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Dance in America
Ballet Theatre: Le Corsaire
Buckle on your swash me hearties, the pirate ship is
heaving into view. Those on board include dashing brigands, skulking villains, scantily
clad harem beauties, a lecherous pasha and various maidens in distress. If you want to
dress for the occasion, anything from a turban to a tutu will do.
If ballet is
arguably the most contrived of the arts, Le Corsaire may be the most contrived of
ballets. Familiar to American audiences mainly through the pas de deux, long performed by
Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn as a technical showpiece, American Ballet Theatre has
ambitiously mounted the entire work, which was recorded live at the Orange County
Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, California.
This convoluted tale
of pirates and harem girls had its beginnings in the mid-19th Century and has been
choreographed and re-choreographed numerous times since then. Not only is the dancing a
pastiche of style, no fewer than five composers have contributed to the score. All of them
are represented in the current ABT revival.
That said, we admit
its not altogether a bad sail. The dancing is lovely and the pasha and villains are
pretty funny. If Ethan Stiefels hero is more boyish than dashing and Julie Kent, his
lady love, is less spitfire than china doll, the secondary characters are right on the
money. Angel Corella as the pirate chiefs slave, Paloma Herrera exhibiting a
gorgeous line as the Pashas slave and Vladimir Malakhov, the slave trader, provide
some of the best moments in the show. As for Michael Owens overfed, bumbling Pasha,
dont ask. Hes a riot, which is not easy to do when youre dancing.
Nobody is supposed
to take this stuff seriously anyway, a tone that is set in the preview to the show.
Artistic director Kevin McKenzie, sitting on a stool backstage, explains that you probably
wont follow the ins and outs of the admittedly silly plot and then proceeds to tell
it to you anyway, with the help of the principal dancers, the guy who steams the wrinkles
out of the costumes and even a stagehand or two. Its a clever device but gets a
little old as it is repeated twice more, at the beginning of each act.
aint that hard. Pay attention, there may be a quiz. Theres this pirate, Conrad
(Stiefel), see. So, he goes to the bazaar on slave selling day and, quicker than you can
say "tours jete." falls in love with the enchanting Medora (Kent). She throws
him a rose (shades of "Carmen") and they are in each others arms. But the
evil slave trader has other plans. He wants to sell Medora to the Pasha along with the
lovely Gulnare (Herrera) in kind of a package deal. Hiss, boo and some terrific dancing by
Malakhov who has the peculiarly Russian trick of seeming to hesitate in mid-air on his
leaps. So, anyway, the Pasha buys the twin set but, before he can sample their wares,
Conrad and his crew kidnap Medora and take her and a bunch of other harem slaves to their
secret grotto. Got all that? End of Act One.
The Grotto Scene is
the site of a pirate mutiny, a truly elegant love duet, the administration of a mysterious
sleeping potion and the re-kidnapping of Medora, this time by the bad guys, but it is most
notable for the famous pas de deux. Here, in a bow to tradition, it is turned into a pas
de trois, with Medora handed back and forth between Conrad and his slave (Corella). Soon,
however, Conrad fades into the scenery, it becomes the slaves show and quite
a show it is. Anyone who remembers Nureyevs spectacular leaps and turns, his bare
chest gleaming under the lights, will be moved to nostalgia. For those who dont,
this is the next best thing. Corella is an athletic marvel, nicely balanced by the
delicate pointe work of Kent.
Act Three brings us
to the palace of the Pasha, to which Medora has been returned. There you will be treated
to a rousing battle between the rescuing pirates and the Pashas men, treachery
punished, true love rewarded and a shipwreck. But, before any of that happens, the Pasha
has to take a nap, during which he dreams that all his wives (the entire female corps de
ballet) turn into flowers and dance in his garden for him. This scene, partially set to
music of Delibes, lifted from a much better ballet, is so overlong, so kitschy, we suggest
you might take a nap as well.
Kent and Herrera
dance prettily and endlessly while the other girls wave rose-laden hoops
giving a kind of Busby Berkeley effect. A pointless divertissement that stops the action
would be fine if the dancing justified it but this "Jardin Anime" sequence has
the weakest choreography in the piece. The corps begins beautifully enough but eventually
is reduced to just waving the hoops. Boring.
Some of the best
ensemble work and best choreography in the show comes out of the pirate
scenes which are, sadly, too few and far between. Steps based on ethnic folk dancing, no
toe shoes and spirited tunes make a nice contrast to the ethereal pointe work of Kent and
the harem girls.
Le Corsaire may be a
silly, spotty and long voyage but there is some wonderful dancing along the way. Besides,
isnt it nice to watch something other than dancing Nutcrackers at this time of year?