by Stuart Sweeney
July 23, 2003 -- Royal Opera House, London
A couple of years ago the BBC Radio4 Critics visited the Royal Ballet's "Don Quixote" and were shocked at what they saw as a lack of artistic purpose, apart from the technically demanding dancing. Just as well they didn't see "Le Corsaire," as this has the weakest and most convoluted plot ever, and as far as I can see, none of the emotional drive of a work such as "La Bayadere," never mind a serious drama like "Manon."
Many find "Le Corsaire" great fun, but not me, I'm afraid. And then, of course, there is the small matter of the pirates kicking to death the Pasha, an amiable bumbler, at the close. In addition, the music is a forgettable assemblage from five composers and the sets for the Kirov production appear too large for the Royal Opera House stage and tend to dominate the action on-stage.
So, for me, it's a case of forget everything except the steps and the way they are performed and pretend it's a sort of Gala. The good news is that the depth of quality in the Kirov means that there are fine performances throughout and the set pieces can set sparks flying.
The first act meanders with business about shipwrecks and slave markets, but comes to life with a pas de deux for Lankadem, a slave dealer and Medora the heroine. Anton Korsakov pulled out all the stops for his solos with several wonderful grands jetées. Act II is make or break for this ballet with a series of solos for Conrad, the Pirate Chief; Medora; and Ali, a slave; and some nifty demi-character dancing by Birbanto, the treacherous no.2 pirate.
The high spot is usually the solo for Ali and this performance was no exception. Leonid Sarafanov looks more like a sweet boy next door rather than someone to slip a shiv between your ribs. However he dances like a dream, not with huge jumps and aggression, but with the utmost grace, musicality, and perfect technique in the most difficult combinations. In some ways he reminds me of the Paris Opera Ballet principal Manuel Legris in the quality of his dancing, if not his skill at characterisation, but at twenty-one years old there is plenty of time for that to develop.
Ekaterina Kondaura and Vladimir Shishov are both young members of the corps de ballet -- not even coryphées --but I suspect they could be principals in most companies around the world. Kondaurova was particularly impressive in Acts II and III. She has arguably the longest legs ever seen on stage, and combined with a supple back and beautiful arms, she conjured up a number of those 'Wow!' moments which mark out top-flight performers. Sometimes the high extensions undermined some of her elegance, but she was able to whip the fouettés off with great aplomb. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of her. Shishov did well without ever quite igniting the role as Ilya Kuznetsov did two years ago.
"Le Corsaire" can be considered a two-seat ballet. That is, you want to be in the stalls for the solos in Act II and higher up for the ensemble work in Act III. As I was in the stalls, Petipa's symmetries and patterning were not clearly visible, but the corps danced to the high standards we would expect from the Kirov. The Odalisques were very fine, with another tall dancer, Daria Sukhorukova, performing the second variation with great skill and artistry. Irina Zhelonkina as Gulnara danced with good technique and some verve, but again it was Kondaurova who excelled in her Act III solos.
And then it's time to kill the Pasha and get back on the boat to conclude this story of boy has girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, boy loses girl again and finally gets her back again -- Conrad really is a bit careless.
This is never going to be my favourite ballet, but the dance quality shown in the lead performances from young dancers and in the supporting roles made this performance was a worthwhile experience, despite the many deficiencies of "Le Corsaire."
Edited by Catherine Pawlick.
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