Houston Ballet Presents LA BAYADERE, Now thru 3/3
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by BWW News Desk
From tonight, February 21-March 3, 2013, Houston Ballet presents Stanton Welch's La Bayadère ("The Temple Dancer"), a historic classic staged by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch and set in royal India of the past.
La Bayadère's third act, the famous Kingdom of the Shades section, showcases 24 female dancers in white tutus, executing 38 synchronized and seamless arabesques while descending onto the stage, and is one of the purest forms of ballet-blanc, or white tutu ballet. "The Kingdom of the Shades is a challenging segment because it requires such control and precision from the corps de ballet women," says Mr. Welch. "There are few works in the classical repertoire that require more precision from the corps de ballet." The Kingdom of the Shades is so popular it is often performed on its own. Houston Ballet first performed The Kingdom of the Shades scene, staged by Ben Stevenson after Marius Petipa, in March 1994 and revived it in 1998.
Mr. Welch choreographed La Bayadère on Houston Ballet in 2010. "La Bayadere is a grand 19th-century classical ballet, and Peter Farmer has given us a big, visually stunning, Bollywood-like production. It's a colorful story that's sexy, provocative and very dramatic," observed Mr. Welch.
The piece was his second staging of a 19th century classic for Houston Ballet, after Swan Lake in 2006. He has choreographed a number of full-length story ballets for The Australian Ballet, including Madame Butterfly (1995), Cinderella (1997) and The Sleeping Beauty (2005); as well as two original evening-length works for Houston Ballet, Tales of Texas (2004) and Marie (2009).
English designer Peter Farmer, who has a long and rich history with Houston Ballet, created the spectacular scenery and costumes for La Bayadère. Mr. Farmer created a total of nine full-length productions for Houston Ballet since 1972 and is one of the few designers to have worked with three of the company's directors: Nina Popova, Ben Stevenson and Stanton Welch.
The costume designs are reminiscent of brightly colored traditional Indian attire, such as harem pants and saris, for the first and second acts. "Peter's scenic design is not a realistic depiction of India. It's like looking through an old picture book from western culture with a view of romanticized India," comments Mr. Welch. "The production has a very painterly look, almost reminiscent of Monet that will give it dreaminess and romance." The lavish production includes 121 costumes, comprised of 568 items. This also includes 26 handmade white tutus for The Kingdom of the Shades scene.
Born in Luton, England in 1941, Mr. Farmer's prolific career in scenic and costume design includes over 300 productions in dance and theater. Mr. Farmer was first commissioned for his designs in 1964 for Jack Carter's production of Agrionia, performed by the London Dance Theatre. The following year, he was asked to create designs for Ballet Rambert's Giselle. This ballet has since been associated with Mr. Farmer and led him to create designs for leading ballet companies around the world. His designs for ballet productions include Swan Lake (Royal Winnipeg Ballet), The Sleeping Beauty (Munich Opera House and The Royal Ballet), Manon (Houston Ballet, Vienna State Opera and The Australian Ballet), Coppélia (Birmingham Royal Ballet) as well as several modern pieces for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. His designs for drama include The Night of the Iguana, A Woman of No Importance and What Every Woman Knows. Other productions that he has designed for Houston Ballet include Frederic Franklin's productions of The Nutcracker (1972) and Coppélia (1974); Ben Stevenson's stagings of Cinderella (1976), The Sleeping Beauty (1978), Peer Gynt (1981) and Lady in Waiting (1984); Peter Wright's staging of Giselle (1979); Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon (1992); and Patricia Olade's one-act work Conceptual Contrast (1989).
A tragic soap opera set in an Indian royal court, La Bayadère blends exoticism, white tutus, venomous snakes and opium. In his book, The World's Great Ballets, critic John Gruen places La Bayadère in the following historical context, "The creators of Romantic ballet shared with other artists of the time a fascination with the spiritualism and exoticism of the Orient. The most notable early dance treatment of such themes was Filippo Taglioni's opera-ballet Le Dieu et la Bayadère, based on a poem by Goethe. More than 40 years later, Marius Petipa conceived of the idea for his own Oriental ballet. At its premiere on February 4, 1877, at the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, La Bayadère was a triumph: it catered to the Russian taste for spectacular theatrics, exotic settings, and convoluted, melodramatic plot lines, yet also contained classical choreography of breath taking purity."
Marius Petipa (1818-1910), the "father of classical ballet," was born in Marseille, France in 1818, and produced over 60 full-evening pieces, including works that have become the foundation of the classical ballet repertoire such as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Swan Lake and La Bayadère share many similarities: Both were premiered in 1877, and both made spectacular use of the corps de ballet in performance to a symphonic score. (Although the original 1877 production of Swan Lake was choreographed by Julius Reisinger; Petipa, with Lev Ivanov, later staged the definitive version of the work for the Maryinsky Theater in 1895.)
Although La Bayadère remained in the repertory of many Russian companies throughout the 20th century, it was little seen in the west until 1961 when The Kirov Ballet performed The Kingdom of the Shades scene at The Royal Opera House in London. In 1963, Rudolph Nureyev staged a version of The Kingdom of the Shades for England's The Royal Ballet. In 1980, the great Russian ballerina Natalia Markova staged the first full-length production of La Bayadère in the west for American Ballet Theatre to critical acclaim. In 1992, Mr. Nureyev also staged a full-length version for Paris Opera Ballet.
Although the exact origin of the story of La Bayadère is unknown, it is an example of 19th century Romantic ballets set in an exotic location with a fascination with the Orient, spiritualism, triangular relationships, ethereal beings and melodramatic plot lines. A number of operas and ballets were created about "bayadères" - IndIan Temple dancers - at that time. Despite the ballet's setting in ancient India, Ludwig Minkus's music and Petipa's choreography barely made any gesture to traditional forms of Indian dance and music, as the ballet was a vision of the Orient seen through 19th century European eyes, particularly since it was produced during the height of the British Raj (Queen Victoria of England took the title Empress of India in 1877). Petipa's choreography contained various elements that reminded the spectator of the ballet's setting, but he did not stray from the classical ballet canon. Petipa was not interested in ethnographic accuracy in any part of the ballet with regards to choreography. It was the fashion of the time, whether a ballet was set in China, India, or the Middle East. The ballet master rarely - if ever - considered including traditional native dance forms.
La Bayadère is set to the music of Viennese composer Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917), in an arrangement by John Lanchbery. The composer of over 20 ballets, Minkus was an excellent craftsman in the style of ballet music of his day. Born in Vienna in 1826, Minkus was a ballet composer and violinist. From 1864-1871, he was the official ballet composer at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. In 1871, he was transferred to St. Petersburg, where he worked until 1891.
On February 17, 1969 a troupe of 15 young dancers made its stage debut at Sam Houston State Teacher's College in Huntsville, Texas. Since that time, Houston Ballet has evolved into a company of 55 dancers with a budget of $20.5 million (making it the United States' fourth largest ballet company by number of dancers), a state-of-the-art performance space built especially for the company, Wortham Theater Center; the largest professional dance facility in America, Houston Ballet's $46.6 million Center for Dance which opened in April 2011, and an endowment of just over $57.6 million (as of May 2011).
Australian choreographer Stanton Welch has served as artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003, raising the level of the company's classical technique and commissioning many new works from dance makers such as Christopher Bruce, Jorma Elo, James Kudelka, Julia Adam, Natalie Weir and Nicolo Fonte. James Nelson serves as the administrative leader of the company, assuming the position of executive director of Houston Ballet in February 2012 after serving as the company's general manager for over a decade.
Houston Ballet has toured extensively both nationally and internationally. Since 2000, the company has appeared in London at Sadler's Wells, at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Ottawa, in six cities in Spain, in Montréal, at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in New York at City Center and The Joyce Theater, and in cities large and small across the United States. Houston Ballet has emerged as a leader in the expensive, labor-intensive task of nurturing the creation and development of new full-length narrative ballets.
Writing in Dancing Times in June 2012, dance critic Margaret Willis praised Houston Ballet and highlighted the fact that "During his own tenure, (Stanton) Welch has upped the standard and Houston Ballet now shows off a group of 55 dancers in splendid shape. With fast and tidy footwork, they are technically skillful and have strong, broad jumps and expansive, fluid movements. The dancers' musicality shines through their work, dancing as one with elegance and refinement -and they are a handsome bunch too!...if ballet were an Olympic sport, see Houston Ballet well on the way to achieving gold."
Houston Ballet Orchestra was established in the late 1970s and currently consists of 61 professional musicians who play all ballet performances at Wortham Theater Center under music director Ermanno Florio.
Houston Ballet's Education and Outreach Program has reached over 20,500 Houston area students (during the 2011-2012 season). Houston Ballet's Academy has 509 students and has had four academy students win prizes at the prestigious international ballet competition the Prix de Lausanne, with one student winning the overall competition in 2010. For more information on Houston Ballet visit www.houstonballet.org.
Performances will take place at 7:30 PM tonight, February 21 and the 23rd, and March 1, 2013 and at 2:00 PM on February 24, and March 2, 3, 2013 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue in downtown Houston.
Pictured: Nozomi Iijima in La Bayadere.