fri 24/10/2014

Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, Milton Keynes Theatre | Dance reviews, news & interviews

Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, Milton Keynes Theatre

Pirate premiere is a rollicking good ride

Junor Souza, Erina Takahashi, Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov sail the high seasPhoto by ASH, ©English National Ballet

It’s been a good year for the colourful side of classical ballet in England. Anyone who thought the 19th-century greats were all about swans, sylphs and wilis, ghostly in clouds of white tulle, will have reconsidered after seeing two productions of La Bayadère (idols in India) and two of Don Quixote (castanets in Castile), both of which are not so much spectral as full spectrum. Now English National Ballet is adding to the rainbow with its new production of Le Corsaire (premièred last night in Milton Keynes), a piratical yarn of a ballet that has never before been staged in its entirety in this country.

Bob Ringwood's designs were inspired by mid-century Technicolor movies, so all the pirates are rocking matinée idol moustaches and everyone is doing their damnedest to swash and buckle. The characters’ names are florid (blame Lord Byron for that, who wrote the 1814 poem on which the original ballet was loosely based) but to give you the story briefly: the good pirate is in love with the slave girl, who is sold by the gypsy to the pasha, but rescued by the pirate’s slave. Then the lovers are tricked by the bad pirate, the girl is returned to the pasha, rescued again, and there is a big shipwreck in the last two minutes. As ENB stage it, this is ballet in full-hearted, genial raconteur mode – scenes race across the stage in order to keep the running time under two and a half hours, and the storytelling mime sequences are brief enough to make space for plenty of dancing.

Little of the latter is either inspired or memorable, but it is cheerful, and constant. The men throw themselves into grands jétés and barrel turns; the women hop and flutter along with brisés and cabrioles, and there is barely an adagio moment in Adolphe Adam's music, much of which is barrel-organ worthy (though sometimes a little too ploddingly so). The "oriental" costumes are rather a hoot – saris, fezes, Caucasian embroidery and belly dancer jingles jostle for space with tutus—but are also rather good; I particularly liked the pirates’ little red embroidered waistcoats and the various turquoise and diamanté outfits worn by Alina Cojocaru. The harem dream sequence (in which a podgy pasha smokes the strong stuff and imagines his ideal pleasure garden) is what passes for a white act in Le Corsaire, but is in fact mint-coloured, and full of polka and pas de chat. It is a long way from the opium dream in Bayadère which gives rise to the serenely perfect Kingdom of the Shades, but it sure is pretty (pictured above).

Amid all the flashing of grins and sequins, the emotional story arc takes second place – but it is there, thanks mostly to the flickers of chemistry between Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov as the lead couple (pictured below left). In Cojocaru, the prima ballerina whose move to ENB from the Royal Ballet was such a shock in the summer, the production had a real gem; she dashed about making delightfully flirty eyes at Muntagirov, smiling fit to burst, and showing off her gorgeous classical lines with big star bravura.

Muntagirov didn’t look like he was having quite so much fun - it was only in the bedroom pas de deux that he started to seem more like a man in love and less like a man very concerned not to drop his new partner. But the attraction that began to surface in that scene bodes well for both the partnership and Corsaire’s audience appeal; and Muntagirov can be relied on to execute crowd-pleasingly big jumps and turns and still land neatly on those long, classical legs. ENB showcased good dancers in supporting roles too, with Junor Souza and Yonah Acosta both magnetic stage presences as a slave and a bad pirate respectively, and the reliable soloists Shiori Kase, Crystal Costa, Nancy Osbaldeston, Alison McWhinney and Laurretta Summerscales impressing as odalisques and roses.

By the time the curtain fell on the shipwreck, I wasn’t quite sure of the characters’ fates – were the lovers saved from the waves, or saying a last farewell before drowning? – but the production’s future was looking assured. Le Corsaire is a rip-roaring yarn of many colours – may its ship sail off into the sunset of success!

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