Le Corsaire at the American Ballet Theatre

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Xiomara Reyes and American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo by MIRA.

Xiomara Reyes and American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo by MIRA.

Le Corsaire
The American Ballet Theatre, Lincoln Center: June 5, 2013

Choreographer – Konstantin Sergeyev, after Marius Petipa
Staged by Anna-Marie Holmes
Music – Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, and Prince Peter Georg von Oldenburg, re-orchestrated by Kevin Galie
Libretto – Jules-Henri de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilier in a version by Anna-Marie Holmes
Set – Christian Prego
Costumes – Anibal Lapiz
Lighting – Brad Fields
Conductor – David LaMarche

Conrad – Herman Cornejo
Birbanto – Arron Scott
Ali – Ivan Vasiliev
Lankedem – Daniil Simkin
Medora – Xiomara Reyes
Gulnare – Sarah Lane
Seyd – Julio Bragado-Young

What is le Corsaire? Is it a ballet? Is it entertainment — mere divertissement? Is there any difference? I believe intuitively that there is. Ballet defines itself on telling a story (even if there are exceptions) rather than presenting divertissements in vignettes, it is not a sort of artistic form of gymnastics. One more often encounters le Corsaire nowadays, at least in the west, as the extraordinary virtuoso pas de deux on its own, with its impossible leaps and lifts and turns for the man and the ballerina, and so this is what the ballet is known for, now associated especially with male virtuosity, thanks to Baryshnikov’s dancing, but the ballet presented as a whole is still a working piece of theatre. Maybe it is wrong of me to take it too seriously, but I found it difficult not to in light of the powerful acting of dancers like Xiomara Reyes. Le Corsaire is a romance, though maybe not as powerful as, say, Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre1 can be in dealing with similar dark subjects. The ballet’s fast pacing, speaking dramatically and literally, make it more than the sum of some divertissements and the grand pas de deux, indeed the incredible virtuosic dancing, in the best Russian tradition — a tradition which also presses the importance of the plastic qualities of movement as vital for genuine expressive dancing — however academic, tends to give the ballet its dramatic momentum, especially in the American Ballet Theatre’s and the Teatro Colón’s current joint version.

The ballet has much story to tell, at least much action happens, and the ABT’s recounting of it seemed always extremely clear. Much more involved is the history of the ballet, by which it has accreted its long list of composers, librettists and choreographers. Its history arches that of Romantic ballet, as one might expect from the Lord Byron-inspired piece, with nearly continuous performance through the last three-quarters of the 19th century, and through to the present day with hardly a decade’s break. It represents the exotic and active, even activist, tendency in Romanticism, which in ballet is more usually pushed to the periphery by the sylphs and ghosts and fairies, in say Giselle or la Sylphide, or by the legend and fantasy of the late Romantic Tchaikovsky-Petipa ballets. Sylvia is perhaps another romantic ballet with le Corsaire’s type of Romanticism, which also has its neoclassicism intact, but not much seems to have survived into the 20th century. Giovanni Galzerani choreographed the first Corsaire (predating by a few years Filippo Taglioni’s ballet in Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable which is often sited as the first Romantic Ballet), an “azione mimica” in five acts. Conrad was a mimed role with no dancing in this version, though Medora was danced, and it had its premiere at La Scala only 12 years after Byron published his immensely popular poem (10,000 copies sold the day it appeared in 1814). Galzerani went on to create two other versions in 1830 and 1842, and it continued in the repertoire for some time after that. Byron’s poem also inspired Verdi and Piave to create their 1848 opera Il Corsaro, and it is possible Piave and Verdi saw Galzerani’s ballet adaption.2 François Decombe, called Albert, created his own ballet version with music by Nicolas Charles Bochsa, which premiered at the King’s Theatre in London in 1837, and was revived in 1844 at Drury Lane. Paul Taglioni created a version of his own in Berlin in 1838 — Der Seeräuber — in which his famous sister Marie danced the leading lady, with a score by Wenzel Gärhich. Domenico Ronzani, who had mimed Conrad in one of Galzerani’s productions, produced his own, or perhaps reproduced Galzerani’s, in 1856, the year before he founded his own company, the Ronzani Ballet, to tour in the United States. He produced several ballets in Boston, Philadelphia and New York on their own and within operas, though it doesn’t seem he included his Corsaire in any of his performances.

Mademoiselle Adèle Dumilâtre in Albert's ballet of The Corsair, at Drury Lane Theatre, 1844, wood print, 15.7 x 11.7 cm, in the Bibliothèque de Danse Vincent-Warren, Montréal.

Mademoiselle Adèle Dumilâtre in Albert’s ballet of The Corsair, at Drury Lane Theatre, 1844, wood print, 15.7 x 11.7 cm, in the Bibliothèque de Danse Vincent-Warren, Montréal.

The versions which are familiar to us today, with Adolphe Adam’s music, stem from Joseph Mazilier’s new version from 1856, with a libretto by Jules de Saint-Georges. While maître de ballet at the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris he created this version with another of Galzerani’s Conrads, the mime Domenico Segarelli, with Adam taking a full year to write the score. It was Adam’s last ballet score and one of his last pieces of any genre, which partly explains why the subsequent versions brought in other composers’ music. Benjamin Lumley (1812-1875), who ran the King’s (Her Majesty’s after 1837) Theatre for the twenty years around this time, first put on the Mazilier-Saint-George Corsaire in London in 1856, later writing in his memoirs that he had considered it the last ballet d’action — Jean-George Noverre’s term from his 1760 treatise Lettres sur la danse to describe his reform of the art form, in which he wanted to reintroduce acting and expressive, natural dramatic mime to tell stories in ballet — and that Corsaire’s mere half-success at his theatre despite the opulent production was disappointing. Since Corsaire is now thought of as a male virtuoso piece, this is interesting: in the 19th century le Corsaire was certainly a huge spectacle, perhaps a bigger visual spectacle than it is now with the elaborate sets and machinery in many of the theatres of the time, but it was many other things too, namely a mimodrame and an acting dancer’s piece; it would be hard to imagine a successful Medora (and by accounts Carolina Rosati was in 1856), however well danced, who can’t act, trying to play off a purely mimed Conrad in such a romance (the famous Ronzani it would seem mimed the male lead in London). Benjamin Lumley writes 

As has been so frequently explained already, the grand ballet d’action had now lost its power of attraction. The majority of the male supporters of the ballet (as a mere display of dancing) had long decided upon eschewing all pantomime. They disliked the trouble of understanding a “story,” however lucidly set forth in mute action before them. They shut their eyes, and said, “We cannot understand it;” when the fashion of the day simply meant to say, “We will not understand it.” They wanted only dancing, not acting, they said. They should, to tell the truth, have said, “We only want legs, not brains.” And so it was that the mere divertissement obtained an undue position on the great choreographic stage of London.3

Wilhelm Ebel as Conrad in Paul Taglioni's Der Seeräuber, Berlin: Königliches Opernhaus. Lithograph by Louis Veit, 23.1cm x 31.5cm. In the Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main.

Wilhelm Ebel as Conrad in Paul Taglioni’s Der Seeräuber, Berlin: Königliches Opernhaus. Lithograph by Louis Veit, 23.1cm x 31.5cm. In the Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main.

After its first run and tours, Mazilier’s Corsaire began to collect its long list of composers as it collected more scenes — though these were not all necessarily divertissements. In a revival in 1867, Mazilier added a pas des fleurs with music by Léo Delibes, whose first full ballet, in collaboration with Minkus, La Source premièred two years before. Jules Perrot brought le Corsaire to Russia in 1858 at the end of his stint as maître de ballet of the Imperial Theatres, in a version based on Mazilier’s but with his own changes: Marius Petipa (then premier danseur at the Imperial theatre) was Conrad in the premiere in St. Petersburg — as a performer he was thought an excellent mime and character dancer, but not so much the acrobatic dancer that Perrot — and Perrot also had Petipa choreograph a scene: the pas d’esclave to music by Peter Georg von Oldenburg. They also added the music by Cesare Pugni, the current Imperial ballet composer who had collaborated with Perrot in London for several years in the 1840’s at Her Majesty’s and before that with Galzerani at La Scala, writing the music for Agamemnone in 1828, among other works. Petipa in turn revived the ballet in St. Petersburg three separate times, revising and adding each time: in 1863’s version he choreographed the Petit Corsaire scene for his wife Maria Petipa-Sourovtchikova; in 1868, the year before he became maître de ballet in St. Petersburg, he created the jardin animé scene in Act III using the Delibes music. Nearly a generation later, in 1899, Petipa revised le Corsaire again and for the last time, adapting it to the prima ballerina assoluta of the time Pierina Legnani, adding a waltz and adagio pas de trois with music by Riccardo Drigo, a Maryinsky theatre conductor, which in the 1930’s became a pas de deux, which gained its own international fame as the virtuoso set piece separated from the ballet, especially in the west in Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn’s interpretation in the 1960s, and later in Baryshnikov’s. Here the pas became something of a display of male virtuoso dancing. But in Petipa’s ballet, when produced in its entirety, Medora was a sought-after role; she was one of Anna Pavlova’s (an extremely expressive dancer) first solo roles, in 1904, and Tamara Karsarvina (an extremely intelligent and expressive dancer) got her turn in 1908. 

After Petipa’s death in 1910, the ballet continued to be danced at the Maryinsky — Petipa’s version stayed in the repertoire until 19284— and to evolve through performance and re-performance, indeed becoming something of a Russian possession. Aleksandr Gorsky created his own le Corsaire for Moscow in 1912. He led an interesting life as choreographer and theoretician at the Bolshoi in Moscow after studying with Petipa in St. Petersburg. He was interested in realism in ballet, in combining mime and academic ballet as well as the “free dance” of Isadora Duncan, with the decor to contribute to the historical and social accuracy. Gorsky met Stanislavsky through Fyodor Shalyapin in 1900 and he received a commission from Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes which was never created because of the War, and claimed a strong direct influence from Isadora Duncan, creating a pas de deux for the leads in his Corsaire to music by Chopin with the lovers wearing chitons. He also produced and re-choreographed the classics of Petipa, reviving Sleeping Beauty in Moscow in 1900 and creating four different Swan Lakes in 1901, 1912, 1920 and 1922 (in 1920 replacing the tutus with “ancient greek” costume), also creating his own Don Quixote and la Bayadère, and original pieces after Flaubert (Salammbô, 1910 music by Arenski) and Hugo (la Fille de Gudule, 1902). After the revolution, le Corsaire continued in the Kirov’s repertoire, and in other Russian companies’, in many different forms. Agrappina Vaganova, better known it seems as a very fine technical dancer and teacher than a dramatic mime, produced a Corsaire in 1931 with Natalia Dudinskaya and Konstantin Sergeyev dancing the main roles5. Pyotr Gusev, who was known as an excellent mime, revived the ballet in 1956 and 1963, with a revised libretto. Nina Grishna choreographed a version at the Stanislavsky Theatre in 1957. America only first saw le Corsaire in 1961 on a Kirov Tour with Alla Sizova and Yuri Soloviev. Konstantin Sergeyev’s version, from which the ABT derives their current version, premièred in 1973 and toured in the US in 1989, but Anna-Marie Holmes, who produced the current ABT version and also the first American version in Boston using the Russian sets in 1997, learnt many Russian ballets while studying and dancing with the Kirov in 1962 and 1963, the first North American to dance with the company.6 

With more Corsaires than companies that dance it, the ballet is a good example of the way a company will tinker with or recreate an old piece to suit their own character as a national company, to suit their own soloist dancers and artists of the day, their audience and theatre, and their own particular need to tell a variation of an old story, or as a smaller company, perhaps with more freedom to experiment, practicing their own theories on something familiar. Evident in its history is the push and pull between technical display and acting, or rather, at least in the best cases, the mutual cooperation of these elements to make good theatre. Similar modifications happen even to the classics, even Swan Lake, though perhaps not to the point of adding music by other composers; even when recorded in a standard dance notation, changes creep in or are introduced on purpose. A ballet has a genealogy, passed down from generation of dancer to generation, from coach to debut soloist, the unique phenotypes coming out of the unique traits of the company, and mutations always come in because it is after all an interpretive, performing art form shared by dancer, choreographer and composer, among others. It shows how important it is for the preservation of ballets not just to write them down and archive them, but to keep them alive by reviving them and performing them every decade at most. The Bolshoi in 2007 reconstructed the 1899 Petipa le Corsaire, which has been called the most authentic of the currently performed versions. Reconstructing ballets can be like reconstructing classical Greek architecture, in that the result has a reflection of modern times and exposes modern memory, what the reconstructors want history to look like, and there are enough gaps and free parameters that reconstruction, however prosaic-sounding the word, can be a creative act in itself. In any case you would not want to retain every other element and ignore the spontaneous motivation for the original creation. The Bolshoi’s new reconstruction is interesting in its own right as historically-informed performance and as a basis of comparison with other companies’ versions as they are continually created — there seems to be no waning of le Corsaire’s popularity. Gulnare has a small role in the Bolchoi’s reconstruction, not appearing until Act II albeit filling an important role in the plot developments in that Act, but in the ABT-Teatro Colón version she is a real supporting character, a friend and foil for Medora throughout the ballet, as the pasha buys them at the same time. This American version is also a little leaner, leaving out some of the divertissements (which shortens the list of composers on the playbill slightly) and working the remaining ones into the flow of the plot, the Jardin Animé scene for instance is staged not as a kind of personification of a Versailles style of garden as it seems Petipa intended it and the Bolshoi reconstructed it, but as the pasha’s dream of his harem women.

Sarah Lane in Le Corsaire. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Sarah Lane in Le Corsaire. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

The ABT’s Corsaire, using Sergeyev’s choreography and based on his libretto, emphasizing the ballet’s tendency toward storytelling and description of an exotic atmosphere, flowed very quickly, as played and danced by the cast. Their sense of pacing was spot on, and their style of mime was direct and clear, a kind of quick, shorthand (no pun intended) American style of gesture, their high energy was directed to the collective idea of telling a story, especially Herman Cornejo’s energy in what really is one of the most famous virtuoso ballet roles and Xiomara Reyes’s — also, in fact, as it has always been, in a spectacular and extremely varied virtuoso role — and she showed such a strong sense of theatre and characterization. Sarah Lane also, who danced a very strong Gulnare, and also has some demanding dances in this version, was indispensable to the plot and moreover to the whole effect of the piece through the characters’ dynamics, as was Arron Scott’s Birbanto as Conrad’s betraying friend and a love interest for Gulnare. The odalisques — Melanie Hamrick, Kristi Boone and Leann Underwood — in their pas de trois were also memorable, contributing to the flow of the story and the descriptive mood of the ballet, as did the corps de ballet, filling in the buzzing background of the Act I scene in the fateful bazaar, and especially in the Act II scenes in the pirate cave, whose scenery was a little sparse and so needed the big group gesture. The plot turns on these relationships of the characters and the relationships of the characters to the corps de ballet whether they are slaves, crew or mob (one could write much more on the political side of le Corsaire in its many versions starting in the Kingdom of Lombardy, to early Victorian England, to the Second Empire, to Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, Stalinist Russia, and in the present day US and Argentina) so these convincing characterizations and their chemistry are extremely important. Reyes in particular had such a strong sense of drama shown in her natural style of acting-dancing and mime, quite seamlessly and naturally moving from mime to character dances to the technical solo variation in the famous grand pas de deux with its squillions of fouettés. So all this virtuosity had purpose, it was given dramatic sense.

Herman Cornejo in Le Corsaire. Photo by MIRA.

Herman Cornejo in Le Corsaire. Photo by MIRA.

Although the ABT’s set was not as opulent as some of the European national companies’ Corsaires’, too much elaborate and slick decor can threaten to smooth out the romantic grit and darkness of the piece and the characters’ moral murkiness. The antiheroes’ ambiguous, amoral natures are unique in the repertoire, and Conrad in the end, like a character in an Anthony Mann western, is redeemed against his will and better judgement. Conrad is an antihero and there is something of Byron’s character in the dancing Conrad — “Robust but not Herculean,” who is inscrutable, maybe even blank underneath, with little sense of humor, which makes Medora shine all the more, nearly in many scenes becoming the vedette of the piece. But whatever sense of humor the leading ladies contribute to the ballet, Medora and Gulnare are slaves. At the same time, the exciting and appealing virtuosic dancing, which makes the audience fall off their chairs, gives these characters a certain appeal, it makes Medora and Conrad’s romance more believable, and their get up and go is perhaps uniquely suited to a New York company, or perhaps, more likely, the ABT has suited the ballet to their own strengths. It is a shame then that the ballet was so broken up by applause, into almost as small pieces as a State of the Union Address. In the context of the whole ballet, in these expressive virtuosic solo dances one can sense these characters struggling vainly to make their freewill manifest, even visible, and reacting against their oppressors who are almost totally unsympathetic — the pasha in this version is fat and greedy and ridiculous —, but it is still difficult to forgive them. But luckily this is theatre so we don’t have to. The production does show a little thin in places, especially the shipwreck at the end, obviously something difficult and expensive to do properly in a theatre, especially one with neither royal nor imperial nor congressional patronage, but the cast made up for it with their fine, spectacular technique. Still, lacking special effects, it may have been better to leave more to the imagination, to let us scare ourselves. The pirate ship, seen prow-on with a little bit of mast, painted somewhat picture-book-like, leaves the dancers looking small but also leaves on them the burden to act out a convincing frightening scene. They do it well considering, hit as they are with another dire situation outside their control, but this time, for the first time, it is nature’s doing so they can’t just fight their way out. 

The costumes and lighting complement each other very well, all very effective in the storytelling as a whole. The pirate women’s and “liberated” slave girls’ costumes use most of the color palate between them and reinforce the choreography, free and folk-inspired with long gypsy skirts and vests in white and thick reds with embroidery for the former, and the latter nearly slithery in pants in their group choreography. Suggestive drapery and fabric which is in some places hugging and in others loose, flaring pants tucked in at the ankle with bare midriffs, and flowing veils which pick up the lights in an otherwise darkish stage, with fabric flowing around the dancers, recall maybe the free-flowing baggy sleeves of the pirate men.

The powerful final image, after the ship has gone to the bottom, at the instant the curtain drops, was extremely effective in this production for its simplicity, just the suggestion of some dark cold slimy rocks and simple expressive movements arriving at the final humble, still pose of the two lovers, complementing Adams’s keen dramatic score and his almost stern final chord, giving the strong sense of purgation and just the suggestion of redemption.

  1. At least the parts of it which belong to Shakespeare.
  2. Knud Arne Jürgensen, Il Corsaro di Byron nel balletto di Giovanni Galzerani (1826) e nell’opera di Giuseppe Verdi (1848). http://www.teatroregioparma.org/verdifest2004/convegno/convegno_relazioni.htm
  3. See Benjamin Lumley, Reminiscences of the opera. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1864, p. 388.
  4. Dictionnaire de la Danse, Larousse 1999, published under the direction of Philippe Le Moal, p. 366.
  5. I grandi danzatori russi, By Gennady Smakov, translated by Sergio Trombetta
  6. See Dictionnaire de la Danse, Larousse 1999; The Phaidon Book of the Ballet, 1980; and also The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, compiled by Horst Koegler, London: Oxford University Press, 1977; and The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet, Mary Clarke and David Vaughan, eds., New York: Putnam, 1977.
About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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