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The Jacobs School of Music starts a new chapter with ‘Star on the Rise: La Bayadère... Reimagined!’

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The Jacobs School of Music Ballet Theater department will make history this weekend when its new production “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère...Reimagined!” opens at 7:30 p.m., March 29 with three different casts at the Musical Arts Center. 

Originally created in 1877, the ballet was set in India. It told the story of Nikiya and Gamzatti, two women who were in love with the warrior Solor. Its powerful choreography made it an instant classic, with Petipa’s “Dance of the Shades” becoming one of the most famous dances in all of ballet.  

However, its orientalist tropes and racist depictions of Indian people have caused it to be set aside by many ballet companies. According to the New York Times, the ballet has seen notably less performances in recent years while the American Ballet Theater even shelved it temporarily. 

Phil Chan — co-founder of “Final Bow for Yellowface,” an organization dedicated to removing Asian stereotypes from classic ballets — had the idea to adapt “La Bayadère” to remove these problematic stereotypes six years ago. In 2020 after a lecture given at the Jacobs School of Music, Chan used “La Bayadère” as an example of a problematic ballet which could be adapted to remove the stereotypes while saving the dances. Chan said Sarah Wroth, professor of music in the ballet department, approached him and expressed interest in the production. 

 “Sarah Wroth was like ‘oh, this sounds like a very interesting project, do you have a venue for this performance,’” Chan said. “We said we hadn’t yet, and she said ‘oh, we’d love to do it.” 

In Chan and his collaborator Doug Fullington’s version of the story, Nikiya becomes Nikki and Gamzetti becomes Pamela. The rivalry is no longer romantic but professional, as they have moved the setting of the ballet from 1800s India to 1930s Hollywood. He said the choice was partially inspired by films such as “Singing in the Rain,” which had a similar love triangle, but was ultimately inspired by the uniquely Hollywood dancing style already in “La Bayadère.” 

“Looking to the high melodrama of the ballet itself, we thought this is a very good time period,” Chan said. “The dances felt like very dance hall, vaudeville style dances, that looked like some of those early film dances.” 

Chan wanted to ensure the ballet had a reason to include the dances which it is so famous for. He didn’t want the audience to wonder at the sudden dance breaks. 

“Hollywood setting gives you an excuse to have dance,” he said. “There’s a reason why these dances are happening, because they’re filming a movie.” 

The New York Public Library will hold a livestream of the ballet, allowing audiences across the country to watch the performance. Pieces of the performance will also be used in a documentary. 

With all the publicity, the dancers in the ballet quickly realized how important the new production was. IU junior Indiana Coté, who plays Pamela in one cast, spoke of the recent New York Times article, and stressed how important the production was for Bloomington. 

“I don't know if everybody knows how big of a deal this is in the arts world,” Coté said. “People should come see (La Bayadère) because they’re really proud of their school and proud of the arts in our community.” 

In addition to racial issues, the original story — like many ballets at the time — featured extremely flat female characters, with the two women fighting over and eventually killing for a man in the original production. In the original ballet, Nikiya dies at the end, poisoned by a snake Gamzetti sent to her. In Chan’s story, Nikki and Pamela learn to value each other and their female community which Coté saw as a positive change, making her character more feminist in the new production.  

 “I think she goes from being somebody who doesn't really care for the people around her to actually realizing that she does care a lot and wants to protect them,” Coté said of her character Pamela. “I think that is really special.” 

IU senior Aram Hengen plays Sol, the young man at the center of Nikki and Pamela’s strife. He also saw the importance of this production of “La Bayadère.” 

“From the very beginning I knew how we would have an impact on the world as a whole,” Hengen said. “What really caused interest was when they told us that it would be the same ballet but in a different storyline, a different era of time as well.” 

Hengen said he loved his character’s relationship with Nikki and said he felt comfortable as a dancer to have a partner in every scene with him. 

“I think the camaraderie there is so strong and so important that it really makes it easy to perform,” Hengen said. “If you have that person that you can really rely on the entire time.” 

“Star on the Rise: La Bayadère... Reimagined!” will run 7:30 p.m., March 29 and at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. March 30 in the Musical Arts Center. More information about the production and tickets can be found on the Jacobs School of Music website or by calling the box office at 812-650-0803. Student tickets are $10. 

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