Pennsylvania Ballet

Academy of Music

Philadelphia, PA

March 11, 2017 matinee

Le Corsaire

Lori Ibay

Full disclosure: Le Corsaire is one of my favorite full-length story ballets. Also, Angel Corella’s performance as Ali the Slave in American Ballet Theatre’s production of Le Corsaire in past years stands out in my memory as one of the most remarkable displays of athleticism and artistry I’ve ever seen live. One might think then, that Corella’s staging of Le Corsaire for Pennsylvania Ballet was guaranteed to be a hit in my view. Instead, my past experiences and treasured memories made me unusually nervous about seeing this world premiere. Like the movie-goer who has left a film thinking, I would’ve liked it better if I hadn’t read the book first, or who has felt that a perfectly fine film was a disappointment thanks to the glowing reviews promising a life-changing, earth-shattering experience, I was worried that my expectations would not be met – or possibly, are un-meet-able.

Thankfully, my apprehensions dissipated almost as soon as the curtain rose.

Corella’s Corsaire keeps all the drama, intrigue, and gravity-defying acrobatics one expects, but is significantly shorter – with each of the first two acts running just over thirty minutes and two full intermissions, the total running time this afternoon was just over two hours. The unique score is a result of a collaboration between Artistic Director Corella, Musical Director Beatrice Jona Affron, and solo pianist Martha Koeneman who compiled the music from Adolphe Adam, Leo Delibes, Cesare Pugni, Ludwig Minkus and more (discussed in this interview with classical and jazz radio station WRTI). Advertising from Pennsylvania Ballet boasts that the production includes music that hasn’t been heard in over 100 years, and the production feels fresh and new in every way.

So what’s been cut, if it’s so much shorter? I honestly can’t remember, which is evidence that there is likely a lot of extraneous “stuff” in previous versions that may not be vitally relevant to advancing the plot. Ensemble segments seemed a bit sparse, but the corps added appropriate vivacity and color in Act I at the Bazaar (especially the pirate couples at the end of the scene), and the women’s corps was graceful and dream-like in the Jardine Animee in Act III.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in "Le Corsaire" Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in “Le Corsaire”
Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Without a doubt, the focus is on the stars in the principal roles, who each danced spectacularly. For sure, this Corsaire never drags – it starts off sailing on the high seas, and continues to soar.

A brief prologue hints at the lavishness of the sets – the curtain rises on a pirate ship in the distance, with rippling waves spanning the stage making it seem as though the ship is truly speeding across the ocean. When the curtain rises on Act I, Lankendem (Ian Hussey) is already entertaining the crowd at the Bazaar with soaring leaps and stunning pirouettes. Hussey was appropriately sly and slinky, with particularly animated and clear mime as the trader of captive women, and danced consistently impressively throughout, but he fittingly owns Act I – he is the star of the Bazaar. We also meet the dazzling Medora (Mayara Pineiro) in a glittering gold tutu, and then the dashing Birbanto (Craig Wasserman) majestically flies in, followed by Conrad (Aleksey Babayev) whose regal lines and spectacularly controlled pirouettes set him apart as the Captain. Ali, Conrad’s Faithful Servant (Arian Molina Soca) is humble and unassuming, and helps to move the action in the scene.

The Pasha (Jon Martin) enters in a colorful puff of pomp and feathers, Gulnare (Alexandra Hughes) reluctantly dances a graceful pas de deux with Lankendem, followed by an impressive solo in which she effortlessly fires off a dozen pirouettes – and being that she is in the process of being sold, isn’t even able to celebrate her triumphant solo. At some point, there is so much talent on the stage, it’s hard to know where to look. There’s a lot of story happening too – Conrad and Medora are falling in love, Lankendem is selling Gulnare and then Medora, Medora is getting kidnapped by the band of pirates, and Birbanto ends the scene with a rousing dance with a Pirate Woman (Therese Davis). The first intermission occurs just over half an hour after the curtain first rose, and audience members already needed to catch their breath – and possibly refresh their memory of the Synopsis, buried on pages 32 and 33 of the program.

Act II is usually where I start to run out of superlatives, and this afternoon’s performance was no exception. The Grotto itself is breathtaking, but the solos delivered by Pineiro, Babayev, and especially Molina Soca were gasp-out-loud, hand over mouth, astounding. Specifically, Molina Soca had no trouble defying gravity with his leaps and double tours – a requirement of this role, Pineiro tossed triple pirouettes into the sequence of fouettes, and Babayev displayed amazing control, power, and athleticism in his leaps, lifts, tours, and turns. There’s also a conflict, a duel, a betrayal, and another kidnapping, but by this point the senses are so overwhelmed, it’s almost too much to process all at once. A second intermission gives the audience another chance to catch its breath, after just another half hour or so of action.

Act III starts at The Pasha’s Palace with Gulnare entertaining The Pasha. Hughes is light and lovely in her solo, now able to smile a bit more than she did in Act I, and the Odalisques (Kathryn Manger, So Jung Shin, and Nayara Lopes) were dainty in their feature, although some footwork got a little less crisp and a little more muddled as the tempo quickened. The lead women with the women’s corps (and eight adorable young boys and girls, unfortunately not individually named in the program) were enchanting in the Jardine Animee scene.

The action resumes when The Pasha awakens from his dream, and the rest feels like a mad dash to the finish – Conrad and the pirates disguise themselves to enter the Palace and kidnap Medora (again); Birbanto’s betrayal is revealed, and the group is chased out of the palace by Lankendem; they set sail back on the pirate ship that began the narrative, and a storm hits (with wonderfully effective lighting and wind). There may have been some technical glitches at the end, and the darkness of the storm made it difficult to see that the crew was drowning on the ship. Surprisingly, given the lavishness of all the sets and the costumes, the final scene shows the couple reuniting on a darkly painted set of stairs (with no apparent effort to make it look like a rock), but these are trivialities compared to the talent on display, especially in Act II.

Pennsylvania Ballet continues performances of Le Corsaire at the Academy of Music through March 19, and if it’s not already clear, it’s a must-see. The company recently released its 2017-2018 Season, which includes Corella’s stagings of The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. With the success of Corella’s Don Quixote last season and now Le Corsaire, it’s no surprise that the company, under Corella’s guidance, continues to re-imagine beloved classics.