Angel Corella’s new La Bayadère for Pennsylvania Ballet was lovely and his dancers impressed when it premiered Thursday night at the Academy of Music. But was the artistic director successful in removing the stereotypical characterizations, as he aimed to do by hiring choreography consultants?
Well, it was a start.
Corella’s choreography revamped some caricature-like gestures and movements from previous versions, partly through the assistance of Swarthmore professor Pallabi Chakravorty and Phil Chan, the cofounder of an organization called Final Bow for Yellowface. But the ballet would need a larger overhaul to truly remove the Orientalism, or Westerners’ often-distorted stereotyping of Asian culture. It would help if down the road he could commission sets and costumes. The ones rented from the Boston Ballet look too much like The Jungle Book, especially the sets. Most of the Bayadère costumes featured turbans, veils. Nearly every woman’s costume has a bare midriff. Shirtless fakirs lope across the stage on hands and feet.
But as a work of dance, it still has merit.
Highlights on Thursday included Oksana Maslova’s starring role as Nikiya, the temple dancer or bayadère. Even before we could see her face behind the veil, it was clear whose gorgeous arched feet had stepped on stage. Her back is amazingly flexible, even for a ballerina, and her dancing easy and free.
Some of her partnering with Zecheng Liang, as the warrior Solor, looked like they were both willing it to work, but they rarely faltered.
Liang danced well, especially in his jumps and pirouettes, but his acting lacked storytelling. Only the briefest of pauses in his wedding scene to Gamzatti showed that he still longed for Nikiya, even though the love triangle is the main narrative of the ballet. It was not until Nikiya died after being bitten by a snake hiding in a bouquet of flowers that his feelings were awakened.
Mayara Pineiro portrayed Gamzatti. Her acting has improved considerably, and her rich-girl attitude sparkled as much as her jeweled costume.
Albert Gordon as the Bronze Idol, was one of the best performances of the evening. He leaped high and turned fast, never losing the sharp angles of the statue.
The corps de ballet shines brightly in Bayadère. The second act would be nothing without the lovely enchanting Kingdom of the Shades scene that has the dancers all in white zigzagging in a long line across the stage and then standing and moving in precise unison for long stretches. Corella’s version was not as soft and flowy, stopping with each pose instead of continuous movements, but stunning nonetheless.
The Kingdom of the Shades is one of those problematic scenes in many Bayadères. The dancers are all clad in white tutus, and some directors have omitted dancers of color deciding they would stand out too much. Pennsylvania Ballet has a good many dancers of color, although few with dark skin. Corella’s Kingdom of the Shades included Yuka Iseda, a Japanese dancer, and Nayara Lopes and Thays Golz, who are both from Brazil, in that scene.
Corella’s new Bayadère is a feast for the eyes and a step in the right direction, but the stereotypes that exist are difficult to ignore.
Pennsylvania Ballet in ‘La Bayadère’
Through March 15, Academy of Music 240 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-893-1999. paballet.org