American Ballet Theatre
New York, Metropolitan Opera House
31 May 2016
Le Corsaire, a ballet loosely based on Lord Byron’s poem about a chivalrous pirate, has more action than the latest Bond film. There are pirates! Abductions! Beautiful women in distress! The list goes on and on: good guys, bad guys, attempted murder, betrayal, mutiny, revenge, shipwreck! For some Corsaire is an antiquated, politically incorrect Orientalist fantasy but it is also a storybook adventure tale come to life, with many great roles for dancers across the company ranks.
Opening night casting featured an earthy, virile Herman Cornejo as Conrad the pirate, and a vivacious Maria Kochetkova as Medora, the slave girl who entrances Conrad with her beauty.
Cornejo’s Conrad is all man and very much the pirate – that is to say, he is not interchangeable in choreography or temperament with a cavalier or prince. Conrad (and many of his fellow male characters) gets big, enormous, powerful, lusty, Bolshoi-style jumps. Medora as a female role has less contrast, and unlike Bayadere or the Arabian dance in Nutcracker, there are no slinking snaking moves. Medora does twittery, twinkling moves akin to the fairy dances in Beauty. Kochetkova was in fine Petipa form on Tuesday night – among other highlights, her jumps had completely silent landings – but she wasn’t the only one, several of her fellow ballerinas gave exquisite performances.
Sarah Lane as Gulnare, Medora’s friend, is a real feast for the eyes. Lane’s Gulnare is sumptuous, sensual and highly musical. While both Gulnare and Medora get bought by the Pasha (a funny, doddering Victor Barbee), Lane is convincingly distraught while Kochetkova’s protestations were more superficial. Lane uses her eyebrows well as a means of expression, giving her character an air of vulnerability and realism.
Although he, as always, got high praise for his dervish turns and mile-high jumps, Daniil Simkin – dancing the role of Lankendem, the bazaar owner – was rocky on Tuesday night, if not a bit sloppy. A releve arabesque didn’t stick, and he fudged several landings. The audience didn’t care, but Simkin is one of those ungodly talented dancers that can too easily default to autopilot and still wow a crowd, but he should remain steadfast.
Packed with jumps, turns and balances, the Odalisques pas de trois is one of Petipa’s virtuosic tests for ballerinas, and it was performed expertly Tuesday night by soloists Skylar Brandt, Luciana Paris and Christine Shevchenko. Brandt, who was promoted to soloist last fall, dances with a high level of musicality and animated warmth. Her petit allegro is buoyant and perfectly timed, and her joy in dancing is infectious.
The second act sees Conrad show Medora his mancave (the pirate grotto), and it is here that Corsaire’s most famous part, the pas de trois with Conrad, Medora and Conrad’s slave, Ali (Jeffrey Cirio), takes place. Kochetkova nearly flew off the stage in her pique turn manèges, the orchestra barely keeping up with her. Cornejo found ways to make the pas de deux romantic, nuzzling her neck, while Kochetkova was affectionate in a classical way, more Sugar Plum Fairy than impassioned Juliet, though she warmed up by the end. Ali’s solo, a hyper-virile example of male virtuosity for a male dancer, was performed with cool elegance by Cirio, who chose an understated delivery of the exceptional leaps and turns – a beautiful thing to see.
Corsaire is without a doubt, ridiculous. After Conrad agrees to free the slave girls in the second act, his bandit buddy Birbanto (danced fantastically by a convincing Craig Salstein), declares mutiny, which is quashed by Conrad. But, Birbanto returns, drugs Conrad via a poisoned perfumed rose, and tries to whisk Medora away – she stabs him but is captured by Lankendem who takes Medora back to the Pasha’s palace. At the Pasha’s palace, Conrad saves Medora and Gulnare, but shoots Birbanto after it is revealed that he was a traitor. They escape, only to be shipwrecked (Conrad and Medora are the only survivors). In an otherwise action packed ballet, there are lulls, like the second scene of the third act which looks like an excerpt from Sleeping Beauty (the Pasha is dreaming of Medora and his harem) and the chugging, mazurka-like folk dances performed by the pirates.
ABT’s current production is not terribly sumptuous and could use an update (or perhaps a vacation). The sets and costumes look tired, and the fountain at the pasha’s palace needs more water pressure. The score, as is true with most versions of this ballet, is a wild mix, including Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo and Prince Oldenbourg. It’s easy to make fun of Corsaire but it is just as easy to forget that when Byron’s poem was published in 1814, it sold out, all 10,000 copies, in a day. It was turned into an opera by Verdi in 1848, and the first ballet version (by Mazilier) premiered in 1856 in Paris. While Petipa’s ballet didn’t launch until much later, in 1899, the story was a seminal cultural touchstone of the 19th century.
While Byronic fantasies resonate less with today’s audience, Corsaire remains a fun, fantastical ballet with robust, zesty choreography, and a guy running around rescuing women dressed like an Adam Ant-style new romantic. “Guilty pleasure” might be a term easily applied here, but I side with Dave Grohl – there are no guilty pleasures, just pleasure, and when done right, Corsaire, the pirate ballet, hits that spot.