American Ballet Theatre
by Jerry Hochman
June 4 and 5, 2013 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
American Ballet Theatre unveiled its ‘new’ production of Le Corsaire on Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera House. I saw that performance, as well as one the following evening. That’s enough.
I’ve previously written that a classic is a classic for a reason. The converse is also true. There’s a reason why Le Corsaire has not entered the pantheon of great classical ballets – it’s silly (more than others), the choreography doesn’t fit the story or the characters (these are pirates who sail the Central European Sea), and it looks and sounds like a patchwork quilt (which is what it is). Even new sets and costumes haven’t improved it – if anything, it looks now, from the costumes to the apocalyptic finale, like a poor man’s La Bayadere, with none of La Bayadere's coherence, sensuality, or class.
What it does have going for it is that it provides plenty of performing opportunities for dancers beyond the two leads. That’s a benefit of no small significance. But even good performances (and there were lots of them at the two performances I saw) can’t rescue this.
The story is stupefying. A pirate named Conrad sails with his crew, his slave Ali, and his lead pirate cohort Birbanto to Turkey. They quickly find their way to a bazaar in the city of Adrianople (that’s what it’s called in the program notes) run by a sleazy slave trader named Lankendem, who, when they arrive, just happens to be surrounded by beautiful slave girls for sale. Conrad and one of the slave girls, Medora (Lankendem’s prize acquisition), are immediately smitten with each other. A Pasha named Seyd arrives shortly thereafter, with the intention of adding to his harem. Lankendem presents Gulnare, whom he shows off to the Pasha by dancing a pas de deux with her. Gulnare, not a happy camper, wants nothing to do with the fat old Pasha, who seems to be infected with some strange illness that makes him scratch himself incessantly. But the Pasha decides that he’ll satisfy a different itch by buying Gulnare. Eventually, Lankendem persuades Seyd to buy Medora as well. This doesn’t sit well with Conrad, who orders his merry men (oops, wrong story) to steal Medora back. They do, and in the process kidnap Lankendem.
Then, in Act II (that was all Act I), Conrad shows Medora his Grotto, and also introduces her to his hunk slave Ali, who demonstrates his love for and obedience to Conrad by dancing with him and Medora in a famous pas de trois that is frequently, and mercifully, excised from the ballet and performed independently as a pas de deux just between Medora and Ali (which leads an unsuspecting public to think that Medora and Ali are a couple). But I digress. As does the story in the ballet.
Anyway, Medora convinces Conrad to show his love for her by releasing his other slave girls. Conrad agrees, but Birbanto and Conrad’s pirate crew are just a little annoyed – they had other plans for the girls. So Birbanto ‘persuades’ his prisoner Lankendem to give Conrad a flower laced with a substance that, once he sniffs it, would cause Conrad to lose consciousness, and Birbanto would then cut his throat. Conrad’s throat. The flower looks very similar to the flower that Puck uses to drug the lovers in The Dream. There I go digressing again.
Anyway, clever Lankendem arranges for some local boys, who just happen to be in the neighborhood, to carry the flower to Medora, knowing full well that she’d present it to Conrad without sniffing it first herself, which would be the natural thing for her to do. Medora and Conrad, after a little dancing foreplay, are about to hit the bed, when the boys arrive, carrying the flower to give to Medora that Birbanto had given to Lankendem to give to Conrad. [And the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle, for you Danny Kaye fans.] Without bothering to sniff the flower herself first, Medora presents the flower to Conrad. How did Lankendem know? It's a miracle. Conrad does sniff the flower, however, and promptly passes out. At that point, Birbanto emerges from the wings and prepares to slice Conrad’s throat. But Ali comes to the rescue, awakens Conrad, and in the ensuing struggle, Medora punctures Birbanto’s forearm with a knife. [She didn’t recognize Birbanto, because he was wearing a disguise, which everyone knows is necessary to do when you expect to slice the throat of an unconscious man.] While this is going on, clever Lankendem steals Medora back. Birbanto, making the best of a bad situation, pretends that he helped save Conrad from Lankendem. They vow to rescue Medora. Again.
Meanwhile, back at the Pasha’s Palace, where Gulnare is dancing playfully (apparently being a slave girl in Seyd’s harem isn’t so bad), Lankendem presents Medora to the Pasha, who immediately jumps into bed. No, not with Medora. Alone. To dream of Gulnare and Medora and all the women that he doesn’t have to fantasize about because he already owns them. But then, without the dream, there wouldn’t be the requisite dream scene. But I digress. Again.
Anyway, the Pasha is suddenly awakened by Conrad, Birbanto, and their pirate horde, who overcome the Pasha and his girls. But Birbanto is still smarting from Conrad’s freeing of those slave girls, and he seizes the opportunity to help himself to Gulnare. A chase ensues. A little one. Halfway across the stage, where they bump into Medora and Conrad. Medora recognizes Birbanto by his stab wound, and reveals him as a traitor. Conrad shoots him. Then he and Ali and Gulnare and presumably the remaining pirate crew run back to the pirate ship, and sail off to what would have been pirate heaven, except the ship is hit by this thunderstorm that causes the ship to sink. Sort of like the gods' revenge in La Bayadere, except instead of temple stones falling down, the sea, represented as large globs that look like stones, rises up. Everybody dies. Almost. But Conrad and Medora, who find their way to some rock in the middle of the ocean that looks a lot like flotsam from the ship, survive and live happily ever after. Alone on the rock.
Although there are some legitimate highlights, the choreography in general looks like a collection of outtakes from other ballets. At times, the pirates and their women perform ensemble dances that resemble dances by the nobles in Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, and at other times that look like Hungarian or Russian dances. The dance by the Odalisques in Act I, the equivalent of the Pas de Trois in Swan Lake, is ok, but not particularly exciting and it comes and goes much too soon to have any impact. The solos, primarily by Conrad in Act I, are ‘first we go to the left and then we go to the right and then we go to the left and then we go to the right….’ Very uninspired. There’s more swashbuckling sense in "Pirates of the Caribbean." The ride.
The pas de deux with Gulnare and Lankendem in Act I, the duet with Medora and Conrad in Act II (sweet rather than passionate), and the Jardin Anime in Act III, look reasonably good (although the Jardin Anime could use a shot of adrenaline – it’s pretty, but it looks tired, which is particularly surprising at the beginning of the ballet’s week-long run). The signature pas de deux/trois with Medora, Conrad, and Ali at the beginning of Act II is, thankfully, still glorious.
Tuesday’s performance featured Natalia Osipova as Medora, Isabella Boylston as Gulnare, Ivan Vasiliev as Conrad, Herman Cornejo as Lankendem, Craig Salstein as Birbanto, and Daniil Simkin as Ali. Ms. Osipova was in top form technically (she did the fouettes in the pas de trois in Act II, for example, on a dime, alternating between a single and consecutive doubles throughout), but she seemed either disconnected or overly demonstrative otherwise. Mr. Vasiliev had little magnetism, and seemed more intent on upstaging Ali (which he failed to do). To this viewer, it is essential that Ali have power, as well as technique. Mr. Simkin’s Ali had technique to spare, and all the proper mannerisms, but lacked any sense of power. Mr. Simkin was Conrad’s Boy Friday. Mr. Cornejo was fine as Lankendem, with the right combination of bravado and irreverence. Ms. Boylston’s Gulnare lacked the technical refinement that one would expect (solo turns that were repeatedly completed at an angle off center, for example), but she acted the part well. [Ms. Boylston, as I’ve previously indicated, is a powerful dancer, with a dynamic attack. She projects confidence whenever she’s on stage. But for whatever reason she has a more difficult time with roles that demand classical technical precision. It may be a reflection of her carriage – her upper body looks a bit rounded at the shoulders compared to other ballerinas in the company.] For this viewer, the best of the cast was Mr. Salstein, who was on the money technically and brought his own brand of both comic and dramatic flair to the role of Birbanto. In the Odalisques dance, Sarah Lane was appropriately delicate and technically crystalline; Misty Copeland seemed to work harder than she should have, but got through it successfully, and Yuriko Kajiya, despite some technical difficulty, was very good in her variation.
While not without flaws, Wednesday’s performance was better. It was as if the stars were aligned, and casting for the lead roles was as it should have been. Xiomara Reyes portrayed Medora; Mr. Cornejo was Conrad; Mr. Simkin was Lankendem, Mr. Vasiliev was Ali, Sarah Lane played Gulnare, and Arron Scott portrayed Birbanto. Ms. Reyes gave a more balanced performance than Ms. Osipova did the previous day. Although she wasn’t able to do Ms. Osipova’s tricks, Ms. Reyes's technical execution was more than adequate, her attitude appeared less programmed, and she and Ms. Lane worked well together. Ms. Lane was a filigree Gulnare, with a deliberate, controlled, and refined delivery, and nuanced characterization. Mr. Cornejo’s Conrad had the flair that Mr. Vasiliev’s performance lacked the previous night, and Mr. Vasiliev had the power as Ali that Mr. Simkin’s performance lacked (although Mr. Vasiliev, technically, was somewhat off, and looked a bit sloppy). Mr. Scott was good as Birbanto, with appropriate swagger, and although he was less polished and nuanced than Mr. Salstein, it was a promising performance. But for this viewer the highlight of the performance was Mr. Simkin’s Lankendem. As good as Mr. Cornejo was on Tuesday, Mr. Simkin gave the character additional flourish and provided a measure of liveliness, cleverness and chutzpah that I’ve not previously seen. Further, his partnering of Ms. Lane, which I have frequently faulted in the past, was attentive and non-intrusive. All in all, his was a very fine performance. In the Odalisque pas de trois, Melanie Hamrick and Kristi Boone were both excellent in the roles danced yesterday by Ms. Lane and Ms. Copeland, and although she didn't show the verve that Ms. Kajiya did yesterday, Leann Underwood nailed her role. Ms. Hamrick and Ms. Underwood are among those corps dancers who should be given greater performing opportunities.
Le Corsaire has a complex history. Its first production was in 1856, but it was substantially revised by Marius Petipa in an 1899 production in St. Petersburg, and this current production, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, is derived from the Petipa production as well as from additional choreography by Konstantin Sergeyev (Ms. Holmes’s staging is described as ‘after’ Petipa and Sergeyev). The score uses bits and pieces from Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, and Prince Oldenbourg. With this background, it's not surprising that Le Corsaire has all the characteristics of a ballet by committee, with music and dance that lend the entire ballet an aura of incoherence. And the costumes, which at a minimum should be sensuous, look dull. Even the corps on the stage perimeters looked bored. [I noticed that some changes to the corps placement in Act I were made between Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s performances. These changes didn’t help - it needs major surgery.] Why ABT brought Le Corsaire back for a second consecutive year, and with a new production that adds little that's new (and which actually premiered in Argentina in 2011), is inexplicable. It's time to give it a rest.
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