Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part's Luscious, Heartbreaking <em>La Bayad&egrave;re</em>

, with its combination of poetic choreography, bravura dance theatrics and its very human story, is the ideal way to start if you've never been to the ballet.
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American Ballet Theater is currently in the midst of their production of La Bayadère, one of the most breathtakingly spectacular and heartbreakingly tragic of all classical story ballets. Set in royal India, La Bayadère tells the story of Solor, the warrior, who falls hopelessly in love Nikiya, a poor temple dancer, but is betrothed to the Princess Gamzatti, whom out of duty, he must marry. With its combination of poetic choreography, bravura dance theatrics (sky-high jumps, soaring leaps, lightening-speed whipping foeutte turns, big lifts), and its very human story, if you've never been to the ballet, this is the ideal one with which to start. Monday night's opening was the most enthusiastic I've seen the Met crowd this season. "Bravos" and applause abounded throughout, not just during bows and curtain calls, which makes going to the ballet all the more fun, to me at least!

All the applause was partly because the leads were danced by two of the greatest, most luxurious, most dramatic dancers around. Almost literally larger than life, Brazilian danseur Marcelo Gomes and Russian ballerina Veronika Part devour the stage with their magnanimous largesse -- both size- and dance-wise. Gomes in particular seemed to know the crowd was with him early on (dancers are sensitive that way), and, at the beginning, as the heroic warrior, he really took it over the top with enormous stage-traversing jetés and fascinating jumps that make it look as if he's running in the air. I thought he may throw his back out when he landed a tour jeté (jump with mid-air turn) on one knee and dramatically arched back, his fingers gracing the ground behind him. And when that man lands a jeté it's almost earth-shattering!

Gomes has an interesting physicality that I think is a draw for everyone, women and men. On one hand, he's a big, rather brawny guy's guy who astounds with his athleticism, but on the other he's got these old-time Hollywood good looks and a graciousness and charm that make him the quintessential dreamy romantic lead.

Part really owns the role of Nikiya, the temple dancer, from her expressive, Indian-style flourishes of the wrist, her heavenly developpes of which she is the queen (lift of the leg at the knee, then slowly unfolding to a full, skyward extension), and her gorgeously, almost tragically poetic arabesques (lift of the back leg). She rightly received loads of applause during her solo curtain calls.

But the two weren't just great on their own; they formed a perfect partnership as well, which is really everything, more important, to me at least, than the solo dancing. They both bring you so fully into their world, make their characters so real, which is not always the case with highly stylized classical dance. I really believed these two were hopelessly, tragically in love. Part's Nikiya was so forlorn, I wanted to cry for her when it was clear she wasn't going to get her love. And Gomes as always was the perfect actor, making all too clear how truly torn he was between his beloved and his betrothed, especially after the latter's sexy, seductive sequence of whipping fouette turns, and then how distraught he was on realizing, sultriness of fouettes aside, how Nikiya was, quite simply, his soul mate.

Many come to see this ballet regardless of who is dancing though, just for the compelling story and the sheer poetry of the choreography, particularly the breathtaking "Kingdom of the Shades" scene, which I know many think the most beautiful in all of ballet. This is the part of the ballet where Solor sleeps and dreams of his Nikiya, whose image floods his subconscious by suddenly duplicating itself many many times over, as illustrated by a series of ballerinas all in radiant white, emanating almost magically from the mountainside and traveling forward in a pattern of lovely arabesques, then taking center stage and bourreeing in place, all in perfect sync, in perfect harmony, reminiscent of a spirit-world, and foreshadowing that this is the only place Solor and Nikiya will be together.

Finally, Michele Wiles radiated as the spoiled rich princess Gamzatti. Throughout the first two acts she was icy cold bitchiness incarnate, who will have her way at all costs. She was pure gold-gowned evil when she put a venomous snake in Nikiya's bouquet. Yet, when it's clear Solor is in love with Nikiya and is only going through with the marriage because he must, you really start to feel sorry for Wiles's princess. Try as she does to maintain her power and honor, she can't. She somehow found the vulnerability in the "mean" character and made her sympathetic and that's what makes this a full tragedy.

This ballet continues through Saturday night, June 28th at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Gomes and Part will dance the leads again on that day's matinee, but ABT has the greatest dancers in the world; you really can't go wrong with any cast.

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