When Natalia Makarova walks into the rehearsal hall in Helsinki’s Finnish National Opera House, a hush falls over the room. She’s a small figure in white pants, a flowered scarf wrapped around her head, her face alive with intelligence and a kind of wary patience. She’s at the Finnish National Ballet to supervise the staging of her La Bayadère (after Petipa). Three young women wait to show her the second of the three Shade’s variations from Bayadère’s Act II.
“Get into the spirit of the variation, even before it starts—almost heroic spirit,” she tells the blonde, eager Aino Ettala in the back corner. Ettala strikes the opening sous-sus before a grand port de bras lifts her into a front cabriole on the upbeat of a waltz, then drops her to a chassé on the vigorous downbeat. “Chassé more,” Makarova says as Ettala moves across the floor. “Stretch your leg to the side.”
All three solo variations in the “Kingdom of the Shades” provide micro-dance relief from the big, romantic pas de deux in heaven between the vision of the ghostly Nikiya and her heartbroken suitor, Solor. Each offers fiendish challenges to a dancer’s pointework, rhythm and upper-body expression—Petipa-style textbooks in miniature. Watching Makarova coach these dancers is to remember how crucially important her defection from the Soviet Union was to our knowledge of ballet history. It was Makarova who first staged this legendary Petipa ballet we’d only heard about in the U.S., setting the Shades Act at American Ballet Theatre in 1974, and expanding it to the complete, evening-length Bayadère in 1980.
Since then she has “gone around the world,” as she says, setting and re-setting this production. What’s fascinating to see is how much meaning the steps still have for her—even these three demi-soloist variations, which many dancers treat only as tests of technique. The first shade, with skittering runs and traveling arabesques, Makarova describes as “playful—if a shade can be playful,” she adds, smiling. The third and last shade is slow and grave, with lots of meditative pliés and relevés. The second shade, the one she’s coaching now, is the most brilliant and virtuosic; the one who personifies, with the help of Minkus’ emphatic waltz, the grand scale of Petipa’s Himalayan heaven. “It’s a variation with lots of courage,” says Makarova, pronouncing “courage” in the French way. “It’s about trying to balance—yes, balance. Almost to the end of the variation, balance is the main thing, and breathing, and elevation.”
The trickiest part, for the tall, elegant Terhi Räsänen, comes right after the dancer has vigorously crossed the stage in the opening cabriole-chassé sequence. She then steps backwards to turn around under herself (a little développé en tournant) into a croisé front—twice—before running back to the upstage right corner to repeat the cabriole-chassés. “You’re doing something funny on those turns,” Makarova tells Räsänen. “Where you are, on the leg, is croisé…a croisé ‘hello’ to the audience. Under, around—‘hello!’ ” Makarova tilts her own head to look from under her elbow, showing, for a moment, the elfin charm no audience can forget.
When confident Mira Ollila dances, Makarova concentrates on the grand buildup in the last part of the variation—the front attitude relevés that advance to a climax with arms in high-fifth. “Stay on hips,” she tells Ollila. “You’re coming forward, but you’re really just moving from leg to leg.”
With all three dancers, Makarova emphasizes the connections between steps—the phrases that grow into new phrases. “That continuity is what’s hardest to teach,” she says afterwards over tea in the Opera House café. “You can’t keep starting over from the beginning. Also, listening to the music. They count and forget to hear what the music says. Old-fashioned music is melody. Best express what the melody says.”
Almost any Petipa variation asks a dancer to find what Makarova calls a “continuous coordination between back and arms. And,” she says, leaning forward, “they must use the upper body. And the back! All the expression comes from the back. If dancer doesn’t use back—the dancing is dead and dry.”