A shining illustration of three great dance styles – romantic, classical and vernacular – streamed from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow
More opium-induced delirium, more melodrama, more extravagant staging and costumes, more sublime dance. Just a week after the Bolshoi Live screening of The Pharaoh's Daughter comes another assault on the senses from the boundless imagination of the legendary French-born choreographer, Marius Petipa.
Thankfully, there is a two-week break before the Queen's Film Theatre screening of Don Quixote, the last in the Petipa trilogy being pre-recorded live and subsequently streamed across the world from the Bolshoi's magnificent auditorium in the heart of Moscow.
Ballet fans will be glad of the breathing space in which to regain their sense of equilibrium, for total immersion in the intense atmosphere of a big, traditional Russian ballet is something not to be taken lightly.
Bolshoi Live gives cinema audiences real value for money. Not only are they ushered into the best seats in the house and allowed to roam freely into areas backstage forbidden to the general public, but they are also privy to a series of fascinating interviews conducted on-stage during the intervals by the company's elegant, multi-lingual press director, Katerina Novikova.
Thus we learn that this version of La Bayadère is by Yuri Grigorovich, who, until 1995 had been for over 30 years the company's artistic director. His sensitive reworking of Petipa's original, premiered in 1887 in St Petersberg, has further cemented its place as one of the acknowledged Russian masterpieces.
Intriguingly, it is revealed that there was an even earlier version, by another Petipa – Marius's brother Lucien – which is believed to have been the true inspiration for the ballet that has endured through the centuries.
In keeping with popular tastes of the time, the action is set in a faraway exotic location, here an Indian temple high in the Himalayas, where the bayadères – the temple dancers – were admired for their artistic gifts but rather looked down upon by the wealthy ruling classes.
The original story emanates from the arrival in Paris in 1839 of a touring company of authentic Indian bayadères, whose principal dancer had a profound effect on the French writer, Théophile Gautier. He wrote the libretto for a ballet entitled Sacountala, with music by Ernest Reyer, which was staged at the Paris Opera in 1858 by Lucien Petipa.
When little brother Marius started crafting his own beguiling tale of the love-lorn dancer Nikiya, he set it to a new score by Ludwig Minkus, while retaining much of the content of Act I of Lucien's ballet.
The curtain goes up on a vast stage, dominated by a mysterious temple. At the centre of the shadowy set is a glowing fire tended by a handsome band of male temple dancers, celebrating the Indian Ritual of Fire. In contrast to their primal, sinewy movements, the High Brahmin and his priests register as stiff, strait-laced and unyielding.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the bewitching Nikiya spurns the clumsy attentions of the High Brahmin in favour of the exciting, aristocratic young warrior Solor, with whom she is engaged in a thrillingly risky, clandestine love affair. But, as is the way with these stories, their love is doomed.
The all-powerful Rajah decides that Solor shall marry his daughter Gamzatti, an arrangement that she is delighted to honour. Class and wealth triumph over human rights, as a humble dancer is relegated to her rightful place as performer and entertainer. In a thrilling cat fight between two impassioned women, Nikiya attempts to stab Gamzatti and has to flee for her life as the wrath of the royal court closes in around her.
The Bolshoi's acting artistic director is former prima ballerina Galina Stepanenko. She is standing in for Sergey Filin, who is recovering from a recent acid attack and to whom best wishes were sent from the stage.
Stepanenko explains that this current revival has been illuminated with new costumes and set design, with the intention of prolonging the life of the production. She describes the ballet, in which she performed many times, as being made for three remarkable dancers, and that is certainly the case here.
Vladislav Lantratov is the still, calm male presence between two temestuous females – Maria Alexandrova's tall, rangy Gamzatti and Svetlana Zakharova’s delicate, fine-boned Nikiya. They are wonderfully supported by a company of soloists and a corps de ballet, which never put a foot wrong, even in the heartbreakingly ethereal final act, the Kingdom of the Shades, in which 32 dancers in white tutus and gauzy veils descend from the rocky heights of the mountains onto the darkened stage.
This act, which is frequently performed independently of the ballet, bears little relation to what has gone before and is prompted by Solor smoking opium to relieve the pain of losing Nikiya. It offers a stunning contrast to the joyful divertissements of Act III, which celebrate the betrothal of Gamzatti and Solor.
Here Petipa and Grigorovich flex their muscles on the Russian folk dance tradition, with the dance of the drums, the dance of the golden idol, the dance of the golden eagle, the dance of the water carrier and, finally, the misplaced joy of Nikiya's flower dance, which ends with her being bitten by a poisonous snake.
La Bayadère is a shining illustration of three great dance styles: romantic, classical and vernacular. It nourishes respect and admiration for the way in which the Bolshoi faithfully hands on its traditions from one generation to the next, and even gives a glimpse into the future, with the appearance of two budding young dancers from the Bolshoi School.
'I first danced in this ballet in 1991,' says Alexandrova, minutes after stepping out of character as Gamzatti. 'I was one of the two young girls in the water carrier dance. I was in Grade 4 at the Bolshoi School at the time. Since then I have danced all the female roles in the ballet, so I have many memories, many thoughts and reflections on it. A special relationship, you could say.'
Bolshoi Live: Don Quixote screens in Queen's Film Theatre on Sunday, February 10.