The Australian Ballet soloist Natasha Kusen is on her lunch break. “We just had our first costume run for Act One,” she says. She is in the middle of rehearsing Australia’s first rendition of La Bayadère. It’s quite the curious performance – a grand, classical ballet with the technical prowess of Swan Lake, set in India (or, at least, 19th-century Russia’s romanticised assumption of the “exotic east”). “We’re so used to the boning of a tutu, it’s kind of nice to be wearing pants, actually,” she says, “harem pants are so comfy!” Bollywood bling is on and midriffs are out (the boys, I’m told, will be even more scantily clad), but having just finished the next-to-naked Chroma, Natasha is far from fazed.
“That’s one thing that’s really great about this company, we do a diverse range of pieces.” And this one’s a doozy. The entangled, death-riddled plot resembles that of a daytime soap. La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer or The Temple Maiden) is about the passionate love of warrior Solor and dancer Nikiya. Problem is, the High Brahmin also has his eye on Nikiya, while the Rajah wants Solor to marry his daughter, Gamzatti. Cue the drama, betrayal, revenge and poisonous snake – which due to Australian animal laws (and much to Natasha’s disappointment) will appear as a puppet. “Unfortunately we don’t get to use live snakes for the show,” she laughs, but promises it’s a “pretty cool” puppet.
This isn’t her first experience of ballet’s Bollywood-inspired blood bath – she danced it as a student at London’s Royal Ballet. This time she is tackling four roles, not the least of which sees her in the infamously gruelling (opium-induced dream sequence) Kingdom of Shades routine. “All up there’s 38 synchronised arabesques we have to get together,” she says of the 24-dancer line-up. “It’s tough for the ladies, that’s for sure.” But they’re in good hands. It is choreographer Stanton Welch who has devised this incarnation of the classic, originally performed in 1877.
They’re also in good company, with Stuttgart Ballet's Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo just arriving from Germany, and American Ballet Theatre’s prima ballerina Gillian Murphy joining the Sydney season. “It will be interesting to see what they do with the roles. Everyone has a different interpretation.” And, Natasha assures us, they’ll be given a proper Aussie welcome. “We always take them out for a few drinks after the show… or before,” she says, catching herself, “not before the show! Before the production starts.” It’s a comfort to hear that even dancers enjoy a tipple when not on their toes.
La Bayadère will show at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre from August 28 to September 6.