English National Ballet
13 January 2016
Gallery of pictures (Laurretta Summerscales / Brooklyn Mack cast) by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Three dance spectacles early in January have varied from depicting powerful, death-dealing women (Queen Elizabeth I in Will Tuckett’s Elizabeth, Amba in Akram Khan’s Until the Lions) to showcasing silly slave girls and complaisant concubines in English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire. It’s an oddity of ENB’s repertoire of 19th century ballets that this production of Le Corsaire should have been commissioned in 2010 by Tamara Rojo, feminist supporter of female choreographers.
But Rojo wanted an entertaining ballet that no other British company performs, in order to display ENB’s classically-trained dancers – especially the men. After impersonating toys and confectioneries in The Nutcracker over Christmas, they get to be pirates, villains and swashbuckling heroes in Anna-Marie Holmes’s production of Le Corsaire. Hers is a condensed version of the 1856 scenario, inspired by Byron’s narrative poem with a similar title. The Bolshoi Ballet brings its three and a half-hour-long reconstruction of the more-or-less original, by Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka, back to the Royal Opera House this summer for ballet-loving audiences with stamina.
Holmes has transplanted some of the choicest variations attributed to Petipa in Act II into Act I in order to liven up the choreography. The setting is an Oriental bazaar back in the past, where, along with carpet-sellers, a slave-trader is auctioning his wares to the highest bidder, a rich old Pasha. Prettily-distressed sex-slaves are roped off in the background, while three odalisques (would-be concubines) take turns to offer their talents for the Pasha’s harem. Ksenia Ovsyannick, Alison McWhinney and Shiori Kase dance their demanding variations with pleasure and precision but are overlooked by the picky Pasha (Michael Coleman in choice ham mode) in favour of two veiled lovelies: Laurretta Summerscales as Gulnare and Tamara Rojo as the heroine, Medora.
Rojo has to top Summerscales’s pas de deux with Brooklyn Mack as the slave-trader, Lankendem; Mack, an American guest artist, is a glorious scene-stealer. Rojo does so through seductive phrasing of her captivating variation, dark eyes gleaming. Medora’s beloved is the corsair of the title, Conrad – Osiel Gouneo, a guest artist from Cuba with a panther-smooth jump. Conrad runs off to his pirates’ lair with Medora and a bevy of bare-midriffed beauties for his fellow corsairs.
Before the pirates, led by Yonah Acosta as Birbanto, can get their hands on the girls in Act II, Conrad requires Medora to dance with the slave, Ali – Cesar Corrales, still a junior soloist, making his mark as a virtuoso performer. The famous pas de deux, to music by Minkus and others, is in fact a pas de trois, with Conrad claiming back his love at the end. He and Medora dance a passionate pas de deux with Soviet-style lifts, attributed to Konstantin Sergeyev. They retire to bed as the pirates mutiny, deprived of their newly freed sex-slaves. Rojo is regal as Conrad’s consort, her balances and pirouettes securely accomplished. She’s no flighty minx.
The two villains, Acosta and Mack enjoy themselves, flashing teeth, thighs and weapons in the company of their fellow men, before the female corps takes over in Act III, in the Pasha’s palace. The opium-smoking Pasha has a vision of tiers of tutus, glamorous ballerinas and turbanned youngsters with garlands performing as an animated garden of flowers. Compared with the Bolshoi and Mariinsky productions, ENB’s jardin is scantily planted, lavish though the set and costumes by Bob Ringwood prove to be. They are designed for touring within the United Kingdom and abroad, taking ENB’s name and reputation to international theatres, including the Paris Opera Palais Garnier later this year.
Audiences everywhere should be impressed by the consistently high standard of the company’s dancing. ENB is proof that artists from many different countries, backgrounds and training can be formed into a cohesive ensemble. This Corsaire is not to be taken seriously, except as a lightweight vehicle for well-schooled dancing, demure or daringly flamboyant. ENB’s many cast changes during the season (though Alina Cojocaru is still injured) should ensure plenty of pleasure in Rojo’s roster of ambitious performers.