Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A swashbuckling spectacular – Le Corsaire

Esteban Berlanga, Max Westwell and Junor Souza in in English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire . © 2013 Guy Farrow
Le Corsair English National Ballet © 2013 Guy Farrow
Le Corsaire: English National Ballet at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 14 2014
Star rating: 3.0

Lavish and luxurious if short on tunes.
A great night out is the only way to describe ‘Le Corsaire’ by the English National Ballet at the London Coliseum (14 January 2014). With its lavish staging and luxurious, bejewelled costumes this ballet may be short on hum along tunes but nevertheless provides a diverting film-like story and charming, enthusiastic dances. 
The story of ‘Le Corsaire’ was inspired by the 1814 poem ‘The Corsair’ by Lord Byron and originated in a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, set to music by Adolphe Adam, (1803-1856) for Joseph Mazilier. First produced in 1856 it has since been stretched and expanded several times so that the composer credit now stretches to nine.

Many of the dancers were taken from the emerging performer ranks. Tonight’s performance cast Yonah Acosta as the pirate hero Conrad, and Max Westwell as Birbanto, his not to be trusted second-in-command. Both were dynamically charged and, especially Acosta, high leaping. Fernanda Oliviera as Medora, Conrad’s love, provided the skill and passion to bring the story to life and show the boys at their best.

The other ladies, Shiori Kase as the slave girl Gulnare, Adela Ramirez as the lead villager, and the three odalisques were strong soloists in their own rights, and the ranks of artists who played villagers and flower girls (supplemented by very tiny children for that ‘Ah’ moment) looked like they were all enjoying themselves immensely. The interaction between Pasha (Max Coleman) and the girls provided the best comedy moments.

The stage and costume design by Bob Ringwood were an over-the-top, sumptuous, excess of bling. Best known for his designs for film such as Batman, Dune and Artificial Intelligence (having won awards for Troy in 2004 and Empire of the Sun back in 1987) Ringwood designed for stage for about ten years before working on films.

In an interview with ENB he describes how he was influenced by the orientalist movement of the 19th century but also by the Bolshoi ballet’s incarnation of Le Corsaire. Costumes also have a nod to those worn by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn for their pas de deux in New York, 1968, and to 1940’s film extravaganzas.

The series of painted scenes, which reminded me of a vintage puppet theatre, ranged from a street scene, to the cave lair of the pirates, the palace of Pasha (and the garden dream scene), and the final dramatic ship in a storm.

Choreography was provided by Anna-Maries Holmes, updating the staging of Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev. Born in Canada, Homes trained as a ballerina in Moscow, and, after dancing her way around the world, became artistic director of the Boston Ballet in 1997. Her version of Le Corsaire with the American Ballet Theatre won an Emmy in 1999.

From teaching the steps and mime, to rearranging choreography to fit individual dancers, and recasting Pasha as a panto buffoon rather than the evil villain of the original, this version of Le Corsaire also had to take into account the new stage designs and how they would affect the dancers and interaction between characters. The result is a stunning display of dance and believable characterisation (with the exception of Pasha, who provided the perfect comic foil for the girls to make fun of, who was in no way believable but was great fun).

The music seems to fall into two main camps – beautiful, lyrical, evocative music describing the action, such as the storms and fight or love scenes, and umpah music which seemed to be the filler added in so that the dancers had longer numbers. The historical reason for this is that the original show, with music by Adolphe Adam, was much shorter and did not have any dancing roles for men. The ‘pas des fleures’ was added in 1857 in Paris, but the main expansion of the ballet happened once it arrived in Russia. Here dances for the men were added, and other dances expanded, using music by Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, Prince Pyotr van Oldenbourg, Ludwig minkus, Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schnell and Albert Zabel.

The score used for this performance was recreated from manuscripts and piano rehearsal scores by Lars Payne and re-orchestrated by Musical Director Gavin Sutherland. Conducted by Tom Seligman the orchestra provided a somewhat patchy rendition. The lyrical music was sensitively played and had some very fine solos, but the more stolid sections fell out of time with themselves here and there.

While the choreography fitted in beautifully with the romantic music, it sometimes felt as though the dancers were using the umpah music simply to get a beat - danced phrases did not always match the musical ones. Rather than being faithful to original scores Le Corsaire would be improved by finding a new composer, who understands modern ballet, who can talk with the dancers and choreographer, and come up with a way of replacing the less sympathetic sections with something more appropriate.

Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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