Review: English National Ballet - Le Corsaire - London Coliseum

Performance: 9 - 19 January 2014
Reviewed by Sanjoy Roy - Monday 13 January 2014

English National Ballet's Esteban Berlanga Max Westwell & Junor Souza in 'Le Corsaire'. Photo: Guy Farrow

In many ways, English National Ballet’s production of Le Corsaire (originally staged for the Boston Ballet by Anna-Marie Holmes) is like an extension of the Christmas holidays. It’s a grand old humdinger of a ballet, something to settle into and indulge in rather than something to make you sit up and pay attention. Indeed, the preposterous plot involving a pirate and a slave girl (goodies), a slave trader (baddie), a pasha (sort of bumbly), a drug trip and a humongous shipwreck – oh, and there’s also a guy who is a slave, but not in a bad way because his master is the pirate, who is a goodie, although there is another pirate who is a baddie, and also another slave girl who is a goodie (actually, all the girls are both goods and goodies) and – er, where was I? Ah yes: best not think too much about the plot. Better to imagine yourself bedding down on the sofa for a kitsch old movie that mixes Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling, Rudolf Valentino allure and Cecil B de Mille spectacle, with faux-oriental sets that look as sumptuous and as detailed as any 1,000-piece jigsaw.

The designs come courtesy of Bob Ringwood, a class act who created the costumes for several film blockbusters, most notably the Batman series. His sets are consistently breathtaking and his costumes both gild the dancers with gossamer and glitter and set the stage awash with bare midriffs, a sight which must already have inspired many an ab-focused New Year’s resolution. Act 1 looks stunning, but the drama is hampered by having to introduce the set-up and all the characters, and the dancing by some pretty lumpen music (the score is a hotch-potch by no less than nine different composers). The dancers in hammier roles come off better here – Dmitri Gruzdyev a swaggering slave trader, Yonah Acosta a cocky pirate and Junor Souza a debonair servant – but only the remarkable Shiori Kase as Gulnare (aka Other Slave Girl) manages to make us overlook the oom-pah music by dancing above it rather than acting over it.

The principals, Vadim Muntagirov as the pirate Conrad and Alina Cojocaru as his beloved Medora, come into their own from Act 2; the music improves too. Muntagirov’s lines and placement are astonishing – clean, pitch-perfect every time – while Cojocaru excels at melting in and out of the music, with a thrilling physical rubato that seems to stretch the fabric of time itself, and demands that the orchestra follow. They are marvels to watch – yet both are more classical than dramatic dancers, and such proprieties sometimes seem almost too refined for their roles: Muntagirov looks like a prince disguised as a pirate, Cojocaru a lovely lady more than a lady-love.

The Act 2 love interest is spiced up – unwittingly, I think – by the presence of Junor Souza as Conrad’s slave Ali. Souza is a stylish, charismatic dancer, and Ali is in many ways the unacknowledged hero of the piece, forever fetching and carrying and sorting things out for his master.* But in Act 2, he goes further, interceding in the sexual dynamics of the lovers. The famous Corsaire “pas de deux” – a staple of any number of galas and competitions – turns out to be actually a pas de trois, with Conrad and Medora joined by Ali. Several times he partners Medora before graciously bowing out for her to take up with Conrad. It’s as if the slave is warming up the lady for the boss man. Add to that scenario the fact that in this cast the slave is black, and the scene becomes charged with subtextual taboos and desires, the central couple only coming together thanks to a stylish but deferential black lady-fluffer. Think about that.

To be honest, I doubt anyone did think about that, but so it goes. Back to the story. After some double-crossing skulduggery from a dashing Yonah Acosta that sees Medora whisked away again by the slave trader, the ballet puts the story on hold so that we can share the pot-bellied Pasha’s opium-induced vision of a garden of delights. Against a dislocating backdrop (think Taj Mahal fronted by Renaissance fountains) this jardin animé is a surreal, Busby Berkeleyish spectacle of women and children swaying and skipping in pleasing patterns, in which the kids, in a disarming combination of Islamic charm with cute Christianity, sport adorable little Mogul turbans and cherub wings.

Back to the story, again. The pirates invade the Pasha’s palace, the dirty double-crosser gets shot, the slave trader gives chase and Ali, always there when you need him, helps the lovers and Other Slave Girl escape to sea, where there is a spectacular storm and everyone drowns except (you already know this spoiler) Conrad and Medora. It’s a rollicking finish to a rollicking ballet that has been chock-full of great dancing and design, if not of music. It moves along at a fair lick (Holmes has condensed the Russian version considerably), my main regret being that the extravagant finale, with its shipwreck, its lighting and its engulfing waves, felt very rushed. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and as with Christmas it’s not all good, clean fun – in fact, it’s the hidden or repressed subtexts that, as with so many classic ballets, inform its fascination. And the ending? The lovers have survived, but will they live happily ever after? I guess that’s implied, but frankly, with Ali out of the picture, I doubt it.

Continues at the London Coliseum until 19 January
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Sanjoy Roy writes about dance for the Guardian, New Statesman, Dance Gazette, Dancing Times and Pulse. Explore a full archive of his writing on dance:

*Thanks to fellow spectator Linda Uruchurtu of The Ballet Bag for pointing this out to me.

Image: English National Ballet’s Esteban Berlanga Max Westwell & Junor Souza in Le Corsaire. Photo: Guy Farrow

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