The Universal Ballet's production of "La Bayadere" brings us a high point of Russian poetry by way of Caesars Palace, 19th-century classicism viewed through the lens of 20th Century Fox. At Wednesday's opening, a cast of, if not thousands, then around a hundred filled the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, which the company has rented for performances through the weekend. There was pageantry, a riot of color, sets so bright they hurt your eyes, a life-size elephant and even a dead tiger.
And at the heart of this full-length production was the greatest surprise of all: a serious ballet, with many promising dancers and one particularly trenchant ballerina.
It may not be great ballet, but it is certainly great big ballet -- clocking in at three hours and with two intermissions -- and it's not bad ballet. Seh-Yun Kim as the beautiful villainess Gamzatti presents as subtle, seething and deeply wicked a portrayal of retribution as one can hope to see. The other principal dancers are convincing enough, and the corps de ballet, while uneven, is well-directed -- the dancers achieve the look of this romantic ballet (dating from 1877), if not always the substance.
This is good news for the Seoul-based Universal Ballet, which is just 16 years old, and is appearing for the first time at the Kennedy Center. The company was founded in 1984, and is still lavishly funded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church. It is the cornerstone of Moon's expanding ballet influence: Just four years after establishing the company in Korea, Moon opened the Kirov Academy of Ballet, USA, in Northeast Washington (it was originally called the Universal Ballet Academy). The school has become one of the area's largest ballet training grounds, with several graduates going on to major companies -- including the Universal Ballet.
The Universal Ballet is a company with a, shall we say, irregular past: The general director is Julia Moon, a member of the Washington Ballet (then named Hoon Sook Pak) in the early '80s. She returned to Korea to marry Moon's deceased son (or rather, his spirit), and carry on the ballet company in his name, with herself as its prima ballerina. She will be dancing in "Shim Chung," the ballet based on a Korean folk tale, tomorrow. The current artistic director is Oleg Vinogradov, former director of Leningrad's famed Kirov Ballet. He, too, is one with a storied past, having been demoted at the Kirov after a bribery scandal, although the charges were dropped. He has been the director of Washington's Kirov Academy since its inception.
"La Bayadere" is one of the earliest existing ballets by Marius Petipa, the French-born master of Russian classicism who also gave us "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty." Like many ballets, it centers around a vow of eternal love, a betrayal and a reconciliation in the hereafter. It takes place in India -- or a European fantasy of India; look for historical accuracy and you'll only be disappointed, or offended, or both. Solor, a warrior, pledges his troth to Nikia, a bayadere, or temple dancer, yet he is forced to marry Gamzatti, the daughter of the Rajah who employs him. Jealous of Solor's attraction to the low-caste dancer, Gamzatti orchestrates Nikia's death by snake bite. The distraught Solor drugs himself with opium and dreams of joining Nikia in the underworld. (This last section, subtitled the "Kingdom of the Shades," is often excerpted and presented as a one-act "ballet blanc," with its famous series of 32 female dancers in white tutus descending a ramp in slow, hypnotic succession.)
The Universal production was staged by Vinogradov and former Kirov colleague, Natalia Spitsyna. Calling the result a mixed bag undercuts the wild extremes it contained. The sets look like 1950s Hollywood depictions of generic exoticism: a swam of palm fronds presided over by a temple of Tiki carvings; the Rajah's gold palace outfitted with a loudly gurgling water fountain, a royal garden framed in colonnades. Costumes follow suit, overlaid in gold filigree whenever possible; most of the women are topped in gilt brassieres and trail diaphanous scarves. To its credit, it somehow escapes tastelessness -- when the ensemble comes together in Act 2's wedding scene, for instance, the effect is of a brilliant mosaic. Something you might see in Vegas on a good night, perhaps, but brilliant nonetheless.
The dancing is not up to the level of what we have recently seen at the Kennedy Center, but it does not exactly plummet in comparison. As Nikia, Eun-Sun Jun is as slender and sinewy as a willow branch; she doesn't seem to have an angle in her body. She is hardly corporeal. Yet her technique is somewhat insecure; she lacked authority in the last act's dream scene. Jae-Won Hwang was a sincere but somewhat stiff and blocky Solor.
The star is Seh-Yun Kim as Gamzatti. A graduate of the local Kirov Academy, Kimis positively viper like. She seems an innocent at first, then almost imperceptibly hardens as she tightens her claim on Solor. Wearing a pure white tutu that stood out against the accumulated patchwork like exposed bone, she commanded attention with every move, her smooth musical phrasing punctuated by moments of stillness. Not a step was muddied.
This ballet may not be high art, but it is something to see -- for the spectacle, for the lively staging, for the insight into what prompted ballet's streamlining decades later. And for Kim's quiet, white-hot fury. What is it they say about a woman scorned?