notice that at the first meeting she is surprised when Nikiya confronts her, because no one has ever dared to do so. The inner strength of Nikiya, who would never do anything wrong, is clear, and she reacts. Both are in love with Solor, but for Gamzatti it is a matter of pomp and possession, the attainment of a goal even by deception, whereas Nikiya's love is intimate, pure and true.


This is clearly seen in the style of the pas de deux. In the pas de deux with Gamzatti, Solor often estranges himself from the couple: it is felt through the dance, as is Gamzatti's reaction as he tries not to let this attitude show through, maintaining a facade of perfection and triumph. Nikiya's strength needs to be communicated in a different style, and it is very noticeable in her very first entrance: she walks slowly, stops in sixth position with her hands on her chest, and, once the veil is removed, she only has to look up. Although the audience is probably waiting for the "snake" variation, which is also very important, for me this first look at the audience is interesting, framing the whole ballet: without moving Nikiya has to show who she is, her purity and at the same time her strength.


I find it is one of the most important roles in the classical repertoire, very elegant and very feminine. While Gamzatti lives in only one dimension, that of her palace, Nikiya passes through the temple, her world, where she feels comfortable, to the palace, where she feels uncomfortable and would like to escape. In the third act she is in another dimension, ethereal with a different interpretative style. In this ballet more than in others, being immersed in these worlds created by the sets, lights, and costumes aids the performance. During rehearsals on stage all this can be felt. In the studio, you work on the character and technique, and colleagues around you provide great inspiration and help, but when you want to be inside the role, being in the dark on stage helps you really live inside the story. I look forward to immersing myself in Nikiya's worlds.



In 2021, Claudio Coviello added Solor to his range of roles, choreographed by Nureyev

Even in this his latest interpretation of a classic, we encounter the typical challenges of Nureyev's choreography, which we know well: his choreographic key is clear, his musicality, the small nuances always present in his ballets, the small drums even in variations and slow solos, as if to liven up the choreography, the technical difficulties, to be performed left and right; plus for the male lead there is the challenge of changing partners. Solor dances with both Nikiya and Gamzatti; this does not happen often, and it is interesting to build affinity with two different partners, as the dynamics are strong.


Solor changes over the course of the acts. Initially, he is more solemn and authoritative, his dance is very clear, direct. Then he is charmed by Gamzatti in a very complex pas de deux in which the glances between the two, the complicity, are crucial. And Solor's Act II dance is very explosive, energetic, dynamic. In the third act, Solor changes completely, right from his first entrance, desperate to find Nikiya. From a slow variation, there is a crescendo of emotions, which is felt in the dance and also musically.


His moments dancing with Nikiya are very different: the first pas de deux is the apotheosis of love, they swear eternal love to each other and like all pas de deux oaths it is very strong and passionate, while in the second act Solor remains almost indifferent to her bursting into the palace; he realizes the weight of his actions and is afraid to show his feelings. My perception of Solor in the Shadow Realm is that he is almost disoriented by everything he has experienced in the story, but in this realm he finds Nikiya again and is completely at her mercy.


When we first tackled the ballet with Maestro Legris, Massimo Murru and Florence Clerc, there was a lot of focus on style, port de bras, body tilt, quickness, drums... Now that we are picking it up again we are recovering this style. Nureyev's Solor calls for this, as well as strength and dynamics in the variations, especially the one in the second act, which is really explosive. Although this is the Solor variation expected by the audience, one moment that particularly grabs me is Solor's entrance in Act III. It may seem like a passing moment, but instead it is a moment of radical change, for the performer and for the development of the ballet: Solor enters running with his cloak on, desperate because he wants to find Nikiya, and the dance goes from slow to more and more engaging and gives the performer a narrative of the character's soul.


Nicola Del Freo returns as Solor but with new partners in both Nikiya and Gamzatti

My first Solor was in 2021, but because of the events surrounding that production I was only able to dance it for one performance. Now I have the opportunity to explore it further and with other partners. Working with different dancers in different roles is one of the challenges, as is bringing out these diversities through dance.


In Bayadère, the story is very clear, and language and technique help you follow it. The pas de deux in Act I is delicate, telling of a newly blossomed love, whereas the pas de deux with Gamzatti, which is the real grand pas of the ballet but ˗ singular case in repertory ballets ˗ you don't dance it with your partner. How do you convey the diversity of the various pas de deux? With mimicry, with technique, definitely demonstrative in the grand pas, with the clarity of the ballet blanc choreography.  The role of Solor requires in-depth commitment, not only on technique and virtuosity. The very first entrance is purely mimicry. Solor is a warrior, so his strength should be conveyed but without accompanying dance steps. We worked a lot on this entrance and its meaning with Maestro Legris. From my point of view, there is also a submissive side to Solor, he does not have the strength to oppose when his life is decided by others, his hands are tied, and this also needs to be made clear. There is an opportunity to do so during Nikiya's variation. Solor is sitting and observing, but with gestures he manages to convey this inability to impose himself.


In all of Nureyev's ballets there is of course an enormous wealth of technicality, a mountain to climb with every take. As a classical dancer, there is great satisfaction in virtuosity, and the grand pas is the moment that every dancer hopes to experience, awaited by the audience, the music is iconic. We have seen it and seen it again with all the greats, we studied it in school.


But personally I also really love the entrance in the third act with variation, a transition between the earthly part and the entrance into the Shadow Realm. Solor is devastated by Nikiya's death. It’s a very introspective moment that also asks for technical effort and is a turning point in the ballet. You then enter a less earthly world, and emotionally you feel the tension in looking for Nikiya, you know she is there, you are looking for her. When you find her, you feel like you're in a bubble, you almost don't realize you're on stage. It's just you and her, in the pas de deux, the entrances, the exits.... It's a unique ballet blanc, compared to, for example, that of Giselle, which we danced not too long ago. It physically destroys you because you have to dance yourself to death and carry the heaviness of Albrecht's repentance. Here, there are delicate moments, like the pas de deux with the veil. Everything is lighter, more measured.

Words collected by Carla Vigevani
Translation by Alexa Ahern