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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 30 AUGUST 2016 — Five performances of Le Corsaire, choreography Anna-Marie Holmes after Petipa and Constantin Sergueiev, were given by the English National Ballet at the Palais Garnier in June, a visit which marked the first time a British company had appeared there in over 70 years. The three-act ballet was commissioned for the company in 2013 by the director, the international star ballerina Tamara Rojo, who saw it as a showpiece for her company, containing as it did superb roles for the cohort of extraordinarily gifted male dancers in her troupe. She also took an incredible risk in bringing the work, a 19th century melodrama involving pirates, slave girls, dancing flowers, complete with a pasha and his harem full of concubines set to a medley of music from no less than 10 composers of differing talents, a ballet premiered in Paris in 1856 but discarded two years later and never heard of in the French capital since.

It would be all too easy to sneer at the piece, with its colourful cast, poisoned flowers, kidnappings, shootings and shipwrecks, but one fell under its old-fashioned charm and the sheer enjoyment of dancing that emanated from the artists on stage. From the start, the company’s aim had always been to present entertaining, popular ballets with star casts to the widest possible audience, and Le Corsaire, inspired by Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, is a fitting addition to their repertoire.

Le Corsaire
English National Ballet
Photo: Ula Blocksage

Set in the glamorous East, and following only loosely the story of the English poet’s 1814 work, the ballet tells the somewhat convoluted story of the beautiful Medora who is sold as a slave to the Pasha Seyd before being rescued by her lover, Conrad, the dashing pirate chief who has sailed to the Ottoman Empire to save her. The poor girl is recaptured and rescued again a few more times, the pirates quarrel amongst themselves, the Pasha, whose sole activity is to buy reluctant slave girls, smokes opium and dreams of a dancing flower garden, and the ballet ends on a triumphant note after a spectacular shipwreck where everyone dies, including Ali, Conrad’s faithful slave and Gulnare, beloved of Medora. No matter, we see our happy pair emerge smiling above the waves, their arms around each other.

The dancing from this splendid company is excellent and Rojo has chosen a work in which many are able to shine. At its centre is the ravishing Alina Cojocaru, one of the loveliest ballerinas of her generation. She proved a radiant Medora. Interpreted by her, the most banal of steps became quite exceptional. Effervescent and carefree despite her trials and tribulations, she was happily in love with her Conrad,  Osiel Gouneo, the dashing Cuban born and Cuban trained dancer, guesting with the company. Winner of numerous gold and silver medals in international dance competitions, tall, handsome and full of charm, he leaped his way effortlessly through the ballet, a genuine smile lighting up his face each time he was given the opportunity to show off his marvellous bravura technique. He danced with an easy, good-humoured brilliance, revelling in all the technical difficulties that came his way, and grinning all the more at all the bated oohs and ahhs from the enthralled audience.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernandez in Le Corsaire
English National Ballet
Photo: Ula Blocksage

Almost the same can be said of the Mexican dancer, Isaac Hernandez in the role of Ali, Conrad’s personal slave. Ali, too was possibly a prince, but sold into captivity to the pirate chief. He is a minor character in the ballet until, in the pirate cave, he is given an explosive solo within a pas de trois with Conrad and Medora, the same solo that formed part of the pas de deux danced by Rudolf Nureyev in his prizewinning performance in the Moscow students competition which he subsequently immortalised with Margot Fonteyn in London in the early 1960’s.

If Hernandez lacks the romantic passion and supple grace associated with this role, now a gala favourite, his intricate, fast-moving, breath-taking jumps had the audience roaring. The solo is a magnificent show-off piece and he completed his high, quicksilver leaps as though his life depended upon them. He was justly lengthily applauded. An interesting detail that research into the music revealed was that the score which has long been attributed solely to Riccardo Drigo was in fact added to, as far as Medora’s solo is concerned, by one Baron Fitinhof-Schell, and Ali’s variation by the viola player, Yuly Gerber.

Also remarkable was the dancing of the exquisite Japanese-born, Shiori Kase,* a graceful young ballerina who completed her training at London’s Royal Ballet school. She shone in the role of Gulnare, Medora’s friend, who was also sold as a slave to the Pasha. She gave meaning to a series of bland steps with nothing to express except her innate musicality. She was a joy to watch.

Shiori Kase in Le Corsaire
English National Ballet
Photo: Ula Blocksage

Other characters, all splendid dancers, included Spanish-born Fernando Bufala, excellent as Lankedem, the rascally slave-trader who sells Medora and Gulnare to the silly Pasha, and Cuban-born Cesar Corrales, who won the Youth America Grand Prix, as Birbanto the rebel pirate who tried to poison our hero, Conrad, and leads a mutiny against him. Both young dancers amazed the audience with their incredible virtuoso technique. Last, and unfortunately least came Michael Coleman who camped a very silly Pasha. He amused many in the audience, but was way over the top for the most part.

Thus there was a splendid young company attacking an out-dated ballet with glee and gusto. They were certainly helped along by Bob Ringwood’s set and costume designs reminiscent of the 1850’s. Inspired by the Bolshoi’s 1973 production of Le Corsaire as well as by oriental paintings and by the designs of Leon Bakst and the book illustrations of Edmond Dulac, Ringwood created a market scene overlooking the rooftops of Constantinople and a cave full of treasure opening on to a moonlight bay. There was also a spectacular shipwreck scene at the end. His sumptuous costumes made of brightly coloured fabrics from India and Pakistan glittered and sparkled.

However, all praise must go to the dancers who dealt not only with a ludicrous melodramatic storyline, but who also got to grips with what one can only call a discombobulated score with snatches of tunes, booms and bangs from a whole array of minor musicians. Pass on Delibes, Adams, Pugni and Drigo, but who today has heard of the harpist, Albert Zabel, Prince Peter von Oldenbourg or the above mentioned Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell? Minkus too, had a hand in the score as did a Mr J. Zibin.

Despite all odds, one grew accustomed to the score in what proved to be an evening of sheer entertainment. It was most enjoyable, and as one member of the audience put it, "Let’s have fun here while we can, for shortly Paris will have Peck and Balanchine at the Opera Bastille, Balanchine, Robbins and Peck at the Chatelet , while William Forsythe will be attacking the style, line and grace of classical ballet here. No princes, plots or pirates amongst them!"

*Director Tamara Rojo nominated Shiori Kase, first soloist, principal ballerina at the end of the performance. She also thanked all the people, technicians and mechanics, included for the wonderful reception they had had in Paris. She especially thanked the audience for their enthusiasm, ending by saying that her stay in Paris had been the most memorable of her entire career.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.


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