Maria Khoreva in Mariinsky Ballet: Le Corsaire
Photo by Natasha Razina

Mariinsky Ballet has a formidable reputation for a reason - its alumni lists boast some of the biggest names in the dance world, and its productions have survived regime changes, artistic evolutions, and more over the centuries.

Le Corsaire, which premiered in 1863, is one such long-lasting piece (this particular production is a little newer, having premiered in 1987). Featuring pirates, romance, and betrayal, Le Corsaire has all the romantic elements of yore that make it an appealing piece to revive: the story follows three corsairs (pirates) who are shipwrecked during a storm and saved by a group of Greek women; the men's leader, Conrad, falls in love with Medora, one of the young women who leads the rescue. They are ripped apart, however, by the arrival of Turkish police, who are searching for the pirates and take the women as their prisoners, at which point they are seized by the slave-trader, Lankedem. The women are sold off, with priority given to Seid Pasha for his harem, though Conrad and his friends manage to buy away Medora, steal a number of her friends, and kidnap Lankedem. Amidst the celebration of the successful caper, the women ask to be returned home; the men refuse, and turn on Conrad when Medora convinces him to agree. The traitors collaborate to incapacitate Conrad with Lankedem, who in turn recaptures Medora and the other women to sell to the Pasha. Conrad and his friends disguise themselves as pilgrims, and are able to steal away the women, presumably for good.

Despite its status as a classic, it's hard to not notice Le Corsaire's age showing in certain areas - the romanticism around pirates fades in and out of favor, and seems to be overshadowed today by the horrors of abductions and slavery, not to mention the villainous casting of the Muslim Turks in contrast with the European corsairs and women. One of the most notable dance sequences is performed by a character who is only briefly mentioned in the synopsis of the show; an examination of the program reveals the character, Ali, to be a slave, which is striking today in a way that it may not have been in previous productions. The women have very little agency after their opening scene, and are treated as chattel, repeatedly stolen and sold, even by the heroes. The overtly racist tones are also quite problematic - in addition to the evil slavers being Muslim, they are also easily tricked, and it's hard to overlook the implications of that, especially since Conrad's ploy involved using prayer as a distraction.

None of this should be ignored, but it can be put to the side while examining the production itself. Mariinsky Ballet's reputation for elaborate productions and incredible dances is well-deserved, and there are some standout performances throughout the current production that certainly live up to the company's renowned reputation. Maria Khoreva is stunning as Medora, and captures the audience's attention as easily as Conrad's heart; her young age (she's only eighteen) indicates that she will be a dancer to watch over the years, and that she has a long career of enchanting audiences ahead of her. Timur Askerov is a serviceable Conrad beside her - their partner work is great, and he displays Khoreva beautifully, though Conrad's solos are noticeably less complex than Medora's. For Khoreva's true match, skill-wise, audiences should look to Kimin Kim's Ali; as I noted earlier, Ali's dance sequences are among the show's most noteworthy numbers, and Kim's performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. Khoreva and Kim's performances are alone reason to see this production.

Kimin Kim in Mariinsky Ballet: Le Corsaire
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky

The rest of the company is quite good (notably, Alexei Timofeyev as the slave-trader, Lankedem), but pales in comparison to these two standouts, particularly because this production has one of the largest corps de ballet I've seen on a stage; there are moments where, whether by nature of the size or by design of the staging, the corps feels a bit overcrowded and underutilized. The musicality of the group is also occasionally a bit off - there are some musical hits where the corps raises a hand or takes a step for emphasis, but the corps often was about a half-beat behind.

The production elements are also worth discussing - Galina Solovyova's costumes are bright, beautiful, and versatile, allowing for the dancers' movements while still preserving the characters. The opening visual of Conrad's ship in the storm was striking, and was wonderfully mirrored by the closing visual of the company sailing away in victory. Teymuraz Murvanidze's set designs are dazzling displays of color and texture, though I wish there had been less reliance on the frontal projection screen so we could have seen the pieces more clearly. The orchestra, conducted by Vladislav Karklin, was wonderful.

Despite its dated premise and overstuffed ensemble, Le Corsaire provides a delightful evening with some truly inspiring dance. It may not be the most enlightened production, but it's certainly an entertaining one.

Mariinsky Ballet's Le Corsaire is at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, April 14th. The company does rotate; the review above is based on the opening performance on Tuesday, April 9th. The performance runs approximately two and a half hours with two intermissions. Tickets and more information can be found on the Kennedy Center's website.

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From This Author Rachael Goldberg

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