So here's Harrell, flaunting his body in these showy rags and at the same time underplaying his characters almost to invisibility. He seems to do a lot of thinking and research to develop these snapshots, but he leaves nailing them down to the viewer's imagination. A program note invoked Meryl Streep for Look 20, "Alt-Moderne feeling the French Lieutenant's Woman," but what came to me as he wrapped the edge of his T-shirt around one trembling hand and swayed from side to side with his eyes closed was a historic film of Martha Graham objectifying grief in her 1930 dance Lamentation.
Whatever Trajal Harrell suppresses about performing character, the Boston Ballet production of La Bayadère fully sanctions. In fact, this is just the kind of scenery-chewing histrionics that fired up the Judson and postmodern dancers to start all over again. Mime isn't the Boston Ballet dancers' strongest suit, but the old-fashioned, gesture-heavy classics require it, particularly this 1877 Marius Petipa work. With a more complicated story than, say, Swan Lake or Giselle, La Bayadère has some interest as a narrative piece. But more mime doesn't necessarily enlighten us. At the Opera House Saturday afternoon, the audience was anxiously consulting its program notes during intermissions.
The story concerns four tormented characters caught between their amorous desires and the demands of their stations in life. Nikiya, the bayadère, loves a warrior, Solor, but she has to keep this a secret because she's consecrated to the temple. After she rejects the lecherous advances of the High Brahmin, he discovers her secret and vows to destroy Solor. Meanwhile, Solor is offered the beautiful Gamzatti by her father the Rajah. Dazzled, he agrees to the marriage. Nikiya won't give him up, so Gamzatti arranges to have a lethal basket of flowers delivered to her, and she dies of a poisonous snakebite. Solor regrets what's happened and sees himself united with Nikiya in an opium dream.
In the original ballet, Solor awakens from the dream and goes through with his marriage to Gamzatti. The murdered Nikiya's spirit appears at the ceremony, and the gods bring down the temple in an earthquake. United at last, the true lovers apotheose into the sunset as the curtain falls.
Surrounding and relieving all this storytelling is a great deal of ceremonial dancing and divertissement — here nicely danced in colorful costumes (designed by Sergiy Spevyakin). Still, the acting is essential, and these dancers mustered neither melodramatic bravado nor psychological verismo. Saturday afternoon's principals seemed to approach their roles one-dimensionally. Erica Cornejo's Nikiya was unfailingly pure and submissive. As Gamzatti, Whitney Jensen thrust her haughty shoulders at everyone. Jaime Diaz's Solor reacted with the same ardor to both women. Bo Busby's High Brahmin stalked around with a disagreeable look fixed on his face. None of them seemed caught in the moral and emotional conflicts implied by the plot.
Nineteenth-century ballets succumb to natural attrition and have to be repaired, rethought, and revised over the years. But even if a definitive template could be used to re-create an original production, it would hardly suit the contemporary audience. Natalia Makarova directed a judiciously streamlined and very successful version for American Ballet Theater 30 years ago, seeking a balance between Bayadère's dramatics and its lavish servings of music, scenography, and dancing.