Boston Ballet Boston Opera House Boston, MA
October 27 and 30, 2016 Le Corsaire
There’s no getting around it — Le Corsaire is a silly ballet. If all the exaggerated swashbuckling of the mustachioed pirates doesn’t convince you of that, there’s always the sword clashing and pistol shots in time to music, a Pasha straight out of central casting, sinuous harem girls, eunuchs, odalisques, poisoned flowers, whips, ropes, and storms at sea. As Ira Gershwin wrote, “Who could ask for anything more?” With all that ridiculousness going on, one might well wonder what the point of this performance might be. The point is bravura dancing, and plenty of it, especially in the Act II pas de deux and the Act III Jardin Animé sequence. Le Corsaire is a hybrid, containing both vaudevillian routines and quite serious statements about art and nature. On the one hand, it doesn’t rip your heart out the way Swan Lake does, but on the other hand, the story of Odette and Siegfried doesn’t offer much in the way of laughs, so each ballet has its virtues.
On opening night, October 27, Seo Hye Han, who was recently promoted to principal, took on the starring role of Medora. She was certainly competent and even had some wonderful moments, such as in the Jardin Animé when she was on one knee with arms overhead in the most beautifully nuanced position. In general, however, she seemed nervous, which made her appear to be thinking more about the steps than the character. One of the best parts of her performance was a little dance in Act II in which she spoofed the swashbuckling postures of the pirates. The choreography, by Ivan Liŝka after Petipa, was less demanding at that point, and she looked relaxed — as if she were enjoying herself.
Conrad was Lasha Khozashvili, and it was great fun to see him in the air. He’s always had big jumps, and in this role he got to show them off. I was surprised to see that the male variation of the Act II pas de deux was divided between Conrad and Ali. In many versions, and always when the pas de deux is performed as an excerpted presentation, the entire variation is done by Ali, and many dancers, such as Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Corella, and Vasiliev, have given definitive performances of it. Be that as it may, Irlan Silva was very convincing in the second solo — wonderful posture and impressive leaps.
Sabi Varga was the Pasha, and when he was carried onstage in his sedan chair, he looked as if he was carved of stone: the embodiment of frigid grandeur. In his interactions with other characters, every gesture was considered and precise. He appeared in Act III without a hat, and in his bald cap he reminded one of Yul Brenner in The King and I. One could just imagine him saying, “But, is a puzzlement!”
Roddy Doble was the slave dealer, Lankedem, and like Varga, he is an outstanding dancing actor. In this role, as in the father in Cinderella and Siegfried’s tutor in Swan Lake, Doble consistently created convincing bits of stage business that enriched the character he was playing. When he and Varga started riffing off each other, it was like watching Abbott and Costello doing “Who’s on First?” – perfect comic timing.
As Gulnara, Lia Cirio (October 27) and Dusty Button (October 30) were interesting dancers, but both of them look as if classicism is not their native dance language. I’ve admired the intensely athletic Cirio in Balanchine and Elo productions and Button as the angular Fairy Winter in Ashton’s Cinderella. Their variations in Le Corsaire were well executed, but for this observer, the steps and positions never came together as an organic whole.
Kudos to Ji Young Chae and Maria Baranova as odalisques (October 27). Chae maintained a levitating, bouncy quality in her variation that was a joy to see. Baranova was all elegance and self-possession.
On October 30 Ashley Ellis played the role of Medora, and in the coherence and subtlety of her technique, the confidence of her stage presence, and the clarity of her acting, she once again proved herself to be one of the brightest stars of the ballet world.
As an actress, she achieved effective results with great economy of means. In Act I, for example, the transition from happiness in Conrad’s arms to the horror that came over her face when she realized that the Pasha wanted to buy her was so intense it was almost shocking. The Pasha then opened a wooden chest and offered her the jewels inside if she would join his harem. Ellis immediately spurned his bribe, lifting her chin and turning her head as if to say, “Not on your life, buster!” It reminded me of the independent and assertive Olga that she created in Onegin last spring.
In terms of technique, the first overhead lift in Act II exemplified triumph and splendor. It seemed as if her assumption into heaven would be achieved at that very moment. When she was drugged by Lankedem and collapsed in his arms, she looked for all the world like the dead body of Juliet in the crypt – and what a great Juliet she would be.
In the Jardin Animé Ellis was profoundly regal. Her performance made me realize that this scene, beyond being a showcase for the ballerina, is also a redemption of nature, which Lankedem had perverted by using a flower as the vehicle for his knock-out powder. Medora unwittingly becomes his agent when she gives the poisoned flower to Conrad, who then loses consciousness. In the Jardin Animé all of nature is given new life, and as Medora bourées into and out of the flower garlands arrayed before her on the floor, she is herself like a flower quivering in the breeze. As such, she reminded one of Yum-Yum in The Mikado, who says, “Nature is lovely and rejoices in her loveliness. I am a child of Nature, and take after my mother.”
Ellis’s Conrad was Junxiong Zhao. He has beautiful lines and big jumps with soft landings. He and Sabi Varga as Birbanto were well matched in their side-by-side leaps. His performance would have been enhanced if he had looked a bit more smitten with Medora, however, especially in Act II, which is all about seduction.
Diana Albrecht was truly charming as one of the odalisques. She seems to have the perfect combination of affect and technique, which animates all her roles. As Birbanto’s lover on Pirate Island, Dalay Parando was memorable as a spitfire gypsy.
Le Corsaire certainly contains a lot of swashbuckling music (especially in Act II), which seems to have provided inspiration to Arthur Sullivan in writing The Pirates of Penzance. At one point I could almost hear the strains of “For I am a pirate king.” It’s music that’s ripe for parodying, which is exactly what Sullivan did with it. Under the baton of music director emeritus Jonathan McPhee, the Boston Ballet Orchestra played it with great wit and verve. When the mood changed for Medora’s variation in the Jardin Animé, McPhee and his colleagues gave Léo Delibes’s ravishing melody all the majesty and rhapsodic quality one could wish for. Bravo!