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Le Corsaire

by on 9 January 2020

New Age for This Flamboyant Ballet?

Le Corsaire

by Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev; music by Adolphe Adam and others

English National Ballet at the London Coliseum until 14th January

Review by Katie Hagan

Ah, Le Corsaire, what a joy you are! Ballet’s majestic romp took to the high-seas last night, with a triumphant first performance of its 2019 run at London’s indisputably splendorous Coliseum.

Performed by a hot cast of English National Ballet’s lithe dancers, Le Corsaire returns to the capital after a successful stint in 2016. A firm favourite, it will no doubt mesmerise its audiences once more with its romance, luscious choreography, luxurious set and costumes, not to mention the swelling music of English National Ballet’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Corsaire 9

It would be false of me to deny the show has been missed. Delivering on spectacle and stunning virtuosic dance, it is easy to see why this ballet is loved by new and old enthusiasts. Not only does Le Corsaire have the visuals to keep the eyes stimulated, audiences can be strangely charmed by its bombastic, unbelievably believable turn of events. Of course the protagonists, Medora and Conrad, went unscathed and survived the final hurdle! Only in this illusionary ballet can a ballerina keep her tiara on during a ferocious storm at sea.

As an audience member, it is vital to suspend all your beliefs when embarking on the escapist Le Corsaire. Try to abandon all desires to follow a narrative, and just sit back and absorb the magnificence that this classical production has to offer. This extravagant feast, staged by the talented Anna-Marie Holmes, has been revised many a time, but was initially based on Jules-Henri de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilie’s libretto, itself an interpretation of the poem The Corsair by the 19th Century’s resident bad-boy Romantic poet, Lord Byron.

Corsaire 7 Coleman

Divided into three acts, Le Corsaire follows the story of the heroic Conrad (Francesco Gabriele Frola), who is heading towards the Ottoman Empire to rescue his belle, Medora (Erina Takahashi) from the wretched hands of slave-traCorsaire 4 Mackder, Lankendem. Played by guest artist Brooklyn Mack – who looks completely at home onstage – Lankendem plans on selling Medora for a hefty price to the bumbling governor, the Pasha, played by guest character artist, Michael Coleman.

Act One opens with a cargo of bodies on a busy stage, perfectly encapsulating the hustle and bustle of a popular citadel. This first scene is a real medley of ENB’s talented principals and soloists, all of them throwing down gauntlet after gauntlet with their jeté-ing and pirouetting. You wouldn’t have thought a significant change to the two main characters had occurred only hours before the curtain rose.

Corsaire 3 AdamsSuch an opening sustains the first act’s momentum. The Odalisque pas de trois is a memorable section, containing Precious Adams’s lightening-speed beats and oozing upper body extensions, as well as Julia Conway’s fluttering chaine turns. Whilst exhibiting herself to the Pasha, Medora’s friend and fellow enslaved girl, Gulnare, danced by Shiori Kase, flitters around the stage with the determination of a single-winged, wounded butterfly.

Although Le Corsaire has previously come under scrutiny for its negative representation of women, Gulnare moves with a force  to be reckoned with. During her pas de deux with Lankendem she is resolute and does not engage with him as he vaingloriously parades her in front of the Pasha. It is an interesting characterisation which definitely paid off.

Corsaire 5 WoolhouseLe Corsaire’s subplots come to the fore in Act Two, as we follow Birbanto’s sabotage of Conrad’s plans to save Medora. Jealous of Conrad’s bond, Birbanto tells Medora to give Conrad a rose which is, unbeknownst to her, poisoned. Played by Erik Woolhouse, his hair standing on end, Birbanto goes from trusted friend to enemy. Whilst his characterisation often veered on the sulky, frustrated school-boy, I was impressed with his maverick movements. It is rare to see a dancer splay their hands and sweep around the stage with a slightly hunched back, all the while looking roguishly enigmatic. There has definitely been a conscious effort to tread deeper into Le Corsaire’s characters and I applaud ENB for this decision.

Corsaire 7 CirioConrad’s jumps are a wonder and so are his pal Ali’s – played by Jeffrey Cirio – split leaps. The buoyancy and vitality of this cast is affectingly infectious. All of this promise was narrowly jeopardised during Medora and Conrad’s pas de deux, however. The signs of their late casting showed during their strained final lift. Although still met with rapturous applauds, this anticipated duet unfortunately frayed at the seams.

Perking himself back up, Frola continues to barrel-turn and straddle jump into Act Three as he seeks to reconcile himself with Medora, who was once again *sigh* abducted by Lankendem. After the crisp and fresh Enchanted Garden section, the farce kicks into acceleration for the final time, until Birbanto is exposed for his misdeeds and Medora and Conrad are happily reunited.

In this staging, Anna-Marie Holmes has tried to do away with Le Corsaire’s sinister undercurrents of racism and sex-trafficking. Whilst the female roles have indeed grown stronger, and there is thankfully no yellow-face to be seen, the black ballet dancers are too token-y; either cast as the ‘comic’, ‘villainous’ or secondary character. Yes, it is encouraging to see three black dancers onstage. I just hope one day we see one in the lead role.

But change does not occur overnight. As far as I am concerned, Anna-Marie Holmes has done a sterling job at meticulously unpicking Le Corsaire. With a superb cast and an opulent aesthetic, the great outweighs the weak in this ballet.

Katie Hagan
January 2020

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

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