Let’s take a moment to appreciate the genius of Marianela Núñez. Even when all around her are dancing on the surface, the Argentinian ballerina can turn up and make you want to weep. In her first entrance as Nikiya, the temple dancer in La Bayadère, all she does is walk, slowly and deliberately, a veil over her face. Yet in those few short moments you can see a woman who senses her fate is about to be decided.
The High Brahmin immediately falls in love her with, but she loves Solor (Vadim Muntagirov), who then falls for princess Gamzatti (Natalia Osipova), and so the love quadrangle unfolds. Nikiya is the soul of it all, Núñez drawing great sighs out of her body, sumptuous sweeps of her arms and curving torso. You could forget she’s made of straight bones and joints and not one long vertebrae, curling like a languid cat’s tail.
Marius Petipa’s 1877 Indian fantasy (recreated by Natalia Makarova in 1989) is pure escapism. The three-hour yarn is hardly an urgent drama – it’s a trope of Petipa’s to introduce a key plot point, like Solor and Gamzatti’s meeting, and then have everyone sit back and watch some dancing girls – but gosh, it is pretty. Designer Yolanda Sonnabend’s stage is filled with glowing gold. Put aside your modern concerns about Orientalism or dramatic realism and La Bayadère endures, mostly because of its mesmerising Kingdom of the Shades scene, which the Royal’s corps de ballet execute with great care. But also because it has two good melodramatic roles for ballerinas to get their teeth into.
As Nikiya’s rival, Osipova presents a woman always scheming, and she dances with a sense of pure entitlement. Osipova and Núñez are swapping roles later in the run, and seeing both versions will make for a fascinating comparison. Muntagirov, by contrast, is not the most charismatic presence – Solor’s tribulations elicit little sympathy – but there is real beauty in his dancing. When he pirouettes à la seconde, one leg extended at 90 degrees, well, who knew a right angle could be so exquisite?