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A Majestic Royal Ballet in 'La Bayadere'


In 1877, choreographer Marius Petipa told a tale of lust and snakebite in ancient India through the medium of Imperial Russian ballet--accompanied by the German beer-garden tunes of Ludwig Minkus. Eurocentric kitsch in most respects, "La Bayadere" survived in the repertory of Petipa's company (now the Kirov Ballet) on the strength of its vision scene, a choreographic poem distilling all the majesty and brilliance of Petipa classicism.

Kirov defector Natalia Makarova staged a complete "La Bayadere" for American Ballet Theatre in 1980, adding a conjectural restoration of the lost final act. PBS telecast that version the same year and tonight presents Makarova's recent Royal Ballet production on its "Great Performances" series (7 on KVCR Channel 24, 8:30 on KCET Channel 28, 9 on KPBS Channel 15).

Danced by a stellar Anglo-Russian cast, the Covent Garden "Bayadere" will look familiar to ABT audiences, though key differences exist. As before, the ballet boasts atmospheric and often fanciful scenery by Pier Luigi Samaritani--with the last act once again dominated by a giant, scowling Buddha-of-Revenge that eventually topples, crushing those characters not already dead.

However, where the ABT costumes used gauze to suggest an antique stylization of bare skin, designer Yolanda Sonnabend now gives us "Bayadere" in the flesh. Not only does the Head Fakir wear more bicep-straps and body paint than anything else, but Sonnabend's ingenuity creates such fashion statements as the women's two-piece tutus with bikini tops. Very Melrose, especially when combined with some of the men's sci-fi tunics.

The choreographic editions also differ slightly. For example, Nikiya (the title character) now dances an endearingly silly allegro variation to raucous Gypsy music while carrying her fatal basket of flowers. Moreover, the American broadcast tape omits the three Shades solos in the vision scene.

PBS says the tape was re-edited to bring it under two hours. Certainly, when it was telecast in England on Aug. 1, those solos were there, danced by major Royal Ballet artists--including Viviana Durante, the Swan Queen in the company's opening night performance last August in Costa Mesa.

Durante's partner on that occasion was former Bolshoi principal Irek Mukhamedov, a dancer of great intensity and technical power inclined to bank his fires since joining the Royal Ballet. In "La Bayadere," he plays Solor (a warrior caught between love and ambition), exuding nobility but concentrating on tasteful grandeur rather than the kind of inventive bravado that once made him unique.

Opposite Mukhamedov: Kirov guest Altynai Asylmuratova, a dancer of great lyric purity whose eloquent arms and back give even Nikiya's most melodramatic actions a sense of deep integrity. In the vision scene, however, she forgoes any hint of softness to emphasize the fast, sharp and ultimately cold formality of Petipa style.

Although she, too, is essentially a lyric dancer, Royal prodigy Darcey Bussell delivers a strongly focused portrayal of the glittering, murderous Gamzatti. Yes, one occasionally wishes for the tempestuous Sylvie Guillem (who danced the role at some Covent Garden performances), but in the engagement divertissement , Bussell exemplifies British refinement at its most alluring.

Makarova's Solor in 1980 was Anthony Dowell, now cast in the mime role of the corrupt High Brahmin and obviously enjoying every excess--including displaying his gem-encrusted torso. Tetsuya Kumakawa shows off even more as a Bronze Idol not only stripped for action but endowed with solid-gold virtuosity.

David Drew seems more a Raj-era Brit than Rajah, but mimes with authority. And 70-year-old Gerd Larsen lurks and plots magnificently as Aya.

John Lanchbery rearranged those portions of Minkus' score that he didn't recompose, but his conducting sometimes falters rhythmically, especially during the celebrated entrance of the Shades.

TV director Derek Bailey adds a few artsy superimpositions, as well as recycling a shot of Solor smoking opium to bridge a scene shift. Generally, however, he concentrates on clarifying plot points and dance patterns.

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