Russians are onstage this week as the celebrated Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra perform the three-act, three-hour ballet classic “La Bayadère” through Sunday at Cal Performances in Berkeley. What a relief it is to have them show up somewhere other than on the president’s legal team.
While the company brought a ballet to town that may be nearly as convoluted as the Ukraine scandal, this melodrama takes audiences into a pleasant fairy tale realm of East Indian ceremony, and elegant, if sometimes silly, spectacle as it tells a tale of power, manipulation and betrayal.
Even more important than the spectacle, though, it offers up dancing of extraordinary skill in a nearly flawless Act 3, where everything that preceded it is crystallized by complex and architecturally pristine movement.
Like so many tales of the 19th century, “Bayadere” has an exotic locale (India), men with power over women who have little to none of their own, betrayal, heartbreak and transcendence through love. It is the tale is Nikia, a temple dancer, performed with sensitivity and prowess by newcomer Maria Khoreva. She loves and is loved by fickle Solor, a rich warrior, danced with sinewy elegance by Vladimir Shklyarov.
But he is betrothed to Gamzatti, daughter of the Rajah Dugmanta, and once he is found out he sulks throughout Act 2 like a naughty boy. All the while, Nikia is pursued by a creepy High Brahmin, a figure who would be at home in “Game of Thrones.”
The backstory of “Bayadere” is, in some sense, an excuse for an abstract ballet within a ballet. But the long, convoluted and sometimes inadvertently funny Act 1 and 2 (including a curious American flag costume) make the sparkling clarity of the finale all the more breathtaking. By the time we meet Nikia again in the same sort of tutu her rival wore to marry Solor, we know that she has been poisoned through Gamzatti’s machinations, that she refused to be saved by the High Brahmin’s antidote, and has arrived in the Kingdom of Shades — a heaven in the clouds — where
Solor is able to locate her in his opium dreams.
The night’s most iconic event opens Act 3. This is the famous corps de ballet processional, where a flock of 32 ballerinas in white tutus with diaphanous sleeves suggestive of bird wings step forward, raise their back legs in arabesque, step backward, arch back and repeat the pattern to Ludwig Minkus’ haunting melody, where winds mimic sorrowful bird call.
The Mariinsky’s corps de ballet carried off the design, the steps and the composure needed to embody the movement with a calm beauty that few “Bayadere” processionals muster. This is no small feat, since, as with most stripped down movement arranged in vivid pattern, every flaw in the execution is apt to be glaring.
Where they were less successful as a whole is in transforming precision into soulfulness. Nikia and Solor’s pas de deux in Act 3 was full of elegant legato steps and seamlessly executed partnering, yet never quite rose to the level of poetry, though Khoreva gave intimations of it.
They, like the company as a whole, were best at demonstrating virtuosity, and the stunning solo and group turns throughout proved the company’s technical capacities. Philipp Steppin ticked off the Dance of the Golden Idol with elegant athleticism, while wiry Roman Belyakov as the The Slave flew through the air effortlessly.
Act 3’s technically diabolical segments danced by Vlada Borodulina, Yana Selina and Anastasia Lukina proved that the Mariinsky has a corner on supple footwork and Olympian control.
What they still lack, though, is a soulfulness that can permeate all that exquisite physicality, and move it toward the sublime.
That appears to be a tall order these days.
Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra
Presented by Cal Performances
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, UC Berkeley campus
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 1, 1 and 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 3 p.m. Nov. 3
Tickets: $50 to $274
Contact: (510) 642-9988, calperformances.org