Originally staged by Marius Petipa in Saint Petersburg in 1877, and produced here by the Joffrey Ballet, La Bayadere is a lavish Indian romance galvanized by Russian nihilist angst. Cruelty leads to disaster in the final act as the sexy, impetuous princess Gamzatti retaliates after she’s rejected on the altar by her fiance, Solor, a peerless warrior haunted by the spirit of his lover—the temple dancer Nikiya, whom Gamzatti murdered a couple acts earlier by planting a venomous snake in her basket of flowers. Compared to the extravagant attentions of Gamzatti, Solor’s modest love affair with Nikiya provides a contrast that echoes the famous stylistic rift between the classical “Kingdom of the Shades” act and the decadent backdrop of the rest of the ballet.
“Kingdom of the Shades” is when Solor copes with Nikiya’s demise. He smokes a massive bowl of opium. Hindu gods conduct him onto a stark, spectral field, where a ballerina in a crisp white tutu emerges from an upstage corner. She dips into an arabesque, melts in a bend, and advances two steps down the slope, revealing another dancer behind her, and then another and another, until a sense of infinity develops. Coiled from left to right, the dancers solidify into a representation of the snake that leveled Nikiya. As the snake dissolves in a thunder of pas de bourree, choreographer Stanton Welch’s juicy pantomime evokes joy and love: the dancers round their mouths, their raised arms open in unison with a heavenly puff. Nikiya returns to Solor in his numbed state for a duet uncompromised by grief.