The partnership between American Ballet Theatre superstars Diana Vishneva and Ethan Stiefel, originally scheduled to begin two years ago, was one of those pairings that sounded provocative in theory, but ran the risk of a disappointing reality. After being delayed for two years, due to Mr. Stiefel's injuries, it might easily not have come off had the two dancers not been working in what seemed, on the evidence of Saturday night's "La Bayadère," like total unanimity. Mr. Stiefel's partnering is now much sturdier than when he joined ABT almost a decade ago, and Ms. Vishneva has rarely had a partner as able as Mr. Stiefel to hold his own against her strength.
The pair managed to steer clear of what I call "superstar schlock." As temple dancer Nikiya and her warrior lover Solor, Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Stiefel avoided indiscriminately launching every arrow in their interpretative quiver in a defensive attempt to prove their champion status. They offered quantities of virtuoso technique, but didn't knock every step out of the ballpark. In this, their second of two "Bayadère" performances this season, Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Stiefel each took a few moments to find their feet, but they were absolutely clear, sure-footed, and deeply embedded in their roles from early in the first act.
This is Ms. Vishneva's first time performing ABT's "Bayadere," but it is a ballet she has danced many times with the Kirov Ballet, as well as other companies. On Saturday night she managed to synthesize her extensive experience in the role without wearing it on her sleeve: In her lamenting Pas d'Action monologue, it was instructive to see the way Ms. Vishneva followed an arabesque penché of pain with one of longing after being presented with a bouquet she assumes is from Solor. Ms. Vishneva's nervous intensity once again suggested a bird's tremulousness, but this time, in her performance as Nikiya, she was a bird that could both beat its wings piteously but also fatally rend with its claws.
Mr. Stiefel was a more sympathetic Solor than we usually see; when he left the betrothal after Nikiya's poisoning, he accepted Gamzatti's lead but was nevertheless a visibly broken man. Mr. Stiefel is now comfortable in his own skin within the repertory of 19th-century classical ballet. For Mr. Stiefel, the interpretative mix includes equating an all-American brashness to the swagger of the Indian warrior. Most of his characterization as Solor, however, becomes an invocation of romantic rapture and agony.
Another product of the Kirov, Veronika Part, gave her debut performance as ABT's Nikiya last week. She had danced the role at the Kirov only a handful of times many years ago. Ms. Part is a great adagio technician, perhaps the greatest in Kirov lineage since Natalia Makarova and Alla Osipenko 40 years ago. During her lamenting variation in the Pas d'Action, she stood on pointe in fifth position, then slowly sunk into an arabesque penché in plié. We saw a marvel of scale, ease, and refulgence. No one onstage today better demonstrates the Russian ideal of movement originating from the back, radiating to the extremities and beyond. Ms. Part understands that she is part of an epic ballet spectacle, and her outpouring of emotion is as lush and grand as her physical production.
Ms. Part's Solor was Marcelo Gomes, her customary partner at ABT, and a selfless one who enables her to express herself without constriction. If he were slightly taller, theirs would be an infallible union. As it is, their Shades scene at the first performance wasn't totally in place, but at the second performance the scene meshed more completely. Mr. Gomes clearly relished the opportunities Solor presents for florid declamation and plunges into the emotional abyss, and he danced with impetuous power and distinction.
Ms. Part's rival, the princess Gamzatti, was Michele Wiles, while Ms. Vishneva locked horns with Stella Abrera.
Ms. Abrera's classical technique is not quite up to the virtuoso demands of Gamzatti; she simplified her coda solo in the Act 1 Pas d'Action, but she held her own in a taxing role opposite two of today's highest-powered performers. Ms. Wiles's Gamzatti at the Wednesday matinee was a high point of her career. She, Ms. Part, and Mr. Gomes were distinguished and imaginative collaborators. When Ms. Part confronted Ms. Wiles and Mr. Gomes with what she assumed was their collusion in her snake poisoning, the three dancers showed us ballet acting at its best. In her second performance Friday night, Ms. Wiles was less sure and less disciplined, but in both performances she seems to have surmounted some of the kinks that have impaired her classical technique in recent years.