Ships and Slave Girls
I've always viewed "Le Corsaire" with affectionate indulgence, for all its silliness, excesses and patched-together score. Since it was the Kirov's 1989 performances that introduced me to the full-length work, I associate it with the glorious Altynai Asylmuratova in her youthful prime and recall the discovery of Zhanna Ayupova as the most divine of Odalisques. When ABT brought its splashy, boisterous version, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, into the repertory in 1998, it seemed an ideal work for a company bursting at the seams with exciting male dancers, and it was great fun watching them try to outdo each other, with their swaggering and virtuosic flourishes. It was an unexpected delight to see the pure, quintessentially noble and poetic Vladimir Malakhov as Lankendem, the rough, pragmatic purveyor of female flesh, and to have the luxury of comparing the performances of Ethan Stiefel and Angel Corella slicing through the air as Ali.
It's been several years since I've seen the full ballet, and on this occasion all its silly histrionics and excessively gaudy costuming (the colors filling the stage in Act One's bazaar scene are truly blinding) almost tipped the balance and tried my patience, despite the abundance of sheerly beautiful and truly thrilling classical dancing. "Corsaire" seems to encompass every silent film cliché—guys wielding swords, veiled ladies in harem pants, rotund cartoonish pashas, devil-may-care pirates, lots of fake facial hair—and of course, a central couple fated to wind up together against all the odds. The sheer quantity of plot can be trying; just following the twists of Birbanto's loyalties, plottings and face-saving pretenses in the course of acts two and three is a chore.
But of course none of the goings-on should be taken seriously, and even the dancers seem to treat it all as rollicking good fun. Why not, when they get to live out the childhood fantasy of riding the waves on a pirate ship, round up a passel of nubile slave girls and cavort eagerly around them. Well, at least the guys are having fun—the women sit around passively a lot, or display themselves alluringly, waiting for others to decide their fate.
With six leading roles, ABT is offering a heady array of cast changes in the course of nine performances that began last Thursday and continue through June 30, with several men alternating between contrasting parts. Thus you can see José Manuel Carreño as the deferential, sensual slave Ali one night, and as the more hearty, somewhat comical Lankendem another. The male roles tend towards the character-flavored, except for the hero Conrad, the most elegant (perhaps effete) of pirates, a role that calls for true danseur noble qualities.
Ethan Stiefel had originally been listed for Ali at this matinee, and it would have marked his belated first appearance of ABT's Met season. He was replaced by Corella (who had performed it in the first cast), and Stella Abrera, scheduled to make her debut as Gulnare, was replaced by Maria Riccetto. (As of Saturday, Stiefel was still scheduled for Wednesday evening's performance.) Corella delivered the goods and then some, subduing his natural gregariousness with looks of concern and a deferential demeanor; his Ali was there to do his part for his master. He certainly cut loose in the Act Two pas de trois in which he gets to do all the high-flying, gasp-inducing stuff, while Conrad steps in for some partnering duties with Medora. He was perhaps a notch below his most scintillating level of bravura, but he brought a combination of feral intensity and modest seriousness to his dancing of the role. And just in case his expansive, elegant leaps had not been thrilling enough, during the coda he inserted a series of those corkscrewing pirouettes that Baryshnikov used to astonish us with, and which Corella now spins through effortlessly.
In Act One, Gennadi Saveliev threw in some dangerous looking airborne steps that I cannot name during his solo in the "Pas D'esclave" with Maria Riccetto as Gulnare. Both legs shot out sideways as he twisted in the air; he didn't make it look easy, but he delivered it excitingly. Saveliev was endearing in this role—a thankless one that requires some hammy confrontations with the Pasha and others, and which keeps the dancer in a cerise harem pants getup that would be suitable for a Las Vegas revue. He brings a wonderful, whole-hearted commitment to this kind of role, diving into its old-fashioned demands and winning over the audience with his belief in it. He also mimes expressively
Carlos Lopez, in a debut, was a fiery Birbanto, his every move expressing his impatience and eagerness for action. He and Jennifer Alexander led the Pirates Dance and the Forband exuberantly—although the second of these folk-flavored earthy numbers, with its uninspired oom-pah music, feels a lot like filler. As Conrad, Maxim Beloserkovsky was pallid in the company of these more robust, spontaneous performances, and he was not convincing as a pirate. His entrance solo in act one, when he cleaves through the bazaar crowds, did not announce his heroic stature with quite the verve one would want. But he made a convincingly romantic, ardent partner to Gillian Murphy's Medora, and made you feel his devotion to her was paramount to him.
This was Murphy's debut, but you would never know it, from the aplomb with which she handled the roles many and varied demands, and the joy she took in doing so. Her solos were delivered with finesse as well as confident, regal technique, and she was delightfully sly as she flirted knowingly and mockingly with the Pasha in Act One. There is some blandly generic, swoopily romantic passages for Medora and Conrad in the second act, especially the one before he is knocked out by a spiked flower and she is stolen away—and for which Medora has an un-called-for costume change into an unlikely chiffon negligee.
The rest of the female dancing at this matinee definitely represented the B-team. As Gulnare, Riccetto was blandly efficient, unable to imbue her decent technique with any poetic or emotional coloration. And the Odalisques were so clunky and insecure that it seemed the Pasha would take his business to another harem dealer. They cold not maintain unison during their opening trio, and none of the solos glistened like the jewels they are; Karin Ellis Wentz, in the fleet first variation that always reminds me of Bournonville, came the closest. But Kristi Boone's sloppy feet and Carmen Corella's stop-start awkward phrasing were inexcusable.