ENB Docks At Milton Keynes And Showcases Its Wonderful Le Corsaire

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adam and Others, Le Corsaire: Dancers of English National Ballet and Tring Park School, Orchestra of English National Ballet / Tom Seligman (conductor), Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, 19.10.2013. (JPr)

Bob Ringwood's Pirate Ship for Le Corsaire c ASH&ENB-page-003_edited-1
Bob Ringwood’s Pirate Ship for Le Corsaire c ASH&ENB

Staged by Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev
Music by Adolphe Adam and others
Sets and costumes by Bob Ringwood
Lighting by Neil Austin
Cast included
Medora: Ksenia Ovsyanick
Conrad: Vadim Muntagirov
Gulnare: Shiori Kase
Lankendem: Arionel Vargas
Ali: Junor Souza
Birbanto: Fernando Bufula
Pasha: Michael Coleman
Pasha Assistant: Anton Lukovin
Lead Villager: Nancy Osbaldeston
Odalisques: Crystal Acosta, Alison McWhinney and Lauretta Summerscales


Milton Keynes was the venue for English National Ballet to launch their new production of Le Corsaire – a nineteenth-century relic of ballet hokum that is all pirates and passion but has now been loving restored, both in its music and chorography, for 2013.

Much is made of the fact that it has never been stage in its entirety before in this country but the Bolshoi brought a much inflated version over here as recently as 2010 that, I believe, was nearly twice as long as this version. The Sleeping Beauty I saw a couple of nights before with Birmingham Royal Ballet has survived down the years through its magnificent score and fairy-tale story and still has something to say. Not so Le Corsaire (The Pirate), though it has some good bits (the famous pas de deux in its original version as a pas d’action for the pirate of the title, Conrad, truelove Medora, and his slave Ali, a sensuous duet for the two lovers and a fragrant Jardin Animé). It is good that ENB has somewhat marginalised the slightly iffy story about girls sold into sexual slavery through all the swashbuckling with the fake pirate cutlasses. Indeed everything about the narrative to the ballet that does not involve Michael Coleman’s wonderfully comic Pasha seems to happen far to the back of the stage or nearly into the wings stage left. The audience would open the informative and colourful programme to a full-page about the story that, I suspect, was too complicated for anyone who has not done any preparation beforehand. This was summed up by a number of comments I heard when leaving the performance, such as, ‘I’m not sure I know that that was all about’ – even though everyone seemed to be expressing enjoyment in what they had actually seen.

The plot is based loosely on an 1814 poem of the same name by Lord Byron, and the three act ballet (pared down to only about 100 minutes of dance excluding intervals) follows the story of Conrad’s quest to save the beautiful Medora, he first spies on a balcony of a Bazaar, who is at the hands of Lankendem, a slave trader in the Ottoman Empire. Added to the mix are a Pasha keen to add new wives to his harem and Birbanto, Conrad’s double-crossing second-in-command, with his poisoned rose. Ali steals Medora away from Lankendem but the lovers are tricked by the bad pirate and she is returned to the Pasha, rescued again, and there is a dramatic shipwreck that lasts all of the final couple of minutes of the ballet.

Don’t read into this anything other than I had great fun seeing this production, but comparing Le Corsaire to Swan Lake would be like matching pantomime to Shakespeare. Indeed in Bob Ringwood’s designs – inspired by vintage Technicolor films like Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad – and with all the long moustaches and beards, saris, fezzes and harem pants, full justice would have been done to any Aladdin as it used to be put on at the London Palladium last century at Christmastime: it is very far removed from Ringwood’s work for Hollywood on films such as Batman and Alien 3.

In one week I have had the opportunity to see the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote (on screen link please https://www.seenandheard-international.com/2013/10/18/carlos-acostas-quest-don-quixote-dreams/ ), Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty (link please https://www.seenandheard-international.com/2013/10/19/peter-wrights-sleeping-beauty-enchants-sadlers-wells/ ) and now ENB’s Le Corsaire that is the first significant new production under Tamara Rojo’s leadership. Because of the sheer exuberance, talent, commitment and musical values in all it does at the moment, English National Ballet has the opportunity to surpass these the other companies. For instance, any company that now has the experienced Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Daria Klimentová amongst its alternative Lead Principal Medoras, as well as – on this evening – a wonderful emerging dancer such as First Artist Ksenia Ovsyanick, has tremendous strength in depth. This is also true of the men who are so important in this ballet led by ENB’s brightest prospect Vadim Muntagirov – but the impressive quartet of Junor Souza (Ali), Fernando Bufula (Birbanto), Arionel Vargas (Lankendem) and Anton Lukovin (Pasha’s Assistant) were running – or leaping – him a close second! The highlight for me of this performance was actually seeing the competition between the men in their barrel turns and grands jétés and more often than not they actually leapt much  higher than any of the male dancers – Carlos Acosta included – I had seen earlier in the week. Display of bravura such as this remain one good reason for a night at ballet.

The women were equally delightful, if at times restricted more to arabesques, brisés, spins, fluttering arms, gestures of obeisance and occasionally unflatteringly splayed legs. The only rounded character on stage was Michael Coleman’s comfortably-built Pasha who was wonderful, whether wanting Medora to lift her veil or in his reaction to the Kinora (an earlier motion picture device) he is given so that Medora can be enticed away from him.

With a clash of cymbals and pounding drum stokes the rumbustious music of  Adolphe Adam (and eight others!) in Lars Payne and Gavin Sutherland’s new Le Corsaire edition sets sails – quite literally – as briefly it accompanies the pirate ship shown on the high seas. From then on no scene lingers very much and it really does some need some of the excised music put back to give time for the story to be told a little better. We are in the Bazaar and everyone is dancing for fun, including another exquisite cameo from Nancy Osbaldeston as the Lead Villager. Gulnare and a trio of Odalisques slink around trying to catch the Pasha’s eye, Conrad spots Medora, the Pasha buys her but Ali attempts to steals her away before Conrad finishes the job by capturing her and Lankendem, the slave trader.

So much for the Prologue and Act I; for Act II we are in the Pirate’s Cave and Conrad is promising Medora all his booty and that the other slave girls will be freed: Birbanto is not happy about this and conspires against him. Here at least we get the wonderful pas d’action with a soaring Junor Souza and in the only adagio moment in the entire ballet we get a lyrical romantic bedroom duet, danced with deep emotion by Ovsyanick and Muntagirov that makes me hope they will get at least one performance together of Romeo and Juliet next summer at the Royal Albert Hall, This could be a significant partnership if given suitable opportunities. A disguised Birbanto is cut on the arm by Medora as she protects a drugged Conrad before being stolen back by Lankendem. Later Birbanto is about to kill Conrad before he is interrupted by Ali who believes him to be still to be his master’s ally.

Act III brings us the Pasha’s opium-fuelled dream (Le Jardin Animé) that is all blush-pink and lime green tutu-ed ‘Flowers’ in a garland dance and – with apologies to their parents – 16 very twee boy and girl dancers (possibly butterflies!) whose often wobbly contributions should be dispensed with as soon as possible. Everything then rushes to a conclusion as Conrad steals his lover back (once again!), Birbanto is exposed as a traitor because of his arm injury and is shot dead so that Conrad, Medora, Ali and Gulnare who he has taken a shine to, can escape on the pirate ship. There is a violent storm and a shipwreck and it is not clear what then happens to whom as the curtain falls.

I hope Le Corsaire will be a big audience pleaser for ENB as – considering what she is doing for the company – Tamara Rojo deserves it. I doubt it was a bit pit at Milton Keynes but Tom Seligman and the English National Ballet Orchestra did full-justice to the music such as it is. With all the flashing of grins everyone had on their faces the emotional story arc is diminished but – as hinted above – there was great chemistry between the flirty Ovsyanick and eager Muntagirov. Even with her rock-solid technique she might not be the finished article yet but Muntagirov, who has occasionally disappointed me in the past, was ‘up for it’ and it was exhilarating to watch in his major solos and elsewhere during the evening. As suggested, ENB showcased other tremendous dancers in the supporting roles too, Junor Souza, Fernando Bufula and Arionel Vargas were very charismatic as Ali, Birbanto and Lankendem, Shiori Kase impressed as Gulnare, and Crystal Costa, Alison McWhinney and Laurretta Summerscales impressed as the Odalisques. The admirable corps de ballet danced with such high-energy, speed and attack that it could have been the start of a week’s performances, rather than at the end of them, and this is to credit of the current rude health of English National Ballet.


Jim Pritchard


For more about the English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances of Le Corsaire visit www.ballet.org.uk.