English National Ballet was heading towards the end of its run of Le Corsaire at the Coliseum and after numerous Nutcrackers prior to it, one might have expected a small lull in energy levels – in the event, quite the opposite was true. This is not a production that is likely to move you to tears or break your heart, yet when done well enough, the love story at its centre is still discernible. As a tale of pirates, slavery, love, greed and deceit, it might appear dated and anyone taking the story too seriously may well fly into #MeToo mode and complain vociferously about its treatment of women. But let’s not forget it’s based on a poem written by Lord Byron over 200 years ago (The Corsair – 1814) and dance productions inspired by it were being created as early as 1826.
The only way to tackle something like this in the 21st century is to bring an element of humour into it and focus on the dancing, which is exactly what Anna-Marie Holmes (after Petipa and Sergeyev) has done. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of this run of performances is the many changes of cast throughout the ranks at each performance. At this one, it was the electric partnership of Katja Khaniukova and Jeffrey Cirio as Medora and Conrad, who led the show with tremendous aplomb. Supported by an extraordinary cast of fellow artists, the excitement in the audience was palpable with multiple vocal responses of whooping, wows and cheering right from the start.
If you accept that parts of the narrative are verging on the absurd, it’s easy to become absorbed by the vivid portrayals on offer in this cast. Junor Souza as Lankendem, a slave trader, has an abundance of charismatic charm. His solos are packed with explosive jumps but more importantly, he is a convincingly rapacious character – ruthlessly determined to get as much money as possible for the girls he has captured. Birbanto, Conrad’s second in command, was Francesco Gabriele Frola who, at previous showings, also makes an excellent Conrad. He too, has a stage presence and acting ability that is hard to ignore, but it is when he takes flight that the fireworks begin. He has spectacular ballon and an uncanny ability to ‘hang in the air’. I liked the way he developed the character as he became less and less loyal to Conrad, hideously deceptive in his behaviour at the end. Emma Hawes’ Gulnare, another of Lankendem’s captives, showed grace and vulnerability and her pas de deux with Souza was smooth as silk. She was perhaps a little tentative right at the start, understandably so given the challenges of the solo work, but by the time it came to Le Jardin Animé in Act III, she was in her element. The three Odalisques of Act I, presented by Lankendem to the Pasha in case he wishes to add them to his roster of wives and slaves, need to find a balance between looking as if they are having a brilliant time during their solos and showing their distress at being sold into slavery. A tough one because sorrow can sometimes translate across the footlights as anxiety or downright grumpiness. Francesca Velicu seemed to hit the right note, a demeanour with a hint of pathos, and she was quite brilliant technically.
Act I continued as it began with the sale of Gulnare and Medora to the sleazy Pasha, and this is when Khaniukova showed her strong dramatic ability. As she playfully flirted with the Pasha, she made it very clear that Conrad was her only true love. Both Khaniukova and Cirio excelled in their characterisation and their technical challenges and both have the unusual attribute of making even the most fiendishly difficult steps look as if they are second nature. Leading into Act II, this became even more apparent.
The Pas d’action and the subsequent pas de deux that follows it in the second act, is a major highlight of the ballet. Conrad has managed to rescue the slave girls including his beloved Medora and bring them to his hideaway where he, Medora and his slave Ali, entertain the slaves and pirates by dancing. And it must be said that ENB has a plethora of dancers who are able to deliver the goods to breathtakingly high standards. The famous three-way partnership was depicted with all the grandeur and dazzle required to leave the audience feeling breathless. Daniel McCormick as Ali, not for the first time in this role, blew the roof off the Coliseum. How does one begin to describe the height and velocity with which he jumps and turns, when within the next phrase he surpasses expectations once more. Khaniukova, a ballerina with mesmerising qualities, moves expansively in spite of her diminutive frame. Her fragile demeanour and delicate port de bras belies a steely strength. She also uses épaulement exquisitely, even during complicated lifts. Cirio ticks every box as the dashing, swashbuckling hero – soaring through the air, yet partnering Khaniukova with such sensitivity and awareness, she could have been made of glass. As Birbanto plots against Conrad and the closing moments of Act II sees Medora once again captured by Lankendem, the story has become a bit convoluted, yet the adrenaline still bubbles over from the earlier excitement.
Back at the Pasha’s palace, Act III sees him falling into a drug induced sleep and dreaming of his favourite slaves in Le Jardin Animé. Khaniukova and Hawes looked suitably ethereal, with soft landings, beautifully clean footwork and easy balances. The corps of Flowers and Roses, following their example, looked much more relaxed than at earlier showings. The high drama of the closing moments of the ballet as Birbanto is revealed to be a traitor, maintained a gripping momentum (partly due to Frola’s excellent acting) and as the curtain came down on the storm ravaged ship, there was an air of sheer delight and disbelief which engulfed the auditorium. If you are seeking thrilling dancing of the highest calibre, then look no further than ENB’s Le Corsaire.