How Do You Solve a Problem Like ‘Bayadère’? Send In the Cowboys.

One after the other, women in white step out of the wings, reaching forward into space before swaying gently back, arms overhead. Then they take two steps forward and begin the sequence all over again. This rocking motion, forward and back, repeats for several minutes, until the stage is filled with bodies hovering on pointe, as if sustained by a single breath.

The scene is from Marius Petipa’s “La Bayadère,” a ballet that premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1877. “The spectators must have felt that they had died and gone to heaven, which was more or less the case,” the dance critic Joan Acocella wrote in 2019 of the entrance of the Shades, or female spirits, in the second act.

That sequence — inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustration of souls descending from heaven in an edition of Dante’s “Divina Commedia” — is one of the reasons this ballet, set to a mostly unremarkable score by Ludwig Minkus, has survived when so many others have not.

“It’s a simple thing,” the director and choreographer Phil Chan said, “a throwaway step, even.” But the way the scene is structured, he added, “shows you how you can take a single step and give it to an entire group and make it look exciting and interesting.”

Like many operas and ballets from the 19th century, “La Bayadère,” set in an exoticized, ahistoric and sometimes cartoonish India, doesn’t translate well to our times. Some have questioned whether it should be performed at all. And while it continues to be staged around the world, there has been a noticeable reduction in performances, at least in the United States. In 2022, Susan Jaffe, the new artistic director of American Ballet Theater, said in an interview that it was one of the ballets she planned to shelve temporarily, while thinking about how to make changes.

What can be done with a work like “Bayadère”? For Chan and Doug Fullington, a specialist in 19th-century ballet, the solution is to remove it from its exotic context and put it in a setting closer to home, the Hollywood of the 1930s. By setting the ballet in a movie-land far west, and swapping Orientalist clichés for American ones, Chan said, the team was creating “a form of exoticism that is about us, not about ‘them.’”

“The thing is, there’s really nothing Indian about it,” he said of “Bayadère.” “We might as well add a German clog dance or an Argentine tango. It would literally be just as authentic.”

Called “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère … Reimagined!” the new version recasts the “Shades” scene as a dance spectacular à la Busby Berkeley. The staging, produced by Indiana University’s ballet department, will premiere on March 29 in Bloomington, and be livestreamed online as well as at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

When “La Bayadère,” was made, far-off places were much in vogue in stage shows. Bizet’s 1863 opera “The Pearl Fishers” was set in Sri Lanka; Verdi’s 1871 opera “Aida” takes place in ancient Egypt; Spain was a frequent setting for both operas and ballets. In 1875, the Prince of Wales undertook a highly publicized tour of India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), both British colonies at the time. Two years later, “La Bayadère” came to the stage.

While in Sri Lanka, the prince had watched a dance performance, a moment that was illustrated in contemporary newspapers. Those illustrations are the likely inspiration for “La Bayadère’s” fast-paced “Danse Infernale,” a fake-tribal number set to a beating drum.

“It’s so problematic, but the music is so fun,” Chan said of “Danse Infernale.” “My idea was that we could take this thing that is so shameful, find the good parts, and make it fun for everybody.” The number, now called “Bronco Busters,” is danced by cowboys who slap their ankles, twirl lassoes and run with their arms behind their backs as if they were about to grab their pistols.

The story of “La Bayadère” hinges on a love triangle among Nikiya, a beautiful temple dancer, or bayadère; a not-so-brave warrior; and a rajah’s haughty daughter. Nikiya is a tragic heroine killed by a venomous snake placed in a basket of flowers by her catty rival.

Chan, born in Hong Kong, is a former dancer who now works to bring cultural awareness to ballet and opera. He has written two books on Orientalism in the performing arts and, with the former New York City Ballet dancer Georgina Pazcoguin, founded Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization that pushes for the elimination of demeaning depictions of Asian characters.

“I don’t think audiences want to see that anymore, this passive, hypersexualized, weak woman who has no agency,” he said about characters like Nikiya and the heroine of the opera “Madama Butterfly.” “Snooze-fest, boring. That’s not who we are anymore.”

Chan recently directed a production of “Madama Butterfly” at Boston Lyric Opera that transposed the story to World War II America; instead of a young geisha, the protagonist is a jazz singer. She doesn’t die at the end.

In “Star on the Rise,” Chan and Fullington’s heroine, a Hollywood starlet, also makes it out alive and takes charge of her destiny. Her rival has a change of heart. This paves the way to a happy ending, celebrated, in true movie musical style, with a big dance number, a Charleston.

Surprisingly, the translation from tragedy to comedy, and from exotic fantasyland to the world of musical theater, wasn’t such a stretch, they said. “I’ve always thought that a lot of the group choreography in ‘La Bayadère’ looked like dance-hall steps,” Fullington, who has co-written a book about Petipa’s ballets, said on a video call.

The plot, which verges on melodrama, easily lent itself to comic treatment. “If you flip these extreme situations in the ballet just a little bit, they become funny,” Fullington said.

The movie “Singin’ in the Rain” pointed to a way to adapt “La Bayadère” for its new Hollywood setting: a backstage story-within-a-story. In “Star on the Rise,” Nikiya becomes Nikki, an aspiring dancer and actress. Her rival, Pamela Zatti, is a longtime star, jealous of the spotlight. Sol is the matinee idol Nikki loves and Zatti wants as her leading man. The rivalry is professional, not romantic.

Chan and Fullington turned the ballet’s suite of colorful ensemble pieces into scenes from a Western fantasy being produced by the cast of the show. Instead of fakirs (ascetics) and dancing girls with parrots affixed to their wrists, the secondary characters have become cowboys, chorus dancers, buckaroos, sheriffs and falconers.

Drawing upon Fullington’s expertise in 19th-century steps and style, the pair decided to use choreography that hewed as closely to the original as possible, as laid out in ballet notations recorded in St. Petersburg when Petipa revived “La Bayadère” in 1900. Fullington is one of just few people in the world who know how to decipher them. (The choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and the Russian stager Sergei Vikharev have both done reconstructions based on these notations.)

The question was, how would these steps, created in Imperial Russia decades before the invention of jazz, let alone movie musicals, fit in with the new setting?

“Looking at the steps in isolation, without any narrative context, I thought they seemed very transferable,” Fullington said. “They weren’t exotic in any way.”

Simple moves like chugging hops on one leg and “paddle steps,” which have an up-down feel like an oompah in music, recur throughout the ballet. “The choreography is deceptively simple,” Chan said, “and it’s used in a way that builds and builds, and passes from one group to another group.”

Fullington and Chan have combined the notated steps with Western-inspired gestures like thumbs tucked in belt loops and tipped cowboy hats. In the studio, Fullington focused on staging the steps, and Chan on clarifying the storytelling and mime. In the passages that were not notated, and for the Charleston at the end, Fullington has created new steps or used steps drawn from other Petipa ballets.

But perhaps the most important element in bridging the two worlds is the ballet’s score, as reimagined by the veteran orchestrator Larry Moore, whose work includes editing a 1989 reconstruction of Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.” Fullington sent him a piano reduction of the Minkus score and other materials, with the request that he should, as Moore said, “make the score sound more like 1930 than like 1877.”

Moore mostly kept Minkus’s melodies, while “lovingly tarting up the orchestral material,” he said, adding all manner of sounds and countermelodies. The new orchestration includes castanets, maracas, whips, a washboard, a guitar, a celesta and three saxophones. “I’ve got them playing everything but the kitchen sink, ” he said.

His sources of inspiration included the piano pieces of Scott Joplin, the song “Red River Valley” and the sophisticated Hollywood sound of Robert Russell Bennett, who orchestrated classic works like “Girl Crazy” and “Kiss Me Kate.”

To give the music a stronger dance impulse Moore played around with the rhythms, creating, at various points, a tango and a beguine, and adding percussion throughout. It was also his idea to turn the finale into a raucous Charleston. “I wanted a big happy ending, where they’re all happily dancing around,” he said.

Indiana University’s ballet program, part of the Jacobs School of Music, is one of the few that could take on such an ambitious project. The score will be performed by one of the school’s six orchestras. All of the school’s 68 dancers are involved in the show, as are faculty and 20 students from the affiliated Jacobs Academy. The scenic and costume designers (Mark Smith and Camille Deering) are also in-house.

For the student-dancers, it has been an eye-opening experience. Used to more neoclassical, abstract works, they’ve had to adapt to the filigreed classical steps and detailed storytelling and mime of “La Bayadère.” “You can’t just act with your eyes,” Maya Jackson, a sophomore performing the role of Nikki in one of the casts, said in a telephone interview, “you have to use your whole body.”

Stanley Cannon, who is playing a cowboy, is enjoying something he doesn’t often get to do in classical ballets: being part of a male ensemble. But he’s also excited about the larger picture the production represents. “The coolest thing hands down about this has been seeing the future of ballet,” he said.

Or, as Chan put it, “how do we keep these works that are such an important part of our dance heritage alive, but without the parts that no longer serve us?”

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