Review: English National Ballet - Le Corsaire - London Coliseum

Performance: 13 - 24 January 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 15 January 2016

English National Ballet - Brooklyn Mack as Conrad and Cesar Corrales as Birbanto  in 'Le Corsaire'. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 13 January 2016

Forgive the maritime pun, but I think I should steer clear of this derring-do tale of piracy and sex slaves, since it’s no good for my sanity. In the 24 hours or so that have elapsed since joining a celebrity-infested audience for this opening of Le Corsaire, the little voices in my head have enjoyed a stirring debate to equal the swashbuckling activity on stage.

Ballet stories are largely based on the surreal or the supernatural. If maidens aren’t turning into swans then they might be sleeping for a hundred years, a woodland fairy or the ghost of a young girl deceived in love. The list could go on. There is nothing unworldly about Le Corsaire, a ballet based upon Byron’s almost-eponymous poem of The Corsair, but (viewed from the perspective of two centuries later) it is a preposterous tale that often appears inappropriate for these times. The sight of a pot-bellied Pasha lewdly lusting after a bevy of frightened, scantily-clad slave girls – making breast-tweaking motions with his hands (like squeezing two imaginary car horns at chest-height) – is one that the right side of my head feels should be consigned to the bin.

However, we can’t rewrite history. Things we consider abhorrent today were viewed differently in their own time; and what was acceptable then, cannot be airbrushed now. It seems that today’s popular opinion has a kind of inbuilt “clapometer” and it’s all a question of degree: we can still watch (almost daily on ITV4) a bit of “slap and tickle” in On The Buses and the like; but there are many other programmes of bygone eras, now far too offensive to repeat.

So, where does Le Corsaire fit into a world that is rightly more diverse and intolerant of gender and ethnic abuse? ENB is the only British company to have this survivor of the Russian Imperial tradition of classical ballet within its repertoire, having bought Anna-Marie Holmes’ staging of the Petipa/Sergeyev ballet, back in 2013 (one of the very first acts in Tamara Rojo’s tenure as artistic director). Holmes’ production is essentially a condensed interpretation of the original Russian ballet, which she purchased from the Bolshoi, for stagings in Boston and New York.

Since acquiring the ballet, ENB has set out its stall to promote the production as a great introduction for a newcomer to ballet. Well, hopefully, the newbie is an adult; but – more to the point – in taking this marketing stance, have they considered how you explain it?

On one level it is comic pantomime and caricature, so ancient that it creaks. But, on reflection, I suspect that this tale of sex trading with all its twists of corruption and betrayal, sleep-inducing opiates and violent storms could possibly be construed as the foretelling of a thoroughly modern fable!

In any event, the tale is merely an excuse for extraordinary virtuoso dancing and lots of it, with several meaty opportunities for men to show off their jumping skills alongside two strong roles for principal ballerinas. And, because of this endemic virtuosity, it is an audience-pleaser as it was so demonstrably on this occasion. It is also an acid test of the corporate strength of the male cohort. And, one that ENB passes comfortably, albeit borrowing some dancers on loan from elsewhere.

Two such guest artists were prominent in this opening night cast. The Cuban dancer, Osiel Gouneo (Norwegian National Ballet) brought a big personality to the ballet’s heroic figure, Conrad – Byron’s Corsair – aligned to an effortless, soft, spongy jump and a becoming smile. From the USA, performing as the slave trader, Lankendem, came Brooklyn Mack, a principal with the Washington Ballet and another charismatic launcher of soaring jumps.

ENB have some burgeoning talent of their own in the virtuoso stakes, beginning with 19 year-old Cesar Corrales who achieved bumper levels of elevation in the iconic role of Conrad’s slave, Ali. He’s still a teenager so of course, he can jump; and the role requires no dramatic expression, which helps; but it is the precision and musicality of his technique, enabling him to pirouette furiously and explode into a procession of jumps without a hint of roughness that is so remarkable. And then there is Yonah Acosta as the “bad boy” pirate mutineer, Birbanto, bringing even more big leaps to colour a role motivated by jealously and revenge.

Further definitive evidence of homegrown talent comes in the elegant dancing of Laurretta Summerscales who has been with the company since leaving the ENB School, in 2009, and has now matured into a reliable and versatile soloist under Rojo’s leadership. Dancing the role of the enigmatic slave girl, Gulnare, her port de bras and light, swift footwork were delightful. The strength of the company across the female soloist ranks is impressive and Ksenia Ovsyanick, Shiori Kase, Alison McWhinney and Crystal Costa were all arresting presences in the transitional dance scenes.

The best is left to last for no matter how one might marvel at the virtuoso dance skills of these balletic lords-a-leaping, it pales into insignificance against an appreciation of the exceptional artistry of Rojo herself in the lead role of Medora. For all that her character is kidnapped (both by goodies and baddies) so are we arrested by the enchanting spell that this apparently ageless ballerina conjures upon her audience. How she has the time to keep at the top of her form and run a company is itself jugglery born of the magic arts. Rojo has always been one of the most accomplished ballerinas in balancing and turning and these hard-won skills show no sense of diminution. Not only is she responsible for her own roster of Medora performances in this run but she is also covering for Alina Cojocaru, sadly still recovering from an ankle injury. Not many companies worldwide can substitute one megastar for another from the same rare constellation.

There are many problems, I feel, with the production. The translucent scrim curtain at front of stage is too often an irritant and the shipwreck that peremptorily concludes proceedings provides for a strangely blunt and unexciting finale. But, all of this seems to fit with a daft story that perhaps best belongs in another age, albeit one that serves as a vehicle for extraordinary dancing. We can marvel at the talents of these great dancers and feel privileged to have the opportunity of this experience, just so long as we don’t think too much about the setting or the narrative intent.

Continues at the London Coliseum until 24 January
www.eno.org

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards.
Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Bettina Strenske



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