La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer recounts the story of a humble girl who falls for a celebrity hero, but he's betrothed to a Rajah's daughter—you can guess the rest. What distinguishes Maurius Pepita's rarely-performed ballet from its 19th-century brethren is not only its exotic South Asian setting, but its heroine's untimely death arriving at the hand—or teeth, rather—of a deadly poisonous Krait snake. Houston Ballet director Stanton Welch was quick to see the opportunities for spectacle in this unusual weapon, introducing into the cast of his 2010 production an actual (non-venomous) serpent, its wrangler serving as an extra in the ensemble, appropriately called the "Snake Charmer." Similar guest artists will make a cameo appearance when Welch oversees the Joffrey Ballet's Chicago premiere of the romantic tale, opening at the Auditorium Theatre on October 16. In recent seasons, Chicago theatergoers have witnessed puppet snakes in The Iron Stag King and singing snakes in The Jungle Book, but not since 1993 have live snakes been employed for theatrical purposes. Not only are these creatures limited in their willingness to take instruction, but the mere sight of their scaly bodies have been known to send audience members retreating up the aisles. Two weeks before curtain time, as playbill editors debate whether animals are to be listed as actors or as props, auditions for this crucial role are under way. The contenders range in length from three to five feet, and in color, from browns and yellows to vivid green. Only lightweight applicants are being considered, since Welch's choreography requires the murder victim to transport her own slayer from the wings to center stage. Among the candidates submitted by Dave DiNaso, owner of the Traveling World of Reptiles exhibit, are an Australian Jungle Carpet Python, an African Royal Python, a Brazilian Rainbow Boa, a South American Tree Boa, a Madagascar Durmeril's Boa and an American Rat Snake. "We won't know until they make their decision later this week," ventures DiNaso, who will alternate with his assistant, Jeremy Taulbee, in the show, "but personally, I think the director is leaning toward the Jungle Carpet Python—his name is Stretch, by the way." So what is the extent of the pas de deux between Victoria Jaiani, who portrays the doomed Nikiya, and her slithery partner? "The snake is a component in a scheme by the jealous Gamzatti [played by April Daly] to kill her rival." explains the Joffrey's Artistic Director, Ashley Wheater, "In an earlier scene, we watch as Gamzatti and her conspirators select a Krait snake from among the snake charmer's collection, and conceal it in a basket of flowers. Nikiya then dances with the basket in the wedding scene, at the end of which, she embraces the flowers and is bitten. Shocked, she throws the snake aside and while everyone gasps in horror, another dancer retrieves it before it crawls away into some dark corner of the theater." This dramatic plot twist concludes the first act, after which the reptile, having discharged his villainous duties, is carried backstage to its herpetorium. "As long as their enclosures maintain the correct temperature and humidity, they are comfortable. They have very slow metabolisms and only eat about twice a month." insists DiNaso, "All our snakes have been hand-raised by me and my employees. They are incapable of inflicting serious injury on anyone handling them." This should prove reassuring to those performing at close quarters with their cold-blooded stunt-fauna. "We expect the performance to be quite compelling once the dancers become accustomed to working with the snake." declares Wheater, adding wryly, "That may take a little coaching." La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer runs at the Auditorium Theater from October 16-27.
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