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How to solve a problem like “Bayadère”? Send in the Cowboys.

One after another, women in white emerge from their wings, stretching out into space before gently swinging back, arms above the sky. Then they take two steps forward and start the sequence again. This rocking movement, back and forth, is repeated for several minutes, until the stage is filled with bodies hovering on spikes, as if supported by a single breath.

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

This 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 why this ballet, set to a rather banal score by Ludwig Minkus , survived when so many others did not.

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

Like many 19th century operas and ballets, “La Bayadère”, which takes place in an exoticized, ahistorical and sometimes caricatured India, does not adapt well to our times. Some have I wondered if this should be done at all. And while the show continues to be performed around the world, there has been a notable 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 was considering putting aside temporarily, while considering how to make changes to it.

What can we do with a work like “Bayadère”? For Chan and Doug Fullington, specialists in 19th-century ballet, the solution is to take it out of its exotic context and place it in a setting closer to home, the Hollywood of the 1930s. By placing ballet in a cinematic land of the Wild West and swapping Orientalist clichés for American clichés, Chan said, the team was creating “a form of exoticism that speaks about us, not them.”

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

Entitled “Star on the Rise: La Bayadère… Reinvented!” the new version transforms the “Shades” stage into a Busby Berkeley-style dance performance. The production, produced by the Indiana University Ballet Department, will premiere March 29 in Bloomington, and be broadcast live online as well as the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

At the time of the creation of “La Bayadère”, distant places were very popular in shows. Bizet’s 1863 opera “The Pearl Fishers” is set in Sri Lanka; Verdi’s 1871 opera “Aida” is set in ancient Egypt; Spain was a frequent theater of operas and ballets. In 1875, the Prince of Wales undertook a high-profile tour of India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), both British colonies at the time. Two years later, “La Bayadère” came on the scene.

In Sri Lanka, the prince had attended a dance performance, a moment illustrated in contemporary newspapers. These illustrations are probably the inspiration for the frantically rhythmic “Danse Infernale” of “La Bayadère”, a mock tribal number on 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 shameful thing, find the good parts and make it fun for everyone.” The number, now called “Bronco Busters,” is danced by cowboys who bang ankles, twirl their lassos and run with their arms behind their backs as if they are about to grab their pistols.

The story of “La Bayadère” revolves around a love triangle between Nikiya, a beautiful temple dancer, or bayadère; a not-so-brave warrior; and the haughty daughter of a rajah. Nikiya is a tragic heroine killed by a poisonous snake placed in a flower basket by her evil rival.

Chan, born in Hong Kong, is a former dancer who now strives to raise public awareness of ballet and opera. He wrote two books on orientalism in the performing arts and, with former New York City Ballet dancer Georgina Pazcoguin, founded Final Bow for Yellowfacean organization that advocates for the elimination of demeaning depictions of Asian characters.

“I don’t think the audience wants to see that, this passive, hypersexualized, weak woman who has no freedom to act,” he said of characters like Nikiya and the opera’s heroine. “Madama Butterfly.” “Snooze-fest, boring.” This is not who we are anymore.

Chan recently directed a production of “Madama Butterfly” at the 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 her destiny into her own hands. Her rival has changed her mind. This paves the way for a happy ending, celebrated, in true film musical style, with a big dance number, a Charleston.

Surprisingly, the translation from tragedy to comedy, and from the exotic fantasy world to the world of musical theater, was not that difficult, they said. “I always thought a lot of the group choreography in ‘La Bayadère’ was like dance steps,” Fullington said, who co-wrote a book on Petipa’s balletssaid during a video call.

The plot, which borders on melodrama, easily lends itself to comic treatment. “If you reverse these extreme situations in ballet a little bit, they become funny,” Fullington said.

The film “Singing in the Rain” showed a way to adapt “La Bayadère” to its new Hollywood setting: a behind-the-scenes 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 that Nikki adores and that Zatti wants as her leading man. The rivalry is professional, not romantic.

Chan and Fullington transformed the ballet’s suite of colorful ensemble pieces into scenes from a Western fantasy produced by the show’s actors. Instead of fakirs (ascetics) and dancers with parrots attached to their wrists, the supporting characters became cowboys, chorus dancers, buckaroos, sheriffs and falconers.

Drawing on Fullington’s expertise in 19th-century steps and style, the duo decided to use choreography as close to the original as possible, as shown in ballet notations recorded in St. Petersburg when Petipa revived “La Bayadère” in 1900. Fullington is one of the few people in the world who knows how to decipher them. (Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and Russian director Sergei Vikharev both created 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 into 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 movements like single-leg hops and “paddle steps,” which have an up-and-down feel like an oompah to music, recur throughout the ballet. “The choreography is deceptively simple,” Chan said, “and it’s used in a way that builds and builds, and moves from one group to another.”

Fullington and Chan combined noted steps with Western-inspired gestures, like thumbs tucked into belt loops and peaked cowboy hats. In the studio, Fullington focused on staging the steps and Chan on clarifying the narration and mime. In the unnotated passages and for the Charleston at the end, Fullington created new steps or used steps from other Petipa ballets.

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

Moore mostly kept Minkus’ melodies, while “lovingly preparing the orchestral material,” he said, adding all kinds of sounds and countermelodies. The new orchestration includes castanets, maracas, whips, a washboard, a guitar, a celesta and three saxophones. “I make them play at everything except 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 with the rhythms, creating, at different times, a tango and a beguine, and adding percussion throughout. It was also his idea to turn the finale into a noisy Charleston. “I wanted a big happy ending, where they’re all dancing happily,” he said.

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

For the student dancers, it was an eye-opening experience. Accustomed to more neoclassical and abstract works, they had to adapt to the classical filigree steps, detailed narration and mime of “La Bayadère”. “You can’t just act with your eyes,” Maya Jackson, a sophomore playing the role of Nikki in one of the casts, said in a phone interview, “you have to use your whole body.”

Stanley Cannon, who plays a cowboy, enjoys something he doesn’t often get to do in classical ballet: being part of a male ensemble. But he’s also excited about the broader vision the production represents. “The coolest thing about it was seeing the future of ballet,” he said.

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

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