We saw American Ballet Theatre’s Corsaire at the State Theatre on Thursday, March 16 and Saturday, March 18, 2006. Yes, the dancing was very good, as expected. What Corsaire left us thinking about, though, was how labor intensive these big story ballets are.
So many people on stage….yet, one can quickly tell who’s who. Why? Because the staging and the music, indeed, everything in the production converges to set off the principal roles: Medora, the heroine, first appears born aloft on a litter; when she raises her veil it is to an orchestral chord that heralds something wholly other. When she reenters soon afterwards to dance with the hero, pirate captain Conrad, her battement are accompanied by the clash of cymbals. Nor does the orchestral accompaniment stint when it comes to the many male solos; you’ve never seen so many big jumps in a circle, and just in case you weren’t going to notice how high, there’s thumping percussion at the top of each jump. Strangely, in Corsaire this labor-intensive frosting has been piled high on a veritable compendium of the politically incorrect. When it comes to frivolous treatment of forbidden topics, this is the full production.
American Ballet Theatre’s Corsaire is the result of a century and a half of tinkering. That this version has become an audience favorite since its debut in 1998 is a study in success from unlikely beginnings and a tribute to Anna-Marie Holmes, whose staging greatly clarified the19th century original by Marius Petipa and the 20th century version by Konstantin Sergeyev. Strange to consider that at the end of every performance of Corsaire, a respectable percentage of the Cleveland’s State Theatre’s 3000 seats were filled with applauding, mostly standing patrons despite the campy old-fashioned stagecraft of the pirate ship, a score that now sports the music of 5 composers, some of them second rate, and that over-the-top romantic story so politically incorrect that it would seem doomed to be improved out of existence.
We were among those standing and clapping on Thursday and Saturday nights. It was as if we’d partaken of some powerful recreational drug that helped us to see the fun side of a slave auction where young women are being sold into a life of sexual servitude. One of us cackled (loudly) when the pirate ship’s hinged mast collapsed on cue during the finale storm and the dummy lookout fell to the deck. Like the intoxicated St. Patrick’s Day revelers we almost mowed down driving downtown on Friday, the buzz was too good to waste even though we should probably have been concerned about something so completely, happily detached from reality.
Allow us to set the stage by conducting a brief who’s who of Corsaire’s first full scene, the bazaar scene. The pirates all dressed improbably alike were easy enough to identify from the Prologue, which showed them on their pirate ship, sailing over the wine dark sea (the Aegean, or whatever). And Conrad, his so-called friend Birbanto and his bare-chested slave Ali make their respective roles clear early in the mimed conversations. The succession of women’s dances, a trio of Odalisques, extended solos by Medora and her friend Gulnare, are a slave auction. Lankendem, the owner and auctioneer variously partners the women and dances his own solos in between theirs, displaying the wares and driving the price up.
One way to write a review of a production like Corsaire is to pretend that the dancer alone generates all the effects, raving about the spell cast by so-and-so. Sure, performances vary in their details and in their impact, but critics’ enthusiasm for one dancer over another often conceals merely personal preferences. Was Thursday’s performance, press night, better than Saturday’s? Maybe legs went generally higher Thursday but turns were a little more “on” on Saturday. And we’d be loathe to rank Maxim Beloserkovsky’s Conrad below Marcelo Gomes’ or Irina Dvorovenko’s Medora below Julie Kent’s despite the latter couple’s greater name recognition. As we said, the dancing was very good both nights but we were left contemplating the labor-intensive production in the service of frivolous treatment of forbidden topics.
Consider Ali the Slave. We saw Jose Manuel Carreno in the role on both nights and, no surprises; he dances real good. But however amazing Carreno is, consider with us how even more amazing is his character, Ali the slave.
Ali has many duties and whenever Conrad tells him to do something, Ali takes off on a dead run to take care of business. Conrad sends Ali to press his suit with Medora and –Shazaam!—Ali runs off stage left and sure enough, when Medora comes back she sneaks in a pas de deux with Conrad, the lucky stiff. Later, after the old pasha has won the bidding war and departed with Medora and Gulnare in a heavily guarded caravan, Conrad dispatches Ali again and Ali runs off stage right. We can be certain Ali works alone rescuing Medora offstage, because onstage all the pirates and pirate women are busy dancing a character dance: the pirate women’s red character shoes and the pirate men’s red boots stamping down into the stage; the arms swinging down in figure 8’s; it’s a lot of work bringing the energy back down to earth after the principal women are done with their point work and the principal men are done with their high-bouncing grande allegros. So offstage Ali single handedly overcomes the caravan guards and brings back the women captives with the evil slave merchant a prisoner.
Quite a guy that Ali!
As the ballet wound to a close, we began to entertain hope that Ali and Gulnare would hook up. She’s definitely not interested in Birbanto, who you’ll recall is dead by now anyway. Yep, Ali and Gulnare definitely look like a promising couple as the pirate ship sails away but then tragedy strikes and the ship is lost in a storm leaving only Medora and Conrad clinging to a rock.
But wait. Do we really know that Gulnare and Ali are drowned? Couldn’t they turn up later, their lives miraculously preserved, for an equally imaginative and politically incorrect sequel, Corsaire 2? Surely Ali deserves his own politically incorrect ballet! Have we strayed from our organizational outline? You bet. Under the intoxicating influence of ABT’s Corsaire. Love that buzz.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas