Manchester Theatre Awards

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Bayadère - The Ninth Life

Shobana Jeyasingh
Shobana Jeyasingh  Dance
The Quays Theatre. The Lowry,Salford
28 September 2017 to 29 September 2017

The Temple Dancers of India – known as Bayadère - have long provided inspiration for artists in the Western World. For Shobana Jeyasingh La Bayadère, the 1877 ballet by Marius Petipa, is both inspiring and puzzling. Bayadère - The Ninth Life allows Jeyasingh to celebrate the ballet and to challenge those aspects which she finds frustrating.

Before she can challenge the conventional approach, however, Jeyasingh has to ensure that the audience is aware of both the legend of the Bayadère and the style of dance which involves expansive sweeping gestures and a ’one-two’ foot stamp. The method of developing awareness results in a static opening. Two male friends converse by text messages about the Bayadère ballet. The resulting messages are displayed on screen for the audience and sketch out the storyline while the dancers adopt tableaux to illustrate the characters and plot developments. It allows Jeyasingh to draw attention to some of the more absurd aspects of the ballet – a character in blackface - but amounts to a 20 minute prologue before we see any action.

Ballet relies on physical movement to tell a story or to convey emotion but Jeyasingh does not limit the use of dialogue to just the text messages. The writings of French writer, Théophile Gautier, who recorded his ambiguous impressions of Indian temple dancers in 1838, are broadcast while the dance takes place. It has a distancing effect with the dancers adopting an exaggerated cartoon style to fit the purple prose of the descriptions.

Bayadère is a classic tragic love story with temple dancer Nikiya and warrior Solor falling in love while both have other potential lovers vying for their affections. Jealously has deadly results but the lovers are able to communicate although one is in The Kingdom of the Shades and their passion stirs the gods to take vengeance.

Jeyasingh does not limit her challenging approach to the ballet but goes so far as to question the validity of the current fashion industry and the use of women’s bodies for entertainment or titillation.  The Bayadère are manipulated into poses in a brutal manner with smiles pasted onto, and wiped from, their faces.

This is a very modern production; the scenes in the harem with the cast dressed in sleek black and grey costumes lounging languidly around the stage or contorting themselves into extreme positions could have come right out of a Bob Fosse show. By far the most startling revision is, however, the use of a male dancer to play the central role of Nikiya. It has a stunning impact emphasising the almost alien nature of the temple dancers.

The alien atmosphere is pushed further with the abstract designs of Tom Piper, who co-created the Red Poppy installation at the Tower of London. Twisted glowing bronze wiring and massive frames set an otherworld atmosphere. Gabriel Prokofiev’s industrial score not only seems jarringly out of place in such a sensual ballet the manner of presentation is even more disconcerting – at The Lowry the music echoes around the theatre so that clanking and clicking noises emerge unnervingly from behind the audience. 

Jeyasingh concludes the ballet in a typically daring manner with the central character apparently deciding enough is enough and the rest of the company getting to cut loose in a high-energy display of talent that brings Bayadère - The Ninth Life to a cathartic close.

Bayadère - The Ninth Life is a rich mixture and possibly too ambitious in trying to both celebrate and analyse the legend of The Temple Dancers. One cannot help but feel that less reliance on the spoken word and a reduced prologue might have been of benefit but there is no denying that it is a fascinating experience. 

Reviewer: David Cunningham