BWW REVIEW: American Ballet Theatre's LE CORSAIRE
Petipa, who of the three choreographers listed in the program has the most influence on American Ballet Theatre's Le Corsaire, knows how to create a dramatic excuse for dance. With a few notable exceptions, "Giselle" and "Romeo and Juliet" come instantly to my mind, declarative dance which spends twenty minutes to hammer out an "I love you" through pirouettes can be draining and leave the audience thinking "Just spit it out." Petipa, clearly seeing this dramatic shortcoming, forms his ballets around vast pageants, processionals, and presentations. The Black Swan seduces by exhibition at a banquet, the last glorious act of The Sleeping Beauty is a virtually plotless celebration, and practically the entire Nutcracker is a series of vignettes formed around a presentation. Le Corsaire is no different. The first act features the presentation of several ballerinas. The second act is centered around the principal dancers performing to "entertain the group". Then, in act three, a pasha spends a lengthy amount of time in a dream sequence which features, what else, women and flowers. Superficially, this all works wonderfully and the dancers shamelessly take this opportunity to exploit their most acrobatic technique. The piece's issues begin upon the introduction of the words "slave girls."
Le Corsaire, which is set in the Ottoman Empire, was first performed in Paris in 1856. For those keeping track, France took Algeria from the Ottomans less than two decades earlier and, systemic slavery was very much alive and well in the world, as the French were aware with the 1852 French publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin causing a sensation. Le Corsaire begins at a bazaar where a crew of pirates, including their leader Conrad and his friend Birbanto, watch as Lankendem begins to sell slave girls. Conrad falls instantly in love with the slave Medora. A Pasha arrives named Seyd. He purchases Gulnare and Medora. Conrad, infuriated that the woman with whom he's infatuated got purchased by someone else, decides to steal her away with the help of the pirates.
We then find ourselves at the pirate hideaway. The pirates have stolen, though not yet freed, the slave girls. They also took the slave merchant Lankendem for good measure. Medora asks for Conrad to free the slave girls and he agrees. Birbanto is enraged by this, seeing them as part of the loot from the bazaar, and puts a plan together to have Medora accidentally drug Conrad so that he'll go into a deep sleep. It works. In the confusion following this event Lankendem steals Medora back and Birbanto, attempts to kill Conrad in his sleep. This plan is cut short by the entrance of Conrad's slave who wakes him. The trio plan to find Medora.
Medora is brought to the pasha who is delighted to have her as his "number one wife". He then goes to sleep and has the aforementioned dream about flowers and women. The pirates then invade the palace. The pasha is chased away. Medora reveals Birbanto to be a traitor. Conrad shoots him and escapes with his slave, Medora, and Gulnare. While sailing away there's a storm. It sinks their ship. The couples survive though due "to the strength of their love".
The centering of the plot around the selling of "slaves" and its being played for whimsical Romance is, needless to say, a difficult device to attune to. The first act's presenting of the slaves features astonishing feats of choreographic imagination and physical prowess. The Odalisque trio of Paulina Waski, Zhong-Jing Fang and Kaho Ogawa leaves one breathless. Veronika Part's Medora exhibits a playfullness yet wholehearted rendition of this character. Devon Teuscher's Gulnare provides a similar form to her character, though hers is more sylphlike. Yet, regardless, one finds it difficult to applaud the act being committed on the stage. These women are bowing to those who will own them and they performed to prove their worth of ownership. With no framework to protect the applause from seeming like an endorsement of another human's capture, the piece is confounding. Perhaps, one would think, the stink of this introduction would wear off in the course of the play. To begin, it doesn't. However, it is joined on stage by a cartoonish and condescending parody of Islamic culture.
For those that are able to shrug off the insensitivity and tone deafness of this poorly aged plot, the performers are there to offer their audience everything they have in their physical arsenal. The acrobatic movement is a study in the entertainment value of bad taste when combined with astonishing execution. Cory Stearns and Gabe Stone Shayer grin confidently their way through pas de deux. James Whiteside, as Conrad's slave, offers an air of mysticism as he glides in the air with gravity defying leaps of all forms. Nearly all action on stage is more muscle than it is music, but it's served so generously that there's hardly room to complain.
Irina Tibilova's sets are beautiful and dreamlike in sepia pastels. Her costumes however, undergo the daunting challenge of adding enough taste to Orientalist aesthetic to render it palatable. Do we make Romantic ballerinas of our slaves or harem girls? It appears that an aesthetic no man's land was ultimately decided upon. With all the thematic baggage, I'm still not sure why one would choose to produce Le Corsaire. There are certainly better excuses to show off the physical might of the dancer. The music, which is a collage of composers, never gives one anything to latch onto. Remembering that perhaps the highest virtue of Petipa's greatest works were never choreographic but rather rested in Tchaikovsky's timeless scores. I think it is possible to enjoy oneself at Le Corsaire. I certainly did. The enjoyment will simply be uneven and founded on mixed feelings.