One man, one day, two Corsaires. The man: TheOperatunist. The Day: January 16 2016. The Two Corsaires: by English National Ballet.
Or rather, the two Corsaires, Osiel Gouneo and Yonah Acosta. Their Medoras, Tamara Rojo and Erina Takahashi.
Let’s face it, the Corsaire/Pirate is thin on story. It is whimsy, nineteenth century hokum, one of the many many ballets churned out to please the Parisian masses in the mid 19thC which only somehow scraped through into our era due to that man Petipa, and practically partly through – as with most ballets – the heroic memories from réptitéurs, choreographers, dancers, and partly from Sergeyev notation (once more we praise Sergeyev for his notation system). As with most old ballets, ENB’s show hasn’t been hauled from a time-capsule nor preserved in aspic. Having it performed by a British company is rather rare. (I think we like our ballet’s rather less boisterous, but the Soviets couldn’t get enough of it.)
The story is thin as the pirates’ hilarious fake moustaches and falls into the category of PG-13, “contains mild predicament”. Its glorified rescue narrative claims inspiration from Byron, who must be chortling in his grave (I hope) to know that his poetry is the basis of such roisterous good fun.
A quick synopsis: Pirate fancies girl. Girl (Medora) has been abducted. Guy meets girl. Girl is abducted again. Pirate abducts her back + some other women. His mate gets angry at Conrad promising all the treasure to the girl. Former slaveover (now a prisoner of the pirates) abducts her back to the Pasha/slaveowner. Pirate rescues girl. Shoots mate. The good guys escape. Much rejoicing. Shipwreck, some deaths: much rejoicing. Also the Pirate has some kind of almost magic supernatural genie type guy, called Ali, of whom much more later.*
Along the way a pot-pourri of rum-te-tum, oomh-pah type music, instantly forgettable, but giving strong beats for all to dance to, which is really only all they wanted back then.
Le Corsaire needs a company to pull out all the stops so that the music isn’t yawn inducing, to see that the plot advances if it doesn’t edify, and to make us feel that we’re having a good time, money and time well spent. Here, all boxes ticked. In having fun, the ENB pull out the stops. Townswomen cavort with pirates, harem girls are variously pulled around, sashay, seduce (and poor Precious Adams is dragged onstage by one leg…) pirates wave swords leap around with bravado (and bad moustaches) and at the end, there’s even a nice dream sequence for some Petipa-ish rank and file tutu-clad corps-work. Lovely!
Erina Takahashi is a lively Medora, but perhaps a little too winsome. Nevertheless she is buoyant in her dancing, exquisitely exact and technically matchless. Her port de bras is glorious, each movement well formed and lovingly co-ordinated. She radiates calm authority and a confidence that comes with that total security of technique. With her, nothing was ever not beautifully danced.
Tamara Rojo is a different dancer of course. She gave us an ebullient Medora, one who chucked the Pasha’s chin, teasingly beckoned him, toyed with his affections. As in the Nutcracker (and really anything she has to do it in) her turning was impressive as were her balances in the dream variation, with only a small steadying bouree necessary.
In her dancing with her Pirate/Conrad (Yonah Acosta) Takihashi was partnered strongly and with believable interplay. One felt he cared for his slave girl and would move heaven and earth to win her back. Their dances in the pas de action were excellent. His variations were nicely done, tackling the great excesses of style with ease. By contrast in his pas suel, Oziel Gouneo‘s Conrad seemed a little troubled in his connections and phrasings. Moments seemed moments, rather than flow, and I felt there was a noticeable feeling of stopping/starting in his variations. He hid this well with a megawatt smile, but looking beyond it, one sees slightly more care needed at times. Not a huge disappointment but some tidying up would bring his impressive skills to the fore.
I must mention Katja Khaniukova as Gunare. In the evening show as the same character, Lauretta Summerscales showed a finer line at times, with greater care in some descents to pointe than Kournikova, but that’s minor. Khaniukova has I think, the edge in phrasing, ballon and illusion. In lifts she gave a perfect illusion of weightlessness. It helps that she is (I think) shorter than Summerscales, who gave perhaps the finer display of acting. Both ladies did well in their variations of balances, travel en pointe etc. Summerscales may have been abducted and borne away slightly better, and gave us a a narrative of captivity, bondage and plea for release, but on a level of pure dance, I think Khaniukova was the better crafted and performed choreography. I was spoiled: for acting, one could delight in Summerscales. For dancing, Khaniukova. Great casting for the role.
It is no exaggeration to say that Jinhao Zhang‘s slave Ali actually hinted at the arcane. His Puckish flights and interpolations were delightful, mysticism shimmered in all he did and his solo in the pas de action was strong. Nothing however could compare with Isaac Hernández, almost an Apollo in his pretensions and danced as if auditioning for that same, gamely deciding to let loose a whirl of tours fit to drill through the floor – or take off in elevation. As a spectacle of physicality, the effect was truly astonishing. As an aspect of performance, it left me in two minds. Exhilarated to see it, but then querying its call to the attention. Still, ballet is about feats of wonder, usually quieter in tone than this, but not in Corsaire, a boy’s ballet, with big boys dancing. And this was dancing as spectacle at its best, sixty or so seconds of outrageous, laugh-out-loud testosterone driven display. The audience cheered after the first few turns, and the acclaim only grew. His performance in the action was worth the ticket price alone.
Ken Saruhashi was a Lakendem lankily menacing and scurrilous. Junor Souza’s Lankendem was about as menacing as a pirate’s parrot, being rather than an nasty slave-market owning villain, more like a nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Max Westwell as Birbanto didn’t overwhelm me but his evening’s counterpart Cesar Corrales was incisive, dynamic and full of presence. His acting was sharp and travelled all the way to the balcony where I was sat. One felt he was a true foil to Conrad’s goodness. In terms of acting alone it was excellent. And for dance, the same. Another excellent portrayal from this fine dancer.
The trios of Odialesques gave their demanding variations well, Michael Coleman as the Pasha was ridiculously pantomime-y and the corps bashed through the text with glee, and well, why not? How often does a guy get to take a girl over his shoulder, imitate whipping, boister around with a sword, or a girl get to be variously a harem girl, a dream-maiden, a townswoman, all in one show? The shared enjoyment was infectious.
Minor flubs with the a drop curtain in the evening near the end were forgiven. Less so were the sightlines visible to the rear of the stage, where actors could be seen making their entrances from a brightly lit doorway in preparation for curtain call whilst the finale was still going on*. At that same call, great applause for all, cheers for Hernandez, Gouneo and Rojo. Her company can be proud of this show, and it behoves everyone to go and see it.
* I think actually he just a slave, but in his ways of doing things he is rather mysterious.
(*It was also fun to see Jinhao Zhang fall out of the pirate boat as the show calls for, then crawl away on the floor to get to the wings).