Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, UK; October 17, 2013     

David Mead     

Alina Cojacaru and Vadim Muntagirov in English National Ballet's 'Le Corsaire'. Photo © Arnaud Stephenson

Alina Cojacaru and Vadim Muntagirov in English National Ballet’s ‘Le Corsaire’.
Photo Arnaud Stephenson © English National Ballet

This was a big night for English National Ballet, probably bigger than that in the same theatre a year ago when Tamara Rojo made her directorial and dancing debut with the company. There’s a lot riding on “Le Corsaire”, her first big addition to the repertory, and one that makes something of statement about her leadership and the company. The good news is that the production looks fabulous. It has scene after scene packed with sparkling dance. It is very entertaining and I predict will become very popular indeed.

Quite why a British company has never previously picked up the ballet is a bit of a mystery. Maybe it’s the perfectly cheerful and upbeat but largely unmemorable score; or that, Medora apart, it’s a ballet largely for the men; or perhaps it’s simply never been considered serious enough. The tale of the pirate Conrad’s love for Medora, the ward of bazaar owner Lankendem is certainly convoluted. There are slave girls captured, a rose imbued with a sleeping potion, kidnaps, rescues, deception and betrayal. It is all slightly silly, but no more so that a prince falling for a swan.

Although Anne-Marie Holmes created the version on which this is based many years ago, this is very much a new production. There are a few choreographic changes, but the biggest difference comes with Bob Ringwood’s new designs. The music, largely Adolphe Adam but with contributions from a host of other composers too, has been re-orchestrated.

It looks startling. Better known for his cinema designs, including three Batman films, “Star Trek Nemesis” and “Empire of the Sun”, Ringwood’s sets evoke the Romantic period. The backdrops are filled with domes and minarets reaching heavenward into a hazy sky that are very reminiscent of paintings of Constantinople by the likes of Fausto Zonaro and Ivan Aivazovsky. In front he presents a sun-drenched Turkish square. In Act III, the Pasha’s dream about his harem girls is backed by the Taj Mahal; wrong part of the world maybe, but the right message and mood definitely. The costumes are nothing if not colourful. Fezes, embroidered waistcoats, veils of every hue and bling compete for space with beautiful classical tutus. The harem girls’ skirts are a dazzling rainbow, the shiny material catching the light with every movement. In fact, this “Corsaire” is the most colourful ballet I’ve seen in a long time.

English National Ballet in 'Le Corsaire'. Photo Arnaud Stephenson © English National Ballet

English National Ballet in ‘Le Corsaire’.
Photo Arnaud Stephenson © English National Ballet

The dancing is almost non-stop, although that is also one of the ballet’s problems. It Act I especially it could do with a little more texture and contrast. It is somewhat all at the same level, albeit a very outstanding level.Vadim Muntagirov and Alina Cojocaru look made for each other. There is already a striking level of understanding and empathy in their partnering. Of course, the big Act II pas de deux stands tallest. Cojocaru was radiant as Medora. She shimmered like a vision of perfection in her light, billowing turquoise dress. Every step, every gesture was lyrical and poignant. I suspect Muntagirov’s Conrad was not the only man in the house smitten.

Cojocaru’s extensions seemed to go on for ever. When they’re this big they can look ugly but not here. Both she and Muntagirov displayed remarkable turns. Cojocaru took her fouettés at such a lick I started to wonder if the orchestra was going to keep up! Very fast they may have been, but they were perfectly placed too. Muntagirov’s leaps soared without appearing flashy. Importantly, they always came down feather light on what is not the quietest stage the company dances on.

Act II also included some very impressive work from Junor Souza as the slave Ali. The famous solo produced audible gasps from the audience as he flew through the air.

(left to right) Junor Souza, Erina Takahashi, Alina Cojacaru and Vadim Muntagirov in English National Ballet's 'Le Corsaire'.  Photo: ©Arnaud Stephenson

(left to right) Junor Souza, Erina Takahashi, Alina Cojacaru and Vadim Muntagirov in English National Ballet’s ‘Le Corsaire’.
Photo Arnaud Stephenson © English National Ballet

The characters in the ballet are all slightly stereotypically absurd, and need to be danced that way. That doesn’t mean going as far as pantomime, but they should close to the edge. At the moment, and although it improved as the evening wore on and the dancers seemed to visibly relax, many still seemed to be searching for just who they are. Right now, too many opportunities for comedy and drama remain untaken.

As exemplary as Muntagirov’s dancing was, he is one of those still looking. Like the rest of the pirates, he seems to have strolled in from a Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn film. With his moustache and small pointed beard he looks most debonair. But quite how he came to be leader of pirates, or get the girl in the end, is something of a mystery. It certainly wasn’t through force of personality. He was always the gentleman, but swashbuckling and full of joie de vivre he was not.

Of course, no-one stands a chance against Michael Coleman, who has a whale of a time playing the Pasha, whose sole aim in life seems to be to stock his harem with ever more beautiful girls, and then to dream about them when he’s asleep. Elsewhere, Yonah Acosta played Birbanto with a mix of fun, as when dancing with Crystal Costa in Act I, but with plenty of swagger and menace when called for too. He became meaner and meaner as the evening wore on.

Dmitri Gruzdyev could have done more with Lankendem, a slave trader for who money and sex is all. When captured, there wasn’t too much suggestion of him being a coward at heart, although given the speed the story always moves on, that’s not as easy as it sounds. His Act I pas de deux with the graceful Erina Takahashi as Gulnare was a delight, though.Also in Act I, the Odalisques, who dance for the Pasha, all performed to perfection, with the extremely talented Shiori Kase just about edging it over Lauretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney for her preciseness and musicality. Kase is surely a principal in the making. Elsewhere there are plenty of chances for the men to show off. As pirates they get to do plenty of barrel turns and big jumps.

'Le Jardin Animé' from Act III of English National Ballet's 'Le Corsaire'. Photo © Arnaud Stephenson

‘Le Jardin Animé’ from Act III of English National Ballet’s ‘Le Corsaire’.
Photo © Arnaud Stephenson

After the fireworks of Act II, the biggest problem with “Le Corsaire” is that it rather runs out of steam. “Le Jardin Animé” (The Enchanted Garden) is not only the ballet’s longest passage, it’s easily the least fulfilling. It doesn’t move the plot on and seems to be there for little more reason that to give the ladies some dancing. I could also do without the young children here who are given little to do other than tiptoe around and make pretty pictures.

After that lengthy interlude, Conrad’s shooting of Birbanto; his, Medora and the pirate’s escape; and the final shipwreck are all over in a flash. It always seems such a shame that a ballet so full of big bangs goes out so quietly.

Still, don’t let that put you off. This remains a tremendous production in so many ways, and one that I’m sure will only get better as the company ease into it.

“Le Corsaire” continues on tour to Southampton, Oxford, Bristol, London and Manchester. See for full details.