The trajectory from nineteenth-century St. Petersburg to contemporary New York City is hardly surprising for a full-length ballet trailing the name of Marius Petipa, but the reception to Le Corsaire last year at American Ballet Theatre's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House took the company unawares. The opening-night audience was ecstatic, a response echoed by the reviews. By its final performances in July, the work was playing to sold-out houses. Le Corsaire returned to the Met for performances on May 4-6 and 24-27 during ABT's 1999 season. There is also a Dance in America television program in the works, filmed for the Public Broadcasting System during the company's February appearances at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California. Now being edited by television director Matthew Diamond, with input from ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie and assistant artistic director David Richardson, the program will be aired later this year.
Petipa's Le Corsaire arrived in New York City by way of Boston, where Anna-Marie Holmes, artistic director of Boston Ballet, had staged the production in 1997--the first time this century for any troupe outside of Russia. McKenzie saw it in Boston and invited Holmes to stage the piece for ABT "I had redone some of it after the Boston run," she says, "but I didn't expect such a smash in New York."
Along with its improbable mix of pirates, female slaves abducted from a harem, and a shipwreck with the doomed vessel sinking into the stage, Le Corsaire has multiple opportunities for dancing. The large number of leading roles allows ABT to show off its principal dancers and emerging stars, especially the men. The two roles for the ballerinas, Medora and her best friend, Gulnare, encompass every aspect of female dancing, from the purely classical to the coy and cute, from the seductive to the emotional binge of a happy ending, achieved after overcoming many obstacles. "One reason to have the ballet now is that I have a lot of principal dancers," McKenzie commented last year.
The choreography has undergone many changes before and since the ballet's St. Petersburg debut in 1858, resulting in a catalogue of styles: character dances; a gorgeous classical insert called "Jardin anime" by Petipa that has little to do with the story; pas de deux, trois, six, and more; mime passages; and challenging solos. "I think the dancers like the ballet," says Michael Owen, who dances the role of Pasha Seyd. "It's a ballet to have fun in. It's a great opportunity for the male contingent to show their goods."
When you consider the strength of the ABT roster and the popularity of evening-length ballets with the Met audiences, Le Corsaire seems a surefire box-office draw for the company. Casting at press time included Nina Ananiashvili, Susan Jaffe, Julie Kent, and Irina Dvorovenko as Medora; Amanda McKerrow, Paloma Herrera, Yan Chen, and Ashley Tuttle as Gulnare; Ethan Stiefel, Giuseppe Picone, Julio Bocca, and Maxim Belotserkovsky as Conrad, the pirate chief; and Angel Corella, Joaquin De Luz, Stiefel, and Picone as the slave Ali. Holmes transformed Lankendem, the slave trader, into a dancing role when Vladimir Malakhov expressed interest in the character; he was down for four performances this spring.
The ballet fits right in with today's spectacular entertainments--think Broadway musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King, the touring companies of Cirque du Soleil, and such multimillion-dollar films as Titanic. There are hundreds of costumes, special effects to spice up the story, and rapid changes of plot and pace. No words are necessary to hold an audience's attention; Corsaire's direct appeal to the senses guarantees its broad appeal.
As a work for the stage, Le Corsaire dates from shortly after Lord Byron's poem "The Corsair" was published in 1814, although the ballet in its present version has little to do with its literary inspiration. A ballet based on Byron's work was presented as early as 1826, choreographed by Giovanni Galzerani at La Scala in Milan; another by Francois Decombe Albert (born Francois Decombe but adopting the stage name Albert) at King's Theater in London in 1837, with music by N. Bochsa. Hector Berlioz also based his 1844 overture on Byron's work, but it was Adolphe Adam's last score, commissioned for Joseph Mazilier's Le Corsaire (Pads Opera House, 1856), that caught the tone of the work; the scenario by Mazilier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges was much more complicated than the current streamlined ABT ballet plot. The appeal of a spunky heroine with an equally lively friend and a swashbuckling pirate with his scruffy band, plus the sexual exotica of harem life and an onstage ship buffeted by thunder and lightning, brought wild applause from an opening-night audience that included Napoleon III and his empress. Adam's score and Carolina Rosati as the leading ballerina were also widely praised.
The work was restaged that summer in London with Rosati repeating her Paris triumph, followed by productions in Italy, the United States (Boston), and the Bolshoi Theater (St. Petersburg, 1858) by the Imperial Theater's ballet master, Jules Perrot.
Petipa, brought to Russia as a principal dancer in 1847, danced the role of Conrad, with Perrot as the pasha, Petipa also added some passages of choreography. During his career as ballet master in St. Petersburg, which began in 1862, he mounted the ballet four times (he became chief ballet master in 1869). Anna Pavlova was one of a long line of his ballerinas to acquire the role of Medora (1904), followed in 1908 by Tamara Karsavina.
In her memoir, Theatre Street (London, 1930), Karsavina wrote about learning the part from Evgenia Sokolova, Petipa's Medora in 1880. "Sokolova borrowed a volume of Byron for me to get the inspiration for the part," said Karsavina. "The poem gave me no direct bearing on the plot, which was greatly modified for ballet purposes, but it helped me by bringing a concrete vision of Medora to my imagination."
LE CORSAIRE TODAY
Since then, Le Corsaire has remained in the Russian repertory, revised each time another ballet master took on the project. New productions were choreographed in Moscow by Alexander Gorsky (1912) and in Leningrad by Agrippina Vaganova after Petipa (1931) and Peter Gusev (1955). The men's dances were enhanced by Soviet superstar Vakhtang Chabukiani and choreographer Alexander Chekrygin. In the 1930s Conrad was dropped from the Act II pas de trois, transforming it into the sizzling pas de deux for Ali and Medora that has become familiar in the West as a competition showpiece and star-power attraction on so many mixed bills. Rudolf Nureyev performed Chabukiani's role in the pas de deux at the 1958 Moscow competition and then two weeks later at his graduation performance from the Vaganova school, partnering Alla Sizova. The pas de deux became his calling card in the West after his defection. Konstantin Sergeyev (1910-1992), director of the Kirov for twenty years after ending his performing career as premier danseur noble, mounted his own Kirov production in 1973.
Holmes's professional life was shaped by her residency in Leningrad as a student at the Vaganova School in the early 1960s. She and her then-husband, David Holmes, who were Canadian-born, became the first North Americans invited to perform with the Kirov company [see "The Russian Connection at Boston Ballet," Dance Magazine, August 1995, page 44]. Holmes learned the language while in Russia, further strengthening the bonds with her teacher, Natalia Dudinskaya, the wife of Sergeyev and a famed ballerina with the Kirov before and after World War II, and with Sergeyev, himself, director of the Vaganova Academy until his death.
Dudinskaya had been trained by Vaganova, who studied under Petipa, and was taught to cherish the master's heritage, a reverence she passed on to Holmes. After Holmes came to Boston in 1985 as associate director of Boston Ballet, she invited Dudinskaya to stage Giselle in 1987. Sergeyev accompanied his wife to Boston to coach the acclaimed Soviet-American production of Swan Lake in 1990. Other productions mounted by Holmes in Boston include The Sleeping Beauty (1985) and Don Quixote (1989), preludes to Le Corsaire.
"Dudinskaya kept telling me that her husand's production of Le Corsaire was great," Holmes says. "When I went to Russia several years ago, she showed me a video of the production he had set for the Bolshoi in 1990 and said, `You should do this ballet in Boston.' I asked where I would get sets and costumes, and she told me that they were sitting at the Bolshoi. A few months later, I arranged for our production manager to meet me in Moscow to look at the sets and costumes, designed by Irina Konstantinovna Tibilova. We went into the Bolshoi and found that they had all of the costumes catalogued, in very good shape. The production had only been performed seven times because it was such a success when Sergeyev did it for the Bolshoi that Grigorovich wanted to do his own version.
"So the Sergeyev production was still sitting there," Holmes recalls, "with some of the sets out in the snow. That was a little shocking. But the Bolshoi said, `No problem. We have people to do new sets for you. We'll take the designs from Tibilova and redo them for you.' We bought the sets and costumes." ABT has rented them from Boston Ballet for the current production.
LE CORSAIRE'S SCORE
Adam's score for Mazilier's ballet had been augmented throughout the many revisions. Music by Cesare Pugni was added by Perrot; Petipa brought in music by Leo Delibes for the 1868 production, then passages by Riccardo Drigo and Ludwig Minkus for his 1899 staging. Gorsky incorporated passages by Chopin and Tchaikovsky.
ABT's production credits composers Adam, Pugni, Delibes, Drigo, and Prince Peter von Oldenburg. Says Holmes, "I got the musical score from St. Petersburg. They gave me the conductor's score and all the parts from the Kirov Library." Boston Ballet music librarian Arthur Leeth, company pianist Marina Gendal, who is fluent in Russian, and conductor Jonathan McPhee performed a cut-and-paste operation on the score in Boston as Holmes and her staff adapted the choreography. ABT conductor Charles Parker worked on the score for New York City with help from Henrietta Stern, an ABT pianist from Russia.
Dudinskaya came to Boston for rehearsals of Le Corsaire, along with Vadim Disnitsky, who had been Sergeyev's assitant. The Russian brain trust that Holmes has in place as ballet masters in Boston--Tatiana Legat, Tatiana Terekhova, and Sergei Berejnoi, all graduates of the Vaganova School and Kirov veterans--also helped teach the work to the Boston dancers and later to ABT. Legat had danced all the roles in "Jardin anime" from childhood onward with the Kirov; Terekhova appeared as Medora with the Kirov production that toured the West in 1987.
The scenario as Le Corsaire has been reworked for ABT begins with a prologue on the pirate ship, manned by Conrad, his slave Ali, and his friend Birbanto, They are sailing toward Turkey. The first act takes place in a Turkish bazaar, where Lankendem is selling women as slaves. Conrad and his men arrive. Conrad sees Medora and falls in love. Pasha Seyd arrives and buys Gulnare and Medora. Conrad instructs Ali to steal Medora, and the pirates raid the village and kidnap Lankendem. Act II takes place in an island grotto where Conrad has taken Medora, the other slaves, and Lankendem. Medora begs Conrad to free all the slaves. He agrees but Birbanto rebels and incites mutiny among the pirates. Conrad prevails. In revenge, Birbanto drugs Conrad and tries to kill him. The pirates return to kidnap Medora, who manages to cut Birbanto's arm with a dagger. Lankendem steals Medora and escapes. Conrad wakes up and finds Medora missing, but does not suspect Birbanto.
The third act is set in Pasha Seyd's palace, where Gulnare and Medora have been taken. The pasha falls asleep, dreaming of his wives in the lovely garden ("Jardin anime"). During the third scene, Conrad and the pirates, disguised as pilgrims, rescue the women. Medora exposes Birbanto as a traitor; Conrad, Medora, and Gulnare escape to the ship, which is caught in a fierce storm and sinks. The epilogue shows Conrad and Medora clinging to a rock in the middle of the ocean, their lives and love intact.
"The changes I've made include the character of Lankendem, who is now a much more important part of the action," says Holmes. "He threads the story together by selling the women to the pasha. I also put Ali in at the beginning with Conrad and Birbanto so he doesn't just pop up in the pas de trois and disappear. He's an integral part of the story line, helping Conrad. What I know about the original is from Dudinskaya--for example, the dances handed down from Petipa. I kept the `Jardin anime,' intact, the Act I Pas des Esclaves (now performed by Lankendem and Gulnare), the pirates' dance in Acts I and II, led by Birbanto and his girlfriend, and the trio of odalisques in Act III."
Cuts made for ABT include the dance en travestie for Medora, which Karsavina describes so enthusiastically in Theatre Street, and Zulmea, one of the pasha's wives, in Act III. Holmes recalls that McKenzie had definite notions about where the cuts should be made: "Kevin and Victor Barbee, ABT's ballet master, would sit with me and talk about why something needed to be changed. Sometimes I would choreograph a transition."
Still gleaning treasures from the Rusian repertory as Boston Ballet and ABT head into the year 2000, Holmes says, "I'm looking at how to adapt Laurencia now." (Dudinskaya starred in the title role at its 1939 premiere.)
Petipa's legacy is as pervasive in the repertories of ballet troupes as Shakespeare's is in theater and, increasingly, the movies. Within ten days of the final curtain on this ABT season, which includes revivals of Don Quixote, La Bayadere, and Le Corsaire, the Kirov Ballet sweeps into the Metropolitan Opera House with its production of The Sleeping Beauty, followed by Giselle, a work from the Paris Opera that has remained on the Russian stage since Petipa reset it on the Imperial Ballet. A century comes to end, the millennium approaches, but certain verities remain the same. In our era, no less than during Petipa's reign at the Maryinsky Theater, the joys of beauty and virtuosity are triumphant, wrapped within a story ballet that celebrates human tenacity in the quest for a happy ending.
Iris Fanger, a contributing editor to Dance Magazine since 1972, is a theater and dance critic for the Boston Herald and a contributor to the Christian Science Monitor; she directed the Harvard Summer Dance Center from 1977 to 1995.
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|Article Type:||Dance Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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