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‘Star on the Rise: La Bayadère ... Reimagined!’ replaces caricature with character

Mar 25, 2024

IU ballet student Ruth Connelly plays the role of Nikki during a rehearsal of Star on the Rise: La Bayadère ... Reimagined at... IU ballet student Ruth Connelly plays the role of Nikki during a rehearsal of “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère ... Reimagined” at the Musical Arts Center. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

The latest production to be staged by the Jacobs School of Music Opera and Ballet Theater puts a modern “pirouette” on “La Bayadère,” a ballet first choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1877. Creating a new-fashioned take on the classic production, “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère … Reimagined!” replaces caricature with character, transforming the story’s setting from an inaccurate representation of India and placing it within the context of a vibrant Western movie set in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The show premieres March 29 at Indiana University Bloomington’s Musical Arts Center, with performances throughout the weekend. The New York Public Library will host a watch party, live-streaming the premiere.

Indiana University students rehearse a scene from Star on the Rise: La Bayadère … Reimagined. Photo by James Broshe... Indiana University students rehearse a scene from “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère … Reimagined.” Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

From classic to canceled

Nearly 150 years ago, “La Bayadère” was first staged by the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, telling the story of a love triangle imbued with romance, mystery, vengeance and justice. A product of its time and place, the ballet was set within a fantasized version of India, with a storyline crafted by Europeans who had little knowledge of Indian culture.

In modern times, the production has been widely criticized for perpetuating Orientalism, misrepresenting the Hindu religion and fetishizing Eastern cultures. Light-skinned performers in “La Bayadère” have often painted themselves with dark makeup, with some characters in full blackface. Sets representing Hindu temples confusingly contained Buddhist idols. Those and numerous other inaccuracies created a production rife with stereotypes.

Many ballet companies have avoided staging “La Bayadère” in recent years due to its inaccuracies and insensitivity. Debates have swirled for years around whether to preserve a work of art that no longer works for modern performers or audiences or to cancel it altogether.

When you see a version of your culture that is caricatured or isn't authentic, it can reinforce this idea that ballet is &... “When you see a version of your culture that is caricatured or isn't authentic, it can reinforce this idea that ballet is about you, but it isn't for you,” said Phil Chan, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface and co-stager for “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère … Reimagined!” Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

In 2020, faculty at the Jacobs School were inspired to create a fresh spin on the taboo ballet after a guest-speaking appearance by Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin, co-founders of Final Bow for Yellowface, whose mission is to eliminate outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians on ballet stages.

According to Chan, as ballet performers and audiences become more diverse, creating an environment of inclusion is integral to preserving the art form, rather than perpetuating an environment of exclusion. A similar approach was taken with the Jacobs School’s most recent production of “The Nutcracker,” revamping aspects of the story to make it more appropriate for diverse audiences.

“When you see a version of your culture that is caricatured or isn’t authentic, it can reinforce this idea that ballet is about you, but it isn’t for you,” Chan said.

Chan theorized that “La Bayadère” was a masterpiece for its music and choreography and not necessarily the setting. If the ballet’s backdrop was changed, they could preserve the music and choreography, creating a fresh take on a “canceled” production that all audiences could enjoy.

A ballet for everyone

Leaders at the Jacobs School invited Chan, author of “Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact,” and Doug Fullington, a dance historian and musicologist, to stage a reimagined production of “La Bayadère” at IU. With Chan and Fullington at the helm, they created a dazzling reimagining of the classic ballet within the context of the golden age of Hollywood, rather than India.

Ballet students rehearse a scene from Star on the Rise: La Bayadère ... Reimagined, which premieres March 29 at the Musical A... Ballet students rehearse a scene from “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère ... Reimagined,” which premieres March 29 at the Musical Arts Center at IU Bloomington. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“How can we make this story uniquely American so that we can include everybody in our community?” Chan said. “That’s how we got this 1920s Hollywood story because what could be more American than a cowboy musical in Hollywood? You don’t have to change your race to perform any character. You don’t have to change your appearance in any way; you can almost be yourself and dance these roles with some integrity.”

Chan and Fullington recognized that while preserving the music, composed by Ludwig Minkus, they also needed to revise some arrangements to fit the new Hollywood context of the ballet. They enlisted the help of Larry Moore, a specialist in the reconstruction of vintage Broadway musical scores.

Fullington said audiences can expect music from a traditional symphony orchestra, but it will be augmented by the types of instruments heard during the jazz era of the 1920s, including saxophones, guitar, banjo, piano and a variety of percussion.

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Ballet Department Chair Sarah Wroth, a professor of music in ballet, watches a rehearsal of Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Ballet Department Chair Sarah Wroth, a professor of music in ballet, watches a rehearsal of “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère … Reimagined.” Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Stepping into old Hollywood

When it came to choreography, Sarah Wroth, professor and chair of the Department of Ballet at Jacobs, said she has always loved the steps in “La Bayadère” for their challenging technical rigor, which raises the bar for dancers and creates an atmosphere where everyone is learning.

“It’s incredibly challenging, technically,” Wroth said. “There are a lot of fun, entertaining elements of this ballet that we get to see now that it’s not uncomfortable to watch. Phil Chan and Doug Fullington work together so beautifully as a duet to put this new context on this old ballet and make new art from it.”

Wroth said they preserved much of the traditional, extravagant dance sequences for “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère … Reimagined,” including the “Dreamland (Kingdom of the Shades)” arrangement, drawing inspiration from the synchronous dance numbers of Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood films. Another famous number in “La Bayadère” originally had dancers performing around a large golden idol of Buddha, which has now been changed to a golden Oscar statue.

Fletcher Barr rehearses for his role playing the golden Oscar. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University Fletcher Barr rehearses for his role playing the golden Oscar. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Students in the production said they’re proud to be a part of this fresh version of a classic ballet.

“By altering these dances and putting them in the context of ’20s Hollywood, it’s not only removing these outdated aspects, but it’s also amazing to compare our sets, costumes and movements to those of the dancers and movies that emerged in the ’20s,” said Sejal Janaswamy, a first-year ballet student who will perform in the cactus dance, as a rancher and in the corps for the “Dreamland” sequence.

While the central love-triangle storyline remained, some of the characters in the reimagined “La Bayadère” underwent transformations, the women in particular. Wroth said that while female characters in ballet are often portrayed as “pitiable tragedies,” the women in this new version are portrayed as strong heroines.

IU students Aram Hengen, left, and Ruth Connelly rehearse a scene from Star on the Rise: La Bayadère ... Reimagined. IU students Aram Hengen, left, and Ruth Connelly rehearse a scene from “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère ... Reimagined.” Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“My character is this up-and-coming chorus dancer who is chosen for a lead role in the next movie,” said Ruth Connelly, a senior ballet student in the lead female role. “Her character development is followed through the ballet, and the storyline shows how she grows from a doe-eyed, timid chorus dancer into a confident star on the rise.”

Wroth said she hopes to see families attend the reimagined ballet together to enjoy a classic that now includes relatable characters and an atmosphere that was designed for all to enjoy.

“We’ve made this a very global rendition,” Wroth said. “Anyone who can exist on stage today can exist in this narrative exactly as they are, and it fits perfectly. It should be a great opportunity for the audience to experience classical ballet in a way that is fun.”

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Julia Hodson

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