• Chihiro Nomura as Nikiya ad Gakuro Matsui as Prince Solor in WAB's La Bayadere. Credit Bradbury Photography.
    Chihiro Nomura as Nikiya ad Gakuro Matsui as Prince Solor in WAB's La Bayadere. Credit Bradbury Photography.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth

Reviewed April 12

As the curtain rose on West Australian Ballet’s opening night of La Bayadère, I felt apprehensive and uncomfortably aware of the level of controversy that surrounds this production. Premiering in 1877, La Bayadère is regarded as a highlight of the ballet canon, owing to the classical purism and impressive technical demands of Marius Petipa’s choreography. However, this ballet is also infamous for its appropriation of South Asian culture, and in recent weeks this has fuelled heated debate in Perth’s artistic industry and beyond.

La Bayadère tells the story of star-crossed lovers, Prince Solor and temple dancer (bayadère) Nikiya. West Australian Ballet’s version of the story is set in India in 1855, where the armies of Cooch Behar and the British East India Company have been at war. In an effort to bring an end to hostilities, a marriage is arranged between the Maharajah’s son, Prince Solor, and the Governor-General’s villainous daughter Edith, who murders Nikiya in a callous act of jealousy.

Before applauding the incredible talents and hard-work of the artists involved in this production, it is necessary to acknowledge that, having seen the same production performed in 2019 by West Australian Ballet, a great opportunity to reimagine the ballet and bring about meaningful change has been missed.

A co-production commissioned by Aurelién Scanella (former Artistic Director of West Australian Ballet), Li Cunxin (Queensland Ballet) and Andre Lewis (Royal Winnipeg Ballet of Canada), this iteration of La Bayadère is choreographed by Greg Horsman (with close reference to Petipa’s original choreography). The program notes explain that “leaving behind the 19th century orientalism, which is out of step with our contemporary view of the rich cultural heritage of India, Greg Horsman has instead focused on the turbulent years of the British Raj.”

This approach seems well-intentioned, but confused.

Orientalism - a superficial representation of the mysterious and exotic East - is on full display in terms of costume choices, with most of the dancers clad in imitations of appropriated cultural dress. The decision to set the ballet during a period of British rule over India in an effort to decolonise the narrative turns out to be rather contradictory. In this case, history is still being told from the perspective of the oppressor. Consultation and collaboration with those whose culture is being represented is needed to create art that genuinely celebrates Indian culture and brings to light the suffering caused by British colonisation. Yet, no South Asian artists are credited as being an integral part of the creation of West Australian Ballet’s production of La Bayadère.

The company’s publicity tagline for this production was to “uncover the beauty of pure technique”. Although the failure to remove cultural appropriation is difficult to look past, it can be said that technical prowess was achieved with resounding success, and so the achievements of the dancers involved deserve much celebration.

Chihiro Nomura was outstanding in the role of Nikiya. Embodying Nikiya’s humble kindness of heart, Nomura floated through every movement with a soft, ethereal grace. Her authentic display of her character’s emotion, from bubbling young love to deep sorrow and betrayal, was vulnerable and touching. Gakuro Matsui was virtuosic as Prince Solor, once a dreamer but ultimately driven to despair. The chemistry between the two dancers (Nomura and Matsui) was tangible; they worked seamlessly together, sailing through lifts and turns in each pas de deux. Mayume Noguromi was gloriously wicked as the narcissistic, gloating Edith. With a sickly-selfish smile, she powerfully executed her solos with bold, crisp precision.

Arguably the most revered moment in La Bayadère is Act Two, ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’. In a mesmerising cascade of white tutus, the shades (spirits of bayadères who died for love) descend a ramp, one by one, in a repetitive sequence of arabesques. The ensemble of shades on opening night mastered this meditative scene with symmetry, perfectly poised lines of the body and elegant épaulement. Strong performances were delivered by the three soloists dancing the technically challenging ‘Shades Variations’; Candice Adea, Polly Hilton and Alexa Tuzil.

The concluding image of this ballet is poignant and breathtaking. As the curtains slowly draw to a close, Nikiya and Solor spin eternally against a striking fiery sunset (one of many incredible backdrop lighting designs by Jon Buswell). Reunited in death, their love for each other - forbidden in the mortal world - can finally be set free.

Dance is not a static art form, and the most impactful choreographers are those who challenge themselves creatively to adapt stories that have been repeated many times over. Just as Shakespeare’s plays can be retold to reflect modern discourse, traditional ballet classics can be reshaped to let go of harmful cultural appropriation, without losing their essence that has kept audiences enraptured for centuries.


For more on this topic Dance Australia’s Editor Karen van Ulzen and Phil Chan (Final Bow for Yellowface) have also joined the debate about La Bayadere and cultural appropriation in recent weeks. You can read their perspectives here and here.

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