London Coliseum, London, UK; January 9, 2014

Maggie Foyer

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

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

It was a magical night for ballet fans at the London premiere of Ann-Marie Holmes’ lavish production of “Le Corsaire”: a starry audience and, onstage, a cast of matchless quality. The story is predictably simple, the music a tuneful potpourri, but Bob Ringwood’s designs are pure fairytale and most importantly the dancing was made in heaven with performances that remain etched on the memory.

Alina Cojocaru, who has left the luxury of the Royal Ballet to join the workhorse English National Ballet, was a radiant Medora, filling every step with the joy of dance. Even in this exceptional cast she operated on an elevated plane, more luminous and lovelier than the rest. In the role of Conrad, Vadim Muntagirov, always a fine technician, has made a great leap forward. His partnership with Cojocaru is auspicious, promising much for both their futures. His enhanced confidence boosted his authority to make him a very credible pirate king while the tousled hair, beard and moustache added Johnny Depp charisma.

It is surprising that this blockbuster, (like “Don Quixote” staged by the Royal Ballet this season) has taken so long to get into the British ballet rep. “Le Corsaire”, loosely based on Lord Byron’s very long poem, has a male cast of reprobates – slavers and pirates – who in other circumstances would be vilified and locked up, but the ballet world, seizing the opportunity for action, garbs them in oriental splendour and turns them into heroes. Even the lascivious Pasha is rather jolly and harmless in this production, giving the inimitable Michael Coleman another memorable role. The love interest is strong throughout but the third act is a shaky construction. Almost deserted by the men, it is mired in the saccharine prettiness of Le Jardin Animé but what it lacks in drama is to some extent compensated by exceptional female variations. And for a dramatic climax, Holmes and Ringwood harness techno power to theatrical tricks creating ship wreck and doomed love on the wild waves.

'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

The famous Corsaire pas de deux in its original pas de trios setting is the zenith. The iconic gestures now make sense as ballerina and slave dance with the master. Cojocaru nonchalantly surpasses all technical hurdles giving her full attention to the character and her relationship to the music. She plays with the notes and musical nuances like an attentive lover making something beautiful from a rather slight score. Muntagirov, fired with love, launches to Olympian heights on his jumps then climaxes his solo on three double saut de basques and an ecstatic back bend to the floor. Junor Souza as Ali was in no manner overshadowed by these two megastars. Throughout the ballet he develops a dignified, sympathetic character from the rather thin dramatic material the ballet offers and in the Pas d’Action his dancing combines virtuoso steel and classical grace in equal measure making this trio a partnership nonpareil.

The ENB dancers have a hard won reputation for feisty and passionate performances and in “Le Corsaire” they gave their all in a magnificent outpouring of energy. Dmitri Gruzdyev a company stalwart delivered the goods as Lankendem giving the drama full due and dancing with renewed vigour and dynamism. Yonah Acosta had the privilege of being the designated bad boy, Birbanto, in this cast of rogues. Not surprisingly the pirates are somewhat miffed when Conrad, responding to the pleas of his beloved Menora, released all the female slaves before they can get their hands on them. Birbanto harnesses their lust into a mutiny and who could resist a leader who executes such fabulous pirouettes?

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 men have the fun of cutlass-clashing skirmishes but the women get the best of the Petipa/Sergeyev choreography. Shiori Kase, dancing Gulnare, has some of the best: her body breathes dance, bending and flowing with every musical phrase deftly defining each nuance in the choreography. Alison McWhinney stood out in the Odaliques, dancing with charm and confidence. This production, fine dance in a Swarovski setting, had the audience purring with satisfaction and I suspect will be in the rep for many years to come.