Nobody should go to see English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire expecting a coherent plot or well-rounded characters, but you will get fast paced, dazzling dancing performed with swagger and panache against colourful and opulent designs. The company have been performing Anne Marie Holmes’ version of this much adapted 19th century work for five years now and have really sunk their teeth into it with relish. Their commitment was repaid with a warm and enthusiastic reception.
The title is drawn from Byron’s epic poem, but the plot has diverged wildly, though the eastern Mediterranean setting remains. Our hero, Conrad, leader of a band of pirates, is in love with Medora, unfortunately in the possession of the slave trader Lankendem, but he steals her away. After various adventures included treachery, more kidnapping and drugged flowers (yes, really), Conrad rescues Medora again, this time from the Pasha’s harem. It would be easy to take issue with the sheer silliness of it all, and its nineteenth century insouciance concerning slavery and the trafficking of women. But you can also be dazzled and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
The production was designed by Bob Ringwood who gives us gloriously colourful and glittering costumes coupled to similar settings ranging from a lively bazaar, the pirates’ cave stuffed with chests of jewels, and an elegantly appointed royal palace. And a shipwreck too. It really is a feast for the eyes.
Unusually, it’s the men here who have a range of flamboyant and demanding roles. Conrad was Francesco Gabriele Frola, demonstrating his authority as a leader of men in the great height and power of his jumps. As his henchman, Birbanto, Erik Woolhouse announces himself in the first scene in a blistering series of corkscrewing turns, perhaps an indication of his twisted tricksy nature. Guest Brooklyn Mack is the slave trader Lakendem, pulling off the feat of wearing pink satin trousers and still looking macho. Mack showed off his women to Michael Coleman’s sweet old giggly Pasha: this culminated in a pas de deux with Medora’s friend Gulnare, where Mack partnered the refined and elegant Shiori Kase as if she were a precious object.
In the second act, in the pirate cave, it is the turn of the heroine Medora (Erina Takahashi) to shine. Takahashi has been with the company for over twenty years, and has a calm authority, always in control. The big set piece in this act is the pas de trois for her, Conrad, and Conrad’s faithful servant Ali. It’s a gala favourite, full of fireworks, and these were certainly delivered here. Jeffrey Cirio soared and spun as Ali, stylish and unforced. Frola was a strong partner, lifting Takahashi high without effort. The audience roared approval.
The women of the corps had their big moment in the jardin animé scene in act 3, where the dozy Pasha dreams of his women as a collection of exotic flowers. The women are in pale pastel tinted tutus, wielding huge garlands as Kase and Takahashi thread delicate solos through their midst. It’s another visually ravishing moment. Michael Coleman makes the Pasha a loveable bumbling old fool who gazes at women with the innocent glee of a kid in a sweetshop and who earns plenty of laughs. The company as a whole look strong, and individuals take the opportunity to flesh out what details they can. Shevelle Dynott fusses and preens as the Pasha’s assistant. Erik Woolhouse’s Birbanto clearly has quite a thing for Gulnare in the opening scene – maybe he’s miffed that his boss got the girl, but he didn’t.
Anne Marie Holmes has really streamlined this production. It is described as after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev, and many elements are familiar from other productions, but compressed. Everything whips past at great speed so you don’t have time to think about the ridiculousness of the plot, or its portrayal of the orient – there is always another sparkling solo coming along to catch your attention. There are some small changes from ENB’s previous performances: the pirates who infiltrate the harem are now merchants carrying goods rather than fake pilgrims as previously, which looks more plausible and less jarring.
The score is a patchwork, with no less than ten composers credited in the programme, where music director Gavin Sutherland provides an explanation of where the different elements come from (the bulk from Adolphe Adam). He and the ENB Philharmonic succeed in making the patchwork into a convincing and rousing whole.
Overall this production shows off the men of the company in particular, and the depth of talent in ENB’s ranks. It’s not the kind of work that will persuade anyone that ballet can be a subtle, nuanced and poetic art, but it is cracking entertainment and a treat in a dreary month.