First premièred in 2013, as this was the first full length production Tamara Rojo commissioned as Artistic Director of English National Ballet, there was a lot riding on the success of Le Corsaire (The Pirate); loosely based on the poem The Corsair by Lord Byron which sold ten thousand copies on the first day of its release and relating the escapades of the pirate, Conrad, who journeys across high seas to save his harem girl, Medora.
With all modern productions having been derived from Marius Petipa’s staging for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg during the 19th century, the ENB are the first UK company to perform the complete ballet. Using Jules-Henri de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilier’s libretto, this swashbuckling tale of pirates, shipwrecks, slave girls, harems and (in this case) a rather comical opium-smoking Pasha, was well worth revisiting. The ENB began by slightly modifying choreographer and one time ballerina Anna-Marie Holmes’ version, tasked Hollywood legend Bob Ringwood (Batman, Alien 3 and Troy) with creating evocative costume and set designs, and gave Music Director Gavin Sutherland the challenge of harmonising the original score by Adolphe Adam along with a variety of composers. This Le Corsaire re-writes the rule book.
It’s clear to see that, since Rojo joined in 2012, the ENB have consistently raised their game, no longer content to trail behind the Royal Ballet, who had better watch their step if audiences are to remain satisfied in paying almost double for tickets when they can be sure of the same level of excellence down the road at the London Coliseum, and thanks to a now mighty portfolio of talented dancers including the likes of Alina Conjocaru and Yonah Acosta (nephew of Carlos Acosta), not to mention Rojo herself. Despite the ENB having to work to much tighter production budgets than the Royal Ballet, Rojo has rewarded her dancers with greater freedom of creativity and expression, with Cojocaru having made headlines in 2013 on leaving the Royal Ballet for rival ENB after 13 years, on failing to be cast as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty due to her interpretation of the role not being in accordance with ‘Royal Ballet style’.
Le Corsaire follows an immensely successful revival of Nutracker at the London Coliseum and although lead principal Cojocaru was originally set to perform in the opening night gala, Rojo (recently awarded a CBE for her services to ballet), stepped in after her colleague sustained an injury and provided audiences with an utterly ravishing performance of the beautiful slave girl Medora, partnered with guest artist Osiel Gouneo as Conrad. Quite aside from sublime poise and a technique that makes her look like she was born with pointes, whether playing Odette or Juliet, Rojo’s acting breadth is what makes her one of the must-see ballerinas of a generation, there being a Vivien Leigh-like quality and effervescence about her that ensures we’ll believe the plot however unlikely.
Meanwhile, First Soloist Laurretta Summerscales was captivating as the Pasha’s slave girl, Gulnare, Yonah Acosta made a fine Birbanto (Conrad’s so-called friend) and the charismatic guest star Brooklyn Mack was perfectly suited to the role of the bazaar owner and slave-girl trader Lankendem. Yet, when you take into account that Gouneo, whilst otherwise impressive, experienced a slight wobble on one of the lifts with Rojo, the Mexican-born Junior Soloist Cesar Corrales who starred as Ali proved the stand out male of the night in terms of jump height, strength and overall technique, almost bringing the house down towards the end of the second act due to mesmerising us with faster and more centred spins than a spinning top. Fortunately, it’s a ballet that allows much more scope for the male performers and it was great to see them finally encouraged to shine alongside their female co-stars.
As Le Corsaire is presented in three acts, with the main scene settings consisting of a Baazar, Pirate’s Cave and Pasha’s Palace, it’s a visual spectacle that always leaves you wanting more. Based on the remarkable performances in the second act I was surprised not to see a standing ovation on the opening night, however, this was probably down to slight signs of waning energy levels and the fact that the choreography of the third act doesn’t boast as many tricks and lifts. Nevertheless it featured a veritable treasure chest of theatricality from start to finish, and it’s no wonder that Rojo selected this heady production to showcase her talented Company at the Palais Garnier in Paris, where in June this year the ENB will become the first UK ballet Company to perform in over 65 years. Like the daring pirates and their exotic ladies, these dancers are undoubtedly at the forefront of their art and are clearly enjoying the prospect of delighting fans both home and overseas.
Le Corsaire at the London Coliseum until 24th January 2016, the Royal Opera House, Muscat
10 Mar 2016 – 12 Mar 2016 and Palais Garnier, Paris from 21 – 25 June 2016. For more information and tickets visit the website.