Le Corsaire

American Ballet Theatre

Spring Dance at the London Coliseum

(2009)

Review by Vera Liber

A cast of a hundred, colourful costumes, a handsome clutch of daring pirates, sabre dances, beautiful young women captured, traded, freed and recaptured, love, betrayal, a sailing galleon with skull and crossbones, a shipwreck which the lovers survive, and a silly, rich, greedy and rather comic camp pasha who dreams of young women in flower and in bud (the stage flooded with corps de ballet and children in the le jardin animé sequence), crashing music, virtuoso dancing, and a hokum plot - Le Corsaire is an unsubtle picture storybook ballet not to everyone's palate. In rather doubtful taste, too.

And a confusing tale at that, seen over the years in a variety of versions (from Petipa's to Sergeyev's and Gusev's), permutations, revisions upon revisions, and party-piece extracts - all loosely based on Byron's 1814 poem, reworked and rehashed by many hands - with several librettists and composers (Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo and Prince Oldenbourg).

But what Le Corsaire does have in Anna-Marie Holmes' pared down storyboard version 'after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev' brought here by ABT are four showcase dance roles for men and two for women. And this is why, I suspect, the American Ballet Theatre has brought two classical ballets (the other is Swan Lake) instead of the short ballets of their previous visit. To show off its new rising stars in demanding roles.

There are only four performances. I saw the second night and was impressed by the men, and Irina Dvorovenko as Medora, the slave girl loved by the corsair Conrad.

Cory Stearns with his height and elegant limbs is a princely Conrad, not the best actor, but a charming noble partner, and a fine dancer with a clean line, good placement, and a strong command of his surprisingly long legs.

Craig Salstein as Conrad's treacherous fiery pirate-in-arms Birbanto is a flashy, hammy, fleet-footed villain with terrific speed, dazzle, and panache. He even pulls off the panto shooting of two pistols in time to the music without undermining his stage presence - not seen that before in a classical ballet.

Ethan Stiefel in standard baggy trousers and bare torso as Ali the slave has the task of following Baryshnikov and Farukh Ruzimatov in the famous party piece to end all party pieces - the one used in ballet competitions. And although he is more solidly built than the above Russians, his splits in the air bring the house down. I, on the other hand, was holding my breath. There's no comparing milk, fortified though it may be, to vodka… The effort was visible, and, for me, he lacked speed.

The one who made me think that I was seeing a reincarnated Baryshnikov (who was ABT's artistic director in the 1980s) was Daniil Simkin as Lankendem, the slave trader. Slight, light, blond, he flew effortlessly through the air as he executed impossible triple tours en l'air, simultaneous leg splits and a last minute corkscrew finish (how does his spine survive?), landing softly in perfect placement with a grin on his face, as if to say, "take that". In character, of course.

I warmed to Irina Dvorovenko in the second act, especially in the pas de deux de la chambre. Soft, pliant, fluid, lyrical, with great poise and balance, in a gossamer light shift she melted Conrad's and our hearts - a lovely tender partnership. And her 32 fouettés were bang on - confident, but not arrogant. She grew into the role.

Maria Riccetto as Gulnare also took time to settle - expressive arms and swift footwork, if a little unsure of herself.

But the pas de trois of the odalisques was uneven, as were the corps de ballet.

A fun razzamatazz evening out with the Americans pulling out all the stops, but there is still work to be done - bravura turns do not a classical ballet make, though the audience loved the showy athleticism. Who wouldn't… Thunderous applause greeted the grand jetés en avant and à là seconde and en tournant, pirouettes with attitude, fouettés jetés, grands pas d'action… And the dancers deserved it - they were eager to please. Bravo for that. Names to remember.