In most classical ballets, it’s usually the main characters portrayed by high-profile principals who get the glory. But in Marius Petipa’s 1877 classic “La Bayadère,” which Boston Ballet will perform Oct. 24 to Nov. 3, it’s a corps of 24 ghost-like women in white who often steal the show with a celebrated sequence that is one of the most exquisite and entrancing in the repertoire. It’s also one of the most fiendishly difficult, requiring intense concentration and steady technical command.
The Act 3 scene is called “The Kingdom of the Shades.” The Shades are mysterious, shadowy spirit figures that appear in the opium-fueled hallucination of a young Indian warrior named Solor following the death of his beloved Nikiya, a temple dancer. The scene opens as, one by one, the dancers of the corps de ballet enter single file and slowly make their way in unison down a ramp that crisscrosses nearly the full width of the stage, until all are at floor level. This hypnotic, dreamlike processional is basically the repetition of a single phrase — steps forward, a shift of weight, an arabesque in plié, with one leg extended behind, waist high — which the initial dancer performs 38 times until all the women have joined her onstage. The fundamental phrase is so pristine and simple, yet when performed well, it is a breathtaking, timeless tour de force of ensemble grace and precision.
Its simplicity belies its difficulty. “Of the big story ballets, this is the hardest piece for the corps de ballet to perform,” says ballet master and artistic coordinator Shannon Parsley of Boston Ballet. “Twenty-four girls enter doing the same combination of steps, and it’s a long time until they zigzag and wind their way around and all get onstage. The repetition, staying together, technically finishing everything the way they’ve been taught is so challenging. They have to do this whole section completely 100 percent together. Then in the adagio, the actual steps are difficult to perform as one person. To get 24 completely together during a performance is so hard. Mentally you have to prepare so you don’t let nerves get the better of you.”
Parsley says the sequence is one of the most unusual in the repertoire. “You not only have to deal with the ramp, but you’re moving side to side, and when you change directions, you’re looking right into the light booms, and your peripheral vision changes. Also, there’s the tutus. The dancers can’t necessarily see over the tutus to see their feet, and it changes perspective.”
“La Bayadère,” set to music by Ludwig Minkus, is one of the most lavish of the popular story ballets. The tale of ill-fated lovers unfolds in exotic India amid a climate of intrigue and betrayal. The ballet is often considered a link between ballet’s classical and romantic eras. Boston Ballet’s current production is a revival of the world premiere version of the work choreographed for the company in 2010 by Florence Clerc.
Since the beginning of August, Parsley has been working to re-create and fine-tune the Shades’ scene according to Clerc’s specifications.
“I’m always negotiating to make sure I do it enough to get where they need to be, but not too much to kill the spirit of it,” Parsley says. “I was very careful in 2010 to watch Florence Clerc stage this and to understand how she thought about the part.”
Corps de ballet member Kimberly Uphoff, who danced in the 2010 production, will be the second female out of the gate this time around, which means she dances the same phrase 37 times. She agrees that drilling the movement has been crucial for developing ensemble precision as well as stamina.
“We do a lot of stopping and starting and repeating over and over. You have to know at each count where the foot is and how to move between counts,” she says. “It takes so much control. Your feet get crampy. It kind of puts you in a trance. Then you have to run to your place onstage and do the adagio section.”
The adagio sequence extends both the beauty and the rigor. Once the corps coalesces into six lines of four dancers, the ensemble performs a slow, lyrical sequence that features even more tricky one-leg balances, some with the body tilting toward the floor into penchés, the back leg raised even higher. “If we just did the adagio on its own, it would still be challenging, but to do it after all those arabesques [down the ramp] adds another level of difficulty,” Uphoff says. “Doing something so controlled and calm is almost harder than doing something faster that moves. You feel very exposed. Everything shows. Nobody wants to be the one who wobbles.”
However, it’s not just about the steps, says Parsley, who performed different versions of the scene during her career as a performer. “Little by little, we’ve added all the nuances and spirit of these characters. They are shadows, they are sad, but they have strength, and that quality has to show in the steps, the timing, the rhythms.”
For Uphoff, the challenge is also the reward. “I really love doing it,” she says. “It’s all about the corps. Everyone has that little groan before we start because it’s so tiring. But when you finish, it’s very satisfying. You feel like you’ve really done something.”
Parsley adds, “I think they understand that this is quite an extraordinary thing they are about to perform. To have the [dramatic] setup, the costumes, the music, and the sadness and spirit behind what they’re doing — putting all that together is an accomplishment individually and for the ballet, and when people see that kind of artistry, it’s inspiring. It’s not just going out and doing 10 pirouettes. It’s delicate work with everyone pulling together. It really does create magic.”