Originally commissioned by and performed at the Royal Opera House in 2015, Shobana Jeyasingh’s re-examination of the classical ballet La Bayadère is fresh, contemporary and challenging. It isn’t a traditional retelling of the full narrative, but falls into three distinct sections on the theme.
The opening act is a critique of La Bayadère’s “exotic” setting and characters through the eyes of a modern day Indian man. The audience is taken through a plot summary, via a text conversation complete with emojis projected onto a screen. This helps to make the work more accessible to new audiences, as no prior knowledge of the ballet is required, but it is overlong.
Ninth Life certainly doesn’t paint Marius Petipa’s still widely performed work in a good light, and nor should it—the ballet has not aged as well as its fairytale counterparts, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Jeyasingh confronts this issue head on, putting a dancer in a mask to represent the use of blackface in one scene (still included in current Russian productions) and having the central character shout at them three times to take it off.
The second section delves into the historical context of Petipa’s work, using the nineteenth-century writer Théophile Gautier’s account of meetings with a real life bayadère (an Indian temple dancer). The central character goes from scrutinising the classical ballet to becoming a temple dancer himself, changing from modern clothes to harem pants and ornate jewellery. Having the female bayadère figure portrayed by a man adds to the subversive feeling of the work, and makes her treatment at the hands of the other characters all the more unsettling—she is touched and manipulated by a cast of ten or so dancers, while Gautier’s predatory voiceover details her ‘blue gums’ and ‘golden skin’.
At one point, the male dancers turn on the female members of the ensemble and manipulate their bodies into poses that resemble that of the bayadère. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of the objectification of women by men across all cultures. Eventually, the bayadère throws off the objectifying European lens and breaks out into exhilarating, percussive bharatanatyam. This movement is intertwined with extracts of the classical ballet choreography performed by other dancers, forming a succession of short but fascinating pas de deux.
Ninth Life’s final section is an abstract tapestry of choreography taken from the earlier sections of the work. It’s strange to jump so suddenly from narrative to non-narrative, and although the athletic movements are well executed by the ensemble—they seem more comfortable here than in the balletic sections—it’s hard not to be distracted wondering why it’s there. The central character in modern day India never reappears.
The music is a mix of traffic sounds, electronic feedback and extracts of Ludwig Minkus’s original score to La Bayadère, distorted as if coming from a scratchy record player.
Bayadère—Ninth Life is an intriguing, challenging collision of cultures, dance styles, and world views that cleverly deconstructs the classical ballet and reframes it for a modern audience.