American Ballet Theatre – Le Corsaire – New York

Natalia Osipova in Le Corsaire.© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)
Natalia Osipova in Le Corsaire.
© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)

American Ballet Theatre
Le Corsaire

New York, Metropolitan Opera House
8 June 2013

To see what this new production of American Ballet Theatre’s venerable Le Corsaire is all about, you need look no further than the pirates’ feet, which are now shod in elegant brown soft-soled ballet boots, instead of the former heeled character shoes. So now the pirates all can point their like proper ballet dancers, rather than scurvy Mediterranean sea dogs, as they spend much of the first act pulling invisible ropes, merrily crossing cutlasses, and spinning about their lusty pirate wenches, (who, thankfully, have been allowed to keep their own heels). This makes for an elegant line and a classier crew of cutthroats, but also a wimpier one. ABT’s men hurl themselves into the yo-heave-hoeing with as much gusto as ever, but, now, they address the floor with the grace of courtiers. Every step’s bereft of the percussive accent, however tiny, of hard heel striking stage (even if you don’t hear them there’s also a visual snap), and it’s up to the women to keep the character in these character dances.

This, in a nutshell, is Corsaire’s new look. Gone are Irina Tibilova’s ramshackle, busy and slightly silly costumes and sets that ABT’s used since the premiere of this production in 1998. Everything is simpler, cleaner and classier. Christian Prego’s sets are safely unremarkable; the few painted ships on painted oceans are not at all cartoonish. Neither is the pirate ship itself, which no longer looks like a giant Lego toy, and the cheesy dummy pirate who falls from a yardarm in the storm scene has been deep sixed. Now, we have a handsome, and much more realistically painted, vessel bearing down on us head-on. Unlike its teetering predecessor, this ship is a sturdy fixture, providing a roomy platform on which the pirates can haul on make-believe lines or, with measured yet expansive gestures of their arms, invite a crew mate to regard with wonder at the imaginary vistas of their make-believe ocean (or perhaps they’re pondering the wisdom of setting sail for the land-locked city of Adrianople). At the ballet’s concluding storm, masts and yards collapse with a familiar lack of urgency, and the ship still “sinks” behind a rising scrim painted with waves.

Similarly, Anibel Lapiz’ costumes are cleaner, tidier yet more sumptuous, with cloth-of-gold (and copper, and silver) laid on so freely it seems hardly likely that Conrad and his merry men couldn’t purchase their own harem by pawning a vest or sash. Colors, except for the pirates’ scarlet capes, are muted, mature, respectable, and everything looks more expensive and upscale. Its as if the ballet was a restaurant redesigned to attract a classier clientele, and doubtless it will (or at least one accustomed to paying more).

The problem is, ABT’s Corsaire (staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, after Konstantin Sergeyev’s own “after Petipa” staging) is ramshackle, busy, and slightly, no, very silly (and if you can find an actual step demonstrably by Petipa in this mishegas, I’ll eat the shoe of the foot that performs it). I liked the former cheesy shipwreck (almost as much as I adore the even-cheesier collapsing temple in ABT’s Bayadere), and I liked that the stage looked like pages from a hyperactive child’s coloring book. The plot is even more ridiculous than most ballets (“after” Byron), and, aside from Delibes’ contribution, the music escaped from an elevator to Hell. Let’s face it, the ballet as it’s staged now is mostly an excuse for Kevin McKenzie to show the bravura men he collects like stamps, and, if you’re going to dance a ballet like it’s a three-ring circus, then I want it to look like a three-ring circus.

So, Lankendem, the slave-dealer, is no longer in red pajamas, but I couldn’t tell you what color he wears now — it’s an assemblage of tasteful, forgettable tones, and in the pas d’esclave, Gulnare’s face is shrouded by a handkerchief-sized veil so tiny, you wonder why they bothered. There’s still the requisite titilation in the abundance of bare-midriffed ballerinas and slave-girls, and silver-lamé chastity belts still adorn the pants of the pasha’s harem. In a break with what I thought was a Corsaire tradition, Medora’s second-act tutu is no longer purple, but a sort of mottled aqua, with an odd lack of ornamentation to make it look as if it’s been carved from a block of coral. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t say “Medora.” Purple isn’t lost, however, it’s undergone a sea change and has found itself on Ali’s own pants, and handsomely so. In the Jardin Animé, Medora reappears in a sort-of-peachy, sort-of-saffron, pastel tutu, which would be fine if it weren’t of almost the same tone and hue as those of that scene’s corps girls. Given Lapiz’ fondness for mottled tones which soften garments’ edges, it’s as if she’d deliberately dressed the scene so that Medora would be perfectly camouflaged against her cohorts. Once, Osipova (did I mention it was Osipova I saw?) blended so well into the line of corps girls along which she was doing a diagonal that she was halfway into it before I realized she was there at all (and she’s hardly a retiring sort).

Enough about the costumes, because, really, who cares? You go to this Corsaire for flashy bravura dancing, and, of this, there was plenty. Ivan Vasiliev was Conrad, the lead pirate, Daniil Simkin his slave, Ali, Craig Salstein was Birbanto, the mutinous second-in-command, and Herman Cornejo, Lankendem. Four bravura men, and I’d rather have seen the lead danced by any of them but Vasiliev. Although he was an amiable, devil-may-care Conrad, the more I see of his tricks, the less interesting they become. I look at his lumpy physique and marvel that anyone would deliberately be given training that would result in such ugly, nonexistent line. I’ve heard old-school Bolshoi men described as having pork-chop thighs, and Vasiliev’s all that and a side of mashed potatoes. I think the biggest mystery in the ballet world is determining just when he straightens his knee in a jump, or if he does so at all (or, for that matter, in his arabesque, which is really depressing). He’s fond of sky-high jumps with his legs in a split to each side, but, however great his elevation and long his air-time, they always look rushed, punchy and sloppy. Ballet’s about shapes, and there’s no moment of clarity at the apex of his jump when you see his legs stretch and describe in the air the form of, in this case, a Russian split. It’s as if he’s doing calligraphy with a magic marker clutched in his fist. You can’t see him cleanly hold a pose in mid-air because he can’t cleanly strike one (or if he does, who can tell?), and without that instant of aerial serenity, there can be no ballon, only trajectory: he’s a bullet, not a feather.

Scene from <I>Le Corsaire</I>.<br />© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)
Scene from Le Corsaire.
© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)

And, without any real line (and he has his teachers to thank for that), his human-cannonball act gets old. I love bravura dancing, and even sloppiness in service of a greater good, but with Vasiliev it’s all punchy gyrations, and of questionable utility. When he danced Conrad’s big solo, circling the stage with a manage that features three big jumps with his legs striking the aforementioned sideways split, he interpolated a quick little turn in the air of some sort before smacking his legs wide into the split. I’m sure it was impressively difficult, but the effect was only to muddy up what should be an elegant, soaring solo.

Of course, it is possible to have bravura with style, and I found myself muttering “Peter Schaufuss could’ve eaten your lunch, buddy,” while also noting three such men filling out the ballet’s “supporting” roles. As Lankendem, Herman Cornejo had little dancing beyond the first act, but showed his usual beautiful style, seasoning his solo in the Pas d’Esclave with the odd bit of bravura (the Ever-Slower Pirouette, assorted batterie) to remind us he’s got game, and beautifully pointed feet. His line, easy ballon and soft, cat-like landings were a marked contrast to Vasiliev’s visual cacophony. In the Pas d’Esclave, Cornejo would show off his partnering skill, lofting Isabella Boylston high above his chest with two hands, then showily removing one and finishing the lift single-handed.

I’ve often thought of Daniil Simkin as a trickster, albeit a kinder, gentler one than Vasiliev, and indeed, his rendition of Ali in the big second-act pas with Osipova and Vasiliev was crammed with his usual rococo flourishes, but polished to a classical purity. I’m in awe of a combination he throws in at the beginning of the pas’s coda, in which it looks for all the world like he’s interpolating barrel turns and 540s into an progression of non-stop downstage turning in the air and on stage: off-kilter gyring which doesn’t stop until his final turn to the knee, a skinny white tornado in purple PJs. Simkin also tossed in an Ever-Slowing Pirouette combination, finishing smoothly in a tight relevé in fifth, to the audience’s adoring roar. As with Cornejo, the clean, classical line of Simkin’s airborne bravura was a relief after Vasiliev.

If Craig Salstein classical style isn’t quite as pure as Cornejo’s or Simkin’s, it’s not far behind, and in Birbanto’s new boots, he could point his feet with the best of them. I miss the contrast Birbanto’s character shoes made with the other leads; now he’s distinguished more by the character of his soul than his, um, soles. I always enjoy Salstein’s happy facility. He makes everything look easy, and plays the audience wonderfully, as he did at the start of the second-act pirate dance (and who’d ever want to follow up the Corsaire pas?), when the second of his two pistols proved to be a dud. He played it off with a philosophical shrug of his shoulders and raising of eyebrows, as if to say, “that’s show business!”

As Medora, Osipova was, well, Osipova. Showing not a trace of the slight strain I’d noticed in her Kitri a couple of weeks previously, her winged heels sent her circling the stage in prodigious jetés, following Vasiliev in in the big 6/8 melody that marks Medora’s initial, and short-lived, flight from slavery. While Osipova’s as pretty as ever, and manifests a certain confectionary charm, for wall of her face’s planar interest — soulful eyebrows, flirtatious lashes, monumental cheekbones — her characterization’s still Generic Russian Ballerina. As an actress, she’s emphatically adequate in her sweetness, and still tinged with emoting as replayed by rote, which also colors her dancing, however brilliant she may be technically. In the big second-act pas she embellished her solo’s downstage turns into a dazzling manege with changes in her standing and working foot, and positions — inside, outside, in second, and more — almost too quick for the eye to follow.

In that act’s old-school Soviet “bedroom” pas de deux, after she’s traded her tutu for a nightie, she and Vasiliev pulled out the stops and played up every chance they had to show off, as she threw herself into his arms from seemingly impossible distances, and he held her, feet first, towards the heavens in a long-held and fetching inverted fish pose. But it was only in her lilting solo in the Jardin Animé that Osipova looked to have stopped performing and started dancing. Perhaps it was the Delibes talking, but I was happy to see that she can indeed be musical when not not working in service of bringing down the house. (David Lamarche and the orchestra were no better or worse than necessary.)

As Medora’s friend, Gulnare, Boylston’s strong, no-nonsense style played well against Osipova’s showmanship, and, and her Pas d’Esclave with Cornejo was, for me, a highlight of the evening. As Seyd, the happily lecherous Pasha, Victor Barbee was no more hammy than usual, and of the Odalisques, Skylar Brandt’s  clean execution was in welcome contrast to Zhong-Jing Fang’s occasionally overheated emoting (she seems to have changed little over the past decade), and Yuriko Kajiya’s ever-so-carefully connecting the dots of her solo (and if you can’t do more than repeat double pirouettes, however cleanly, in that last solo’s showy diagonal, posing in arabesque between them isn’t going to take anyone’s mind off the turns you’re not doing, at least not anyone who remembers how Gillian Murphy would regularly hit triples and quadruples in the same solo).

At the ballet’s end, I could’ve wondered at how the production seems to leave Medora and Conrad wading in the surf, instead of on safely dry land, but as I headed out I considered that, however dressed, ABT’s Corsaire is a good show for the money, and those who like that sort of thing will still find it the sort of thing they like.

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