The choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh is struggling to find the right word for how she felt when she encountered the ballet La Bayadère, back in the 1990s. “I was excited to see it,” she recalls when we meet after rehearsal one grey afternoon in February. “I knew it was about an Indian dancer, and one is always drawn to narratives that feature something that is about yourself. But I left feeling very” – she thinks – “puzzled. Yes, I was puzzled.”
If La Bayadère was not actually about an Indian dancer, then what – with its melodrama of rivalry, deception and death, its Ottoman odalisque gauzes, its mittel-Europa waltzes, its vision of heaven as the Himalayas thronged with ballerinas in white tutus – was it about? And what, she wondered, was the “something” in the story that might be about herself? Her new work, Bayadère – the Ninth Life, became her way of piecing together that puzzle.
its melodrama of rivalry, deception and death, its Ottoman odalisque gauzes, its mittel-Europa waltzes, its vision of heaven as the Himalayas thronged with ballerinas in white tutus…
It is perhaps the most directly personal step of her career. “The idea was sloshing in the back of my mind for more than 10 years, and I developed this kind of love-hate relationship with the ballet,” she says. She discovered that the word bayadère (from the Portuguese bailadeira, meaning a female dancer) referred to the female devadasis (temple dancers) of south India, who had been fabled in European travel writing all the way back to Marco Polo, and who by the 19th century had acquired a potent Romantic mystique. Jeyasingh trained in classical bharatanatyam, the dance style which traces its lineage to the devadasis. But the key piece of the jigsaw came to her two years ago, and it took her back two centuries, to Paris in 1838.
“That was when the first group of Indian devadasis performed in Europe. They toured Paris, London, Vienna, and aroused huge interest and fascination. It must have been like meeting a myth,” she says. “Like seeing a unicorn or something.” And on their arrival in Paris, who should become their first and foremost fan but leading dance critic, writer and librettist Théophile Gautier, a key figure in the formation of the classical ballet tradition and an admirer of the equally influential ballerina Marie Taglioni, who had come to fame a few years earlier in an opera-ballet – playing a bayadère.
Here, in this heady crucible of fantasy and reality, of exotic performers and metropolitan spectators, of race and femininity, something caught fire within Gautier: he became infatuated with the 18-year-old devadasi dancer Amany, visiting her often, though they could scarcely say a word to each other, and writing about her in both lyrical flights of fancy and probing physical detail. “Gautier’s writings were a godsend,” says Jeyasingh. “He wrote the story for me, in a way. The whole of 19th-century orientalism is there, condensed into a few articles. To see the bayadères for the first time, he says, was as if the impenetrable doors of the harem had opened. That’s a very telling phrase!”
The death of the beautiful beloved is, after all, the fantasised fate of the bayadère in ballet
Gautier thought that the devadasis might have some effect on ballet’s bayadère, even wondering if Amany might dance Taglioni’s role. But it was not to be: after the novelty wore off, the public abandoned them in favour of their imaginary counterparts. The devadasis disappeared from view while the fictional figure, immortalised in the iconic 1877 ballet La Bayadère, lived on. Gautier reported that Amany became depressed in London and hanged herself – but that may have been a Romantic fiction too, for the suicide was never recorded elsewhere, and the death of the beautiful beloved is, after all, the fantasised fate of the bayadère in ballet.
Gautier’s encounter with Amany became the centrepiece of Jeyasingh’s work; the question then was how to retell this story of female adoration, abandonment and death without simply replaying it. One solution was to fit it into a different frame: Jeyasingh’s version begins with a young man blogging about his experience of having seen La Bayadère, and it ends by giving the ballet’s characters a different afterlife, untethered from the bonds of the Romantic imagination. Importantly, too, she chose to work with contemporary composer Gabriel Prokofiev, whose electro-acoustic score is derived from a recording of Minkus’s ballet music for La Bayadère, its timings and textures manipulated so that its 19th-century European sound world is sometimes prominent, sometimes distant, but never simply present.
“Those are the ideas,” says Jeyasingh, but having come direct from rehearsal, she knows there is a more immediate matter to deal with, the final and perhaps hardest part of the puzzle: “It has to work as dance.” Just so. But I remain puzzled by something – the “something” in this piece that is directly about Shobana Jeyasingh. Is she trying to make a mark maybe not so much on La Bayadère as on the mentality that produced it? She laughs. “If a beautiful 18-year-old with critics in love with her couldn’t do it, I doubt that I can!” Does she nevertheless identify with Amany’s story? Characteristically, Jeyasingh would rather let her work speak for itself, but I press the point. “Well,” she laughs again, “I haven’t killed myself yet.”