Joffrey Dances La Bayadère (aka Snakes at the Ballet)

Joffrey Ballet goes Bollywood in "La Bayadere". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

This Wednesday the Joffrey Ballet* begins a 10-performance run of Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer at the Auditorium Theatre. Welch’s version, originally choreographed for Houston Ballet in 2010, whittles down the three-plus hour original tale, keeping the story of love, jealousy and revenge flowing, while adding in more dancing. He’s left the famous “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, where 26 ballerinas in white tutus enter the stage performing synchronized arabesques, in tact. Oh, and there are live snakes.

You read that right. Snakes. Real ones. Live, on stage. SNAKES! (Can someone please tell me what happens while they are on stage, because my eyes will be shut as I silently shriek to myself.) Real snakes were used on a photo shoot in Houston to promote the revamp of the 19th classic. The dancers “really got into it” and ended up on the floor with 30 snakes slithering over them – ew – so Welch thought, “We have to use it!” A snake handler from The Traveling World of Reptiles (you’ll have to look up their site on your own…can’t do it) will be part of the production with four of his serpent friends.

The story follows Niiya, a temple dancer, and a love quartet with a secret love, a princess and a betrothed priest. The drama heightens with dancing gods and a little help from a hookah pipe. Solor, Nikiya’s love interest tends a broken heart by smoking opium and enters a dreamlike state. The is where the “Shades” come in. Welch describes them as “a stream of smoke coming down from heaven, where Nikiya appears in a cloud”. This scene has been seen as a stand-alone at galas around the world and is breathtaking.

Considering Welch himself has never performed the ballet, why La Bayadère? “It’s historic and important,” said Welch when I stopped by Joffrey Tower to chat and watch rehearsal earlier this month. “It has strong women characters. There are no victims and I love that the two women fight each other.” He’s replaced a lot of the pantomime – and there was a lot – with dancing and added more dancing for the men. “It’s all dance, less mime,” Welch said. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater agrees. “It’s real dancing people, not cardboard cut outs.” Wheater is excited to have his dancers perform such a staple. “It’s strictly classical,” he said. “It’s hard…a kind of a show-us-everything-you’ve learned.”

Joffrey Ballet presents La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wednesday, Oct. 16 – Sunday, Oct. 27. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152; call 800.982.2787 or online at ticket master.com. 

*La Bayadère is the last time RB will be covering Joffrey for the blog. At the end of the month, I’m joining the Joffrey Marketing Team full-time. You can follow my coverage of them, in an official capacity, on their website, JPointe blog and on social media.

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