English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire is a treasure trove of colourful characters and virtuoso dancing. It’s the perfect antidote to the winter blues.
Based very loosely on an 1814 poem by Lord Byron, the narrative of this three-act ballet follows the escapades of a dashing pirate called Conrad and his enchantingly beautiful girlfriend Medora. When Medora is abducted by a slave trader, Conrad and his pirate crew set off on a valiant voyage to rescue her.
It’s an action-packed adventure with incredibly explosive dancing from the men. There are countless bravura leaps, spinning jumps and perpetual pirouettes. The entertainment factor is top-notch. Indeed, thanks to the pirate-themed plot and ballet tricks galore, high jinks on the high seas are guaranteed!
Until English National Ballet presented the glittering world premiere of this production at Milton Keynes Theatre in 2013, the nineteenth-century Marius Petipa creation had never been performed in its entirety by a UK ballet company. As the first full-length work commissioned by the then newly appointed artistic director Tamara Rojo, it was lovingly restaged for English National Ballet by Le Corsaire curator Anna-Marie Holmes.
Already guaranteed to be an indisputable highlight in the dance industry’s calendar that year, the world premiere of English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire also gave elated ballet fans in the new city their very first opportunity to see former Royal Ballet star (turned English National Ballet lead principal) Alina Cojocaru on stage at the venue.
Unsurprisingly, the ballet garnered audience adulation and critical acclaim here in the new city before setting sail for more of the same on national and international tours.
The current revival of this swashbuckling spectacular – which includes homecoming performances at Milton Keynes Theatre this week and a stint at the London Coliseum in January – coincides with both English National Ballet’s 70th Anniversary season and Milton Keynes Theatre’s 20th Birthday celebrations.
There is no doubt that Le Corsaire is a bright, upbeat and light-hearted ballet befitting such momentous occasions. It’s gorgeous to look at and the patchwork score – played live by English National Ballet Philharmonic – sets the tone for a full-length ballet that is essentially a glorified (and glorious) dance-off.
The splendidly silly story, set in an exotic faraway land, sees scheming slave trader Lankendem abduct Medora and sell her to a portly Pasha who is shopping for new wives to add to his harem. Fortunately, captain Conrad and his pirate crew arrive just in time to turn the tide. They kidnap Medora back, taking Lankendem hostage too.
Reunited in the pirate’s cave, Medora pleads with Conrad to save the rest of the slave girls. He agrees to help but a mutiny suddenly breaks out among his men. Amid the confusion, Lankendem captures Medora once again and returns her to the Pasha.
In the opulent surroundings of the Pasha’s palace, the dignitary’s decadent drug-taking induces a delightful dream garden divertissement. All his wives (including every female member of the corps de ballet!) appear as radiant tutu-clad blooms in this opium-fuelled hallucination.
Suddenly, the pirates burst in to the palace, disturbing the Pasha’s fantasy. Cue drama, the exposure of a traitor, and a grand finale that decides if Conrad and Medora will truly weather the storms of true love.
Admittedly, to avoid feeling uncomfortable about the morals of this convoluted tale, you do need to slightly overlook the sleazy slave trading that separates our pirate protagonist from his girlfriend in the first place. And the way the female characters are treated and behave …
But who really analyses the narrative that closely when there is so much incredible dancing to marvel at?
Le Corsaire showcases what the English National Ballet boys can do by dazzling us with athletic displays of macho movement, yet there are feminine fireworks too. The choreography for the women includes a fiendishly difficult series of fouetté turns (multiple turns on one leg, with each rotation initiated by the whipping action of the gesturing leg); briskly beaten jumps in quick succession; and impossibly long balances.
Opening night of this run starred lead principal Erina Takahashi as an elegant, wistful yet witty, Medora. She was paired with principal Francesco Gabriele Frola, who looked as if he was born to the pirating business making his debut in the role of Conrad. Together, they both managed to be understated and natural while accomplishing some awesome technical feats.
Lead principal Jeffrey Cirio defied gravity in soaring leaps in his debut as Conrad’s slave, Ali. Principal Shiori Kase was a weightless, whirling delight as the sweet slave girl Gulnare. First artist Erik Woolhouse portrayed backstabbing pirate Birbanto with plenty of swagger. And first soloist Ken Saruhashi was a charismatic Lankendem.
Le Corsaire gives everyone on the stage an opportunity to flaunt their dancing dynamism and English National Ballet’s dancers do not disappoint. The production leaves dance devotees and ballet newbies alike wondering how such physical virtuosity is possible.
English National Ballet dances Le Corsaire at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 23 November 2019.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.