Ballet audiences these days adore virtuosic tricks; dazzling jumps and dizzying pirouettes are necessary and sufficient conditions for ovation. That makes Le Corsaire the ideal crowd-pleaser for our era. With its seafoam-light plot and bravura-heavy choreography, it taxes little and entertains a whole lot.
On Saturday, Nov. 19, at Segerstrom Hall, Southern California audiences experienced our era’s ultimate executor of Le Corsaire’s balletic thrills, Ivan Vasiliev, whose apparently boundless jumping power and nuclear turning momentum met and exceeded the audience’s wildest expectations.
Presented by the Mikhailovsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia, on a one-stop American tour, this Corsaire was staged by ballet master in chief Mikhail Messerer, based on Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1970 version, which was after Petipa’s 1858 edition. Perrot, Gusev, Mazilier and François-Ferdinand Decombe also took their turns choreographing Lord Byron’s narrative poem, and along the way, Adolphe Adam’s original score became a jukebox of additions by Delibes, Drigo, Minkus, Oldenburgsky, Pugni, Simon and Trubetskoy (may as well put them in alphabetical order).
Byron’s poem describes the pirate Conrad, who leaves his loving wife Medora behind to retrieve loot from a thieving sultan. He encounters the sex slave Gulnare but turns out to be too callow to rescue her; after she kills the sultan and frees them, a broken Conrad returns home to find his wife dead of grief, having lost hope of his return.
Alas, poor Byron, the character names and the notion of piracy are all that remain of his tragic tale. In the ballet, boon pirate Conrad (Vasiliev) and harem girl Medora (Ekaterina Borchenko) are in love. He and his crew kidnap her from the slave trader Lankedem (Roman Petukhov), before he can sell her to the cartoonish, booty-wiggling non-villain Seyd-Pasha (Alexey Malakhov). Cutlasses clash, swashes buckle and Medora is re-kidnapped before the gang sneaks into the pasha’s realm to rescue her and her fellow sex slave Gulnare (Anastasia Soboleva).
The veil-thin plot offers all the scaffolding needed for nearly three hours of virtuosic dancing and entertainment, and who can’t use more of that these days? What’s troubling the supernumerary female characters, dressed in burqas and begging for their freedom from sexual enslavement. It’s all too real in our current history and hangs a dark cloud over this otherwise sunny ballet; to enjoy Le Corsaire is to compartmentalize that unfortunate portrayal, which is a candidate for compassionate revision rather than revival.
The principal performances offered spectacular distraction for world-weary viewers. The Rocket Ship Vasiliev blasted off in Act I and didn’t land for nearly three hours, dashing off full diagonales of double tours de basque, loop-de-loops of rivoltades, jetés that paused in midair. The former Bolshoi Ballet star even managed a jump within one of his corkscrew turn sequences. He is a magnificent ham who barrels right through the fourth wall, and the audience couldn’t get too much.
Borchenko was an elegant counterbalance as Medora; it was easy to fall in love with her silky port de bras and luxuriant musicality. Borchenko’s filigree footwork, extended balances and intricate pirouette combinations showcased refinement and control – fireworks of a different sort.
Soboleva made an effervescent Gulnare, teasing the pathetic pasha with crisp allegro and flirtatious attitudes derrière. She and Borchenko were visions in Act III’s peppermint-pink pas de fleurs, surrounded by a corps of 28 rosy ballerinas. The adagios, allegros and pizzicato variations of this dreamy divertissement, inserted in the 1867 revival, is a welcome escape from firecracker antics and a beautiful immersion in ballet’s subtler, and equally virtuosic, realm.
The soloist performances were less assured. As the Odalisques, Svetlana Bednenko, Andrea Laššáková and Deborah Davis (an American who trained at the Vaganova Academy) had lush phrasing but inconsistent execution. Julian MacKay, who became the first American male to earn a full diploma from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy when he graduated in 2015, shows great promise in confident jumps and double tours; with seasoning he will gain the mastery to fully express the character’s sensuality and dispatch its scene-stealing technical feats. His partner Valeria Zapasnikova shone in the solo variation with clean footwork and a pliant upper body.
Video projections replaced physical sets; the cost savings probably made this tour significantly more financially viable, but Le Corsaire loses a lot without a sinking ship, a three-dimensional grotto and trunks overflowing with ill-gotten gems, chalices and doubloons. It doesn’t help that the digital sun appears to move across the horizon, rather than sinking below it.
The happy trade-off was the accompaniment of the Mikhailovsky Orchestra, led by conductor Pavel Klinichev. It is a luxury to have a full orchestra, and the musicians’ lively playing, in particular Anastasia Lisitsyna on the harp, elevated the production.