The first time and only other time I saw Le Corsaire was four years ago when the Bolshoi Ballet brought it to Washington D.C.—and I don’t remember a damn thing. Well, except at one point during the infamous ‘le jardin animé’ scene where a bunch of people are dancing in a garden for no reason, I distinctly remember silently counting the number of bodies on stage in my head—seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine, eighty…Corsaire really is kind of like that morning donut; not good for you, but certainly edible, not something you’d necessarily seek out but you’ll eat it if it’s right in front of you, and sometimes you don’t care if it’s a bad idea at the time even when you know you’ll regret it later. I can’t imagine Corsaire as being on top of any balletomane’s list, but it caters to a different audience and has some importance in the art form’s history, even if the famous pas de deux is the bane of every gala’s existence. Begrudgingly, we deal with it and might even enjoy it a little. I wouldn’t even call it a guilty pleasure ballet because somehow, you don’t even feel bad delighting in its ludicrousness.
I should’ve known it would come to this–a little over a month ago I was in Fort Worth, Texas, visiting the Kimbell Museum of Art. In it, I was immediately drawn to a work called ‘Selim and Zuleika’, a 19th century oil painting by Eugène Delacroix. As I read the placard, I felt a chill as a shadow I had once cast off made itself known to me once more. Bearing in mind I had actually forgotten everything I learned about Corsaire, but in reading the following, the familiarity was too great not to re-plank old bridges (via the Kimbell’s website):
Like many of his contemporaries, Delacroix took inspiration from the best-selling Romantic poetry of Lord Byron. This painting is the last and most developed of the four canvases that the artist devoted to “The Bride of Abydos,” first published in 1813 and available in French translation by 1821. Set in the Dardanelles of Turkey, Byron’s poem relates the tragic fate of Zuleika, the daughter of the Pasha Giaffir, and her lover, the pirate Selim. In order to avoid a loveless marriage arranged by her father, Zuleika escapes at night from the harem tower in which she has been held. In the scene shown in Delacroix’s painting the lovers await rescue in a grotto by the sea, pursued by Giaffir and his men, armed and bearing torches. When Selim fires his pistol to summon the aid of his comrades, who are waiting offshore, the shot signals their position to Giaffir. Sensing the approach of her pursuers, Zuleika tries to restrain Selim. In the tragic climax of the tale, Selim is shot dead by Giaffir, and his body washed out to sea. Zuleika dies of grief.
Wait a minute…I thought to myself, dusting cobwebs off the recesses of my memories—Lord Byron…Mediterranean…pasha…harem…pirate…loveless marriage…grotto by the sea…GAH! Shades of Corsaire had insidiously made its way into my life again, when I least expected it, and I even liked the blasted painting with its rich jewel toned focal points and carefully etched facial expressions. Parley? I didn’t really have much of a choice because I knew in a couple months time, I’d be seeing Corsaire on American Ballet Theatre. Initially I hoped to artfully dodge the whole ordeal, but when I heard Steven McRae from the Royal Ballet would perform as a guest artist, I resigned myself to that rare opportunity. Though McRae’s role was strangely minor, his jumps were fiery and his partnering of Misty Copeland as Gulnare was quite strong—which wasn’t something that occurred to me when I watched videos of McRae in other things, and Copeland, with her extremely hyperextended knees needs an acutely aware partner to be able to help her find her center, and McRae did a phenomenal job.
The story of the ballet Le Corsaire is nearly impossible to describe without laughing or wanting to beat your head against a wall, but to put it crudely, the pirate Conrad falls in love with Medora, a slave girl, and with her fellow slave girl Gulnare, are sold to the Pasha Seyd by the slave trader, Lankendem. Conrad then instructs his slave Ali to kidnap Medora, and they escape to his grotto, where the good stuff happens. Conrad’s pirates have also taken other slave girls, and Medora beseeches Conrad to free them all, much to the annoyance of Conrad’s friend Birbanto, who ignites a mutiny. Conrad quells the uproar, but Birbanto is still bitter about the ruckus and sprays a flower with a sleeping potion (stay with me!) and has it given to Medora, who bestows it on Conrad, who takes a whiff and passes out. Birbanto and the pirates come to take Medora away, but she avoids capture and cuts Birbanto’s arm with a dagger in the process—and is promptly captured by Lankendem, who gives her back to the Pasha. The Pasha, falls asleep and has outrageously pink dreams of his wives (remember the aforementioned inconsequential garden scene?). Meanwhile, Conrad and his pirates manage to sneak into the palace and everything goes bananas. At one point, Birbanto makes a move for Gulnare, and upon seeing him, Medora is finally able to expose him as a traitor. Conrad shoots Birbanto, and then he, Medora, Ali, Gulnare (maybe Lankendem? I forget) escape from the alerted palace guards and flee by ship. A violent storm then sends them—well, most of them—to the bottom of the sea, and only the lovers Conrad and Medora survive, washing upon a rocky shore. And scene.
This Corsaire (for better or worse!) plays out much like a movie rather than a ballet. Lord Byron’s poem The Corsair of which the ballet…is based…er, loosely draws elements from, offers much more rich complexities, especially in the characterization of Conrad. Curiously, Delacroix also painted “Episode from The Corsair”, which depicts a scene in which Gulnare confesses her love for the imprisoned pirate and offers to kill the Pasha, so that he may be freed. Conrad and Gulnare actually have a bit of a fling, and she’s the one Conrad comes to rescue, even though his true love is still Medora. Conrad even betrays Medora with a kiss to Gulnare, and there we have our symbolic gesture of the inner conflict. Still, the Byronic hero is a sort of bad boy with a hidden virtue—a cunning, suave, foolhardy, dashing, and gallant man of questionable morals but not entirely reprehensible. As Conrad, Marcelo Gomes was the epitome of debonair in Wednesday’s matinee. My friend Robin and I were DYING because it’s sort of a screwball role and requires some amount (but not too much) mindfulness not to ham it up to the point of buffoonery, but Gomes was brilliant. Chivalrous but also adorably preposterous, it made sense with the absurdity that is Le Corsaire, and his acting made it infinitely more enjoyable. He makes it so easy to forget about how illogical ballet can be, because regardless of what’s happening on the stage, there’s always something gratifying when you can see someone enjoying what he’s doing to the fullest.
Equally relishable was the epic slave run of James Whiteside as Ali, scampering into the wings with arms outstretched to the sides, head tossed back—it was magnificent. Together with Gomes and Gillian Murphy as Medora, they performed the central pas de trois the best I’ve ever seen—I was actually quite moved. Sometimes performed as a pas de deux for galas, this except is performed way too much for competitions and galas all over the world, so a variety of videos exist on the Internet in overabundance. The standards are high and the tolerance is low (Adolphe Adam’s score will haunt you for the rest of your life), so I don’t say this lightly, but Gomes/Murphy/Whiteside were truly wonderful. Such gracious, steadfast, and tender partnering from both Gomes and Whiteside and good heavens, Murphy’s got moxie. She looked so radiant and yet calm—she does all of the difficult turns and tricky steps without an ounce of trepidation. There are perhaps more refined dancers, but there are a great deal less who can dance the way she can. While so many dancers obsess over the pursuit of perfection, Murphy dances within her own mind and body, which gives her the freedom to play with her technique. She does things differently and it’s wonderful like multiple pirouettes with her arms simultaneously (and slowly) floating up over her head, which is one of the hardest things to coordinate while your body is turning because it can so easily throw you off balance. She’s a riot in the best possible way and holds her own against the bravado of the men, which is typically what Corsaire is designed to do—show off the men.
Any ballet that can be described as “swashbuckling” is going to make me suppress a downcast gaze accompanied by a disgruntled slump of the shoulders, but if I had to see Le Corsaire every few years it would certainly be at ABT. The current production is on loan from Teatro Colon from Buenos Aires, and the costumes are indeed quite beautiful. Choreographically, there’s not too much one can do to Corsaire, though I think the moment where Ali and Conrad share an exchange and then all of a sudden Conrad bursts into consecutive pirouettes a la seconde is strangely placed behind a “v” of pirates, obscuring a relatively pointless insertion of a bravura step anyway. Also, one of the lifts in the bed…bed-grotto(?) scene was awkward looking, with Medora inverted overhead Conrad and clinging to his shoulders in a push-up position, and then she lifts one arm, which was hidden by her dress and looked like pilates or figure skating (and not even good figure skating!). But, none of that really matters and ABT’s Corsaire is a relatively smooth sailing ship as they say, and I even liked it better than DonQ. I could even love it…if anyone decides to reinvent Le Corsaire in a way that is truly romantic in the manner of Lord Byron, with more anguish for our beloved hero Conrad, and a tragic ending. Just a thought!