|Act I of the Bolshoi's production of Le Corsaire|
As I discussed three years ago when I saw it in Moscow, Alexei Ratmansky’s production of Le Corsaire is luxurious and detailed in spectacular 19th-century style. The finale closes with a ship crashing and splitting into two. The Bolshoi’s dancing is stupendous. It takes extraordinary depth of talent to ensure that every dance in this long, rich, exhausting, detailed ballet is done with panache and excitement.
The three leads were perfection. Anna Tikhomirova shined particularly well in the role of Gulnare. Flirtatious, charming, and dynamic, her dancing is as witty as her character. Igor Tsvirko performed well as the titular pirate, providing romantic bravado and jumping high enough to elicit some gasps from the audience. Sadly, the typically bravura part doesn’t really do justice to his dramatic brilliance or to his capability for unusual, dynamic movement. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the Bolshoi promoting him to starring roles, and I look forward to seeing him many times in the future. Krysanova shows off beautiful, strong pointe work, excellent turns, and charming classical balance.
|Tikhomirova as Gulnare|
The three stars were supported by a disciplined, graceful corps. The centerpiece of the ballet, the Living Garden in Act II was created with a dizzying level of filagree. The only dancers who failed to impress were Nina Kaptsova and her young partner (and last-minute sub) Anton Gainutdinov in the pas d’esclaves. This can be a blisteringly exciting pas de deux, an early preview for the riches of Acts II and III. But here, while the dancers got through everything, it looked like a real struggle.
The real question with Corsaire, however, is not whether or not it was performed well but whether or not it should be performed at all. Like its 19th-century cousin La Bayadère, Corsaire embodies everything that made the Imperial Russian ballet tick: hours of classical dancing, brilliant sets, a silly Romantic storyline, and, above all, exoticism. The appeal of the production to its 19th-century audience was to see the riches of the Orient, to dream of the sexual availability of the harem, to tut-tut the promiscuity of the pasha, and to laugh at the foolishness of the Muslim and Jewish characters. Alistair Macauley at the New York Times has long argued that companies shouldn’t program Corsaire because the political problems aren't mitigated by any good choreography. To me, Bayadère is the truly unredeemable work: from beginning to end, the ballet presents characters in a racial hierarchy that’s reflected in the style of dance they do and in the shade of blackface makeup that they wear.
Corsaire is a different beast. The point is comedy over drama, and fantasy over ideology. Nevertheless I have become more uncomfortable with it in recent years. In the era of Trump and Brexit, I don’t think we can laugh off a plot in which, on multiple occasions, the white characters get the better of the Muslims by attacking them during prayer. Orientalism is presented as a joke here, but that doesn’t make it innocuous.
|One of the anti-semitic scenes from Le Coraire|
I would prefer to see a completely revamped, regietheater Corsaire. Indeed, I think that the work could be altered to comment on our political times in comedic fashion. Nevertheless, Ratmansky’s highly faithful production forces us to confront the seedy underbelly of the 19th-century ballet and its 20th-century descendants in a different way. Rather than other modern productions of the ballet, which sugarcoat the work’s racism by taking out only the most egregious examples, the production is scrupulously faithful to 19th-century ballet practice. It is a production I would love to show my music history students, but it is also a production that can allow an audience to laugh at racism and anti-semitism. It brutally reveals the politics of the audience members to one another: do they titter at the blackface character? Do they laugh when the Jewish man is revealed to have coins up his sleeves and down his vest? I genuinely do not know in what spirit Ratmansky staged it or in what spirit the company intends it to be taken.
This is one way of dealing with a problematic ballet from the canon. I just wish it weren't the only way. I want ballet companies to take more responsibility for what they show. So, in the end, I can’t claim this is an enjoyable evening at the ballet, but it is a completely fascinating one.
Le Corsaire, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet on tour at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Music: Adolph Adam, Léo Delibes, Cesare Pugni, Pyotr von Oldenburg, Riccardo Drigo, Albert Zabel, and Julius Gerber; Choreography: Marius Petipa; Revival: Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka; New Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky; Designs: Boris Kaminsky; Costumes: Elena Zaitseva based on sketches by Evgeny Ponomarev; Lighting: Damir Ismagilov; Medora: Ekaterina Krysanova; Conrad: Igor Tsvirko; Gulnare: Anna Tikhomirova; Birbanto: Denis Savin: Pas d'esclaves: Nina Kaptsova, Anton Gainutdinov. August 13, 7:30pm