This story originally appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of Pointe.
Nikiya's epic “death" solo at the end of La Bayadère's second act is more than a test of stamina: It's integral to the ballet's plot. In it, Nikiya laments her doomed relationship with Prince Solor, rejoices upon receiving a basket of flowers she believes to be from him and collapses after being bitten by a snake hidden in the basket. “There's a lot of storytelling in the steps," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson, who danced the role this spring. Here are her tips for navigating the variation's technical and emotional complexities.
1. Let the Character Drive the Choreography
One of the most difficult aspects of the variation is making the spare choreography fill the music. If you're having trouble slowing down, focus on what Nikiya is feeling as much as what she's doing. “Her love has betrayed her—and she's mourning," Erickson says. “When you grieve, it's like you're suspended in time, and that's exactly how the variation should feel."
2. Stay Grounded
Maintaining your balance through the solo's prolonged sous-sus, penchées and backbends can also prove challenging. “Feel a constant connection to the floor," Erickson advises. “In sous-sus, for example, I think about rooting my legs in the ground, while simultaneously growing taller in my upper body." Once you're given the basket of flowers, let the prop work for you. “When you penchée, you naturally want to hold on to something—and the basket is something to hold on to!" Erickson says. “Its steadying influence may be all in your head, but it helps."
3. Relish Small Details
Because the solo is so slow, it leaves room to play with the port de bras. Erickson likes to incorporate Nikiya's “sacred, palms-to-the-heavens" gesture from the first act's choreography. “In the context of this variation, it becomes especially powerful—like you're asking, 'Why, God, why?' " She also repeatedly reaches the palm of her flexed hand toward Solor. “It's a very exposed, very human movement," she says. “It reads as pleading."
4. Don't Oversell It
It's easy to get swept up in the variation's swoony theatrics. But a little restraint makes Nikiya's suffering even more acute. “Don't give too much face," Erickson says. “The port de bras is doing enough to speak for the emotion." So, she adds, is the “beautifully sad" score. “I almost cry just listening to it! Subtler interpretations give the audience a chance to hear the music as well as see it."
5. Avoid Fake Snake Syndrome
Making Nikiya's death by snakebite look believable can be tricky. “I definitely got called out on that in rehearsal," Erickson says, laughing. “My fix is to bring the basket of flowers very close to my face, enveloping it, right before the bite is supposed to happen. That way, there's no visible hand-going-into-the-basket moment." It's a character-driven solution to a logistical problem. “I'm inhaling the flowers' scent, having a moment as I remember Solor's love," Erickson says. “And then the snakebite shocks me out of it."