Sunday, 16 February 2014

English National Ballet's Le Corsaire - a Valentine's Day Treat

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In the programme, Tamara Rojo noted that Le Corsaire is such an important work that it is strange that no British company has ever owned a production. She added
"The great thing about having a work that no one else has is that you can really make it your own. This is going to be Le Corsaire for the United Kingdom."
The ballet was not entirely unknown to British audiences. The Bolshoi's version was broadcast live in 2012 and I watched it at the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Based on Lord Byron's The Corsair the ballet tells how Conrad, a corsair or privateer in love with Medora, a beautiful Greek woman in Turkish captivity, rescues her from a fate worse than death and takes her back to his den with other beauty including other captives. Conrad's lieutenant, Birbnanto, becomes dissatisfied with the distribution of the booty especially after Conrad promises to give it all to Medora especially after Medora persuades Conrad to liberate the other captives. He makes two attempts to mutiny the second od which results in the recapture of Medora. Conrad comes looking for Medora and rescues her a second time. Sailing away the corsair's barque is caught in the sort of storm that has been battering our coasts for the last few months and sinks. Conrad and Medora (or at least their spirits) survive and they fade away in each other's arms. 

This story provides juicy roles not only for the principals who dance Conrad and Medora but also for Birbanto, Ali (Conrad's sidekick), Lankendem (the governor of the city) and Gulnare, a young slave girl who is left behind in captivity. There is also a great character role for the fat old pasha who can't wait to get his hands on a pretty slave girl.

The production that I saw yesterday was commissioned from Anna-Marie Holmes who had staged the work for the wonderful Boston Ballet which visited us briefly this summer (see "Boston Ballet: 'High as a flag on the Fourth of July!'" 7 July 2013). Homes's production was itself based on a revival of the work by Konstantin Sergeyev, the artistic director of what was then called the Kirov Ballet and is now once more the Mariinsky. The work that Sergeyev revived was choreographed by Marius Petipa to a score by Adam though with contributions from a number of other composers including Delibes and Minkus.

The work had its première in Milton Keynes on 17 Oct 2013 since when it has been staged in Southampton, Oxford, Bristol and London. Manchester is the last stop of its tour although it is going to Spain for a few days in April. The advantage of seeing a show at the end of a tour is that the company will have accumulated a lot of experience so the performance should be very polished.  Le Corsaire had had a very good run in London both from the critics and audiences. I therefore had very high expectations when I braved the elements on Valentine's day.

I was not disappointed. Conrad was danced by Zdenek Konvalina who danced with enormous energy and grace. He was partnered by Fernanda Oliveira as Medora. She was delightful.  Sweet and imploring when begging for the slave girls' freedom in Act II, fierce when cornered by Birbanto indignant when denouncing him to Conrad and very exciting to watch, particularly in the spectacular dances with Conrad and Ali in Act II.   Fabian Reimair projected slyness and malice as Birbanto.  Ken Saruhashi, who danced Lankendem, is an impressive young man with ambitions to dance Siegfried, Albrecht and Basilio, I am sure we shall see a lot of him. Michael Coleman, the fat old pasha (the archetypical dirty old man) had the audience chuckling as he vibrated after acquiring Medora. But the loudest applause on Friday went to Shiori Kase who danced Gulnare and Yonah Acosta who danced Ali.

When I mentioned that the crowd had gone wild for Acosta on BalletcoForum one of the ballet buffs replied:
"Not to take anything away from Yonah Acosta, of course, but ENB's Corsaire audiences have all gone wild for Ali, whoever has been dancing the role!"
I can understand why that would be the case. Ali has some spectacular jumps that would raise a cheer whoever danced that character. But I was impressed by this young man and I am sure we shall all see a lot more of him.

The same is true of Gulnare's role which is danced by an up and coming young dancer. Michaela dePrince (a Sierra Leonean dancer currently with Ernst Meisner's Junior Company whom I just can't see enough of) performed it for the Joburg Ballet when she was just 16 or 17. As with Ali's role the choreography certainly helps for there is a delightful flower dance in the pasha's garden. Shiori Kase danced it beautifully. All the audience could do after that scene was purr.

But there was yet another star and that was Bob Ringwood's designs.  Though overlooked by some, the sets, costumes and lighting can be as important to the success of a ballet as the dancing and the score.  The opening scene of old Istanbul wowed us before a step was danced.  The view of the sea from the pirates' cave took our breath away. The storm (so reminiscent of the news reels last week) made us shiver.  The costumes were sumptuous, particularly the pasha's outfit complete with paunch.  The multicoloured skirts in the opening scene were delicious. They must have been such fun to wear.

I do not know why this ballet has not been performed more often but  now that it is the repertoire I am sure it will become one of English National Ballet staples. Valentine's day happens to be my birthday and I cannot think of a better way of celebrating it.

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