Taiwan’s ballet fans are a flutter this month because the American Ballet Theater (ABT) is returning to Taipei to the National Theater after an absence of 12 years, opening on July 12.
ABT was named the US’ national company by the Congress six years ago in recognition of its long history and extensive repertoire.
“ABT has considered itself for many years a cultural ambassador for America,” David Lansky, ABT’s general manager, said in an interview in February, when he was here for a preliminary visit.
Lansky said the full company and support staff would be coming, which means 130 people in all, for the one gala evening and four full-length performances of La Bayadere (The Temple Dancer).
While definitely American, like most other big ballet companies the make-up of ABT has a very international flavor these days.
“We have always had dancers from all over the world; now it is 60 percent from the US, 40 percent from around the world, from Japan, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil ... we’ve always had a lot of Russians ... ABT is known for having stars. We just want the best dancers in the world, whether they are Asian, Russian or Americans, we just want the best,” Lansky said.
While there will be many new faces in the company for Taipei audiences, there will also be some familiar faces among the principals and soloists, familiar at least to those who have attended the annual International Ballet Star galas over the years: Paloma Herrera danced at the first gala in 2007, Xiomara Reyes was in the 2010 gala, Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes were here last year, Cory Stearns and Sarah Lane performed this year and Daniil Simkin has made four appearances.
The company will open its run with a mixed bill that shows off both its history and its future.
“Most of the pieces are in the repertoire; it’s a very exciting, diverse program that shows classical and contemporary,” Lansky said.
There will be George Balanchine’s 1943 ballet Apollo; three pas de deux — Vasily Vainonen’s Flames of Paris Pas de Deux, James Kudelka’s Cruel World and Rudolf Nureyev’s reworking of Diana & Acteon — and then Christopher Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions, which the company premiered in New York in May last year.
Principal David Hallberg, who now divides his time between ABT and the Bolshoi Ballet, will lead off the program in Apollo, accompanied by Veronika Part, Hee Seo and Melanie Hamrick.
Fireworks can be expected from Simkin in Flames of Paris, which he danced here in 2009 with leaps so high they took your breath away. This time he will be partnering Sarah Lane. Very different in terms of style, but equally spectacular will be Julie Kent in Cruel World, partnered by Cory Stearns.
Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo will dance Diana & Acteon, while Maria Riccetto, Jared Matthews, Isabella Boylston and Marcelo Gomes lead the cast in Thirteen.
Wang Tzer-shing (王澤馨), whose company Art Wave is bringing ABT to Taipei, said she’s most excited about being able to present La Bayadere.
“No one else has ever performed it here and [Natalia] Markova’s version is fantastic,” she said in an interview last Wednesday. “Finally we can see something else besides Swan Lake. … Think of all the full-length ballets we never get to see because companies always bring Swan Lake.”
La Bayadere is a 1877 Russian classic romantic ballet by Marius Petipa that was basically unknown in the West until 1961, when the Kirov Ballet company performed the exquisite “Kingdom of the Shades” scene in Paris.
ABT’s full-length production was staged by prima ballerina Markova in 1980, based on the version she had danced when she was with the Kirov. Lanksy said Makarova still comes in to rehearse the dancers.
Part of the difficulty in staging either the “Shades” scene or the full-length ballet for decades was that the full-length score by composer Ludwig Minkus was not available outside the Soviet Union. John Lachberry, the conductor of the Royal Opera House in London, composed music for the missing sections for both Makarova’s production and an earlier staging of the “Shades” scene by Rudolf Nureyev for the Royal Ballet.
The “Shades” scene is one of the most famous in ballet, featuring a 24-member corps de ballet; it is right up there with the other romantic classic scenes, like the swans’ entrance in Swan Lake or the ghostly Willis in Act II of Giselle. It is also a reminder of the pastiche that is La Bayadere’s storyline — what two dozen women in white tutus have to do with ancient India is not a question that bears too much thinking about. It’s a ballet to just sit back and enjoy instead of wondering if the story makes sense.
“It’s the kind of ballet, kind of story that ABT does well. Incredible dancing, big costumes and scenery,” Lansky said.
La Bayadere is a ballet about eternal love, about giving up things for the one you love. The story revolves around the temple dancer Nikiya and the warrior Solar, who have pledged themselves to each other. However, their rajah has selected Solar to be the husband of his daughter, Gamzatti, while the temple’s high priest is in love with Nikiya. There’s a lot of secret plotting and jealous rivalry and you know it’s going to end badly for Nikiya. In the end she chooses to die from a snakebite instead of giving up Solor.
A forlorn and bereft Solor smokes opium and dreams of Nikiya’s ghost in a nirvana-like wonderland (the Kingdom of the Shades), but when he wakes up, the planning for his wedding to Gamzatti is underway. However, the gods, outraged by Nikiya’s death, destroy the temple during the wedding, killing everyone inside. Like the ending of Swan Lake, La Bayadere closes with Nikiya and Solor reunited in death, heading off to eternal happiness.
As an added bonus for balletgoers, the company will be appearing with the Evergreen Orchestra for all five shows.