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Irmgard

English National Ballet Le Corsaire 2019-2020

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Having watched three performances on 21 and 22 November in Milton Keynes, I have not changed my initial impression in 2013 that “Le Corsaire” is a ballet generally without soul and very little heart, given that it treats its subject matter of selling females into slavery in such a pantomimic way.  I imagine the original French version by choreographer Mazilier with libretto by playwright Vernoy de Saint-Georges (of “Giselle” fame) was much closer to Byron’s epic poem than this reworking by Anna-Marie Holmes of numerous Russian versions, most notably by Petipa, and therefore the only reason for adding this to a company’s repertoire is for its virtuosic dance opportunities for a large cast.  That said, the generally naff choreography for the pirates is saved only by the gusto with which the admirably straight-faced men of ENB perform it.  As this is the first purely classical ballet the company has performed since January (and I do not consider Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” to be purely classical), it seems inevitable that some of the female solos and the ensemble in jardin animé occasionally suffered from imprecise ports de bras, and the footwork could have been neater.  Likewise, I hope the ham acting of the peripheral action in Act I will have settled down by the Coliseum performances, as it became tedious to be distracted by various slave girls at the back of the stage being dragged around in a supposedly comic fashion.  

 

The only thing to stop this version being an endless series of gala-style solos and pas de deux etc. is the considerable acting skill of leading dancers in bringing their somewhat two-dimensional characters to life.  It was therefore wonderful to have the scene-stealing Junor Souza as the swaggering slave-trader, Lankendem, in the Thursday matinée.  His solo work was very powerful and his jumps ending in the deepest of grands pliés were especially impressive.  I remember Souza’s elegant and noble Ali in previous seasons (and I was very surprised he was not given any performances of that role this week) and I marvelled at his ability to completely inhabit the mercenary, amoral and occasionally grovelling slaver who appears to have a momentary crisis of conscience after he has sold Medora to the Pasha.  Ali at this performance was the marvellously lithe Ken Saruhashi who, like Souza, is adept at creating totally believable characters.  His solo during the pas d’action (sometimes referred to as the pas d’esclave) was both elegant and dynamic and he partnered Medora to perfection.  As before, I find it bizarre in this production that, after all Ali does to reunite Conrad and Medora, he perishes during the final moments of the ballet, along with Gulnare.  Making his début as Conrad was Joseph Caley and, for all his beautiful, exceptionally clean dancing and secure partnering, he did not convince as the leader of a band of brigands, perhaps being too much of a gentleman and a little bland.  Medora was the fabulous Fernanda Oliveira.  Taking into account her maternity leave and the fact that she was not given a performance of Odette/Odile or Manon at the Coliseum in January (two of her finest roles, in my opinion), this marked the first full-length classical lead that she has danced in almost two years.  Medora is a tour de force for the ballerina and Oliveira sailed through it with her customary exquisite technique, especially her pretty footwork, looking dazzlingly beautiful in her many changes of costume (and kudos to the dressers who also managed several quick costume changes for the large ensemble of ladies).  In the rare moments of stillness for Medora, Oliveira looked every inch the imperial ballerina simply by the way she stood and, in the adagio in the jardin animé, balancing serenely as she took the roses from her attendants (perhaps a forerunner for Petipa of his Rose Adagio in “The Sleeping Beauty”).  Yet she also delivered all the expected fireworks in the coda of the pas d’action.  However, for me, the standout moment was in the romantic, Soviet-style, pas de deux for Medora and Conrad which follows this: a spectacular lift in which Conrad holds her almost upside down over his head and she gradually releases her hand from his shoulder so that she has no support apart from his hands.  This was breath-taking in the beauty of her line and in the stillness of the position, held for just an extra fraction of time but not so as to be unmusical, which, if this had not been a matinée audience sitting on its hands, would have brought the house down!

 

In the Thursday evening performance, if not possessing the beautifully clean technique of Caley, Brooklyn Mack gave Conrad the bravado he needs, powering his way across the stage in his solos and confronting the rebellious Birbanto of Erik Woolhouse who gave an extraordinary performance of this hot-headed pirate (having made his début the night before) whose machinations drive what plot there is (and it is a shame that the poisoning of the rose is played for laughs rather than injecting a bit of drama into the piece).  His Act I solo matched Mack for technical brilliance and he made much of his dance with the delectable villager of Adela Ramirez in the Act I dance for the pirates and the village girls.  The woefully under-used Ramirez also impressed as one of the Rose attendants in Act III with her beautiful style and technique and I cannot understand why she was not cast as an Odalisque this week, and I personally think she has all the makings of a lovely Gulnare.  Medora’s friend Gulnare was Julia Conway, making her unexpected début due to the indisposition of Rina Kanehara.  She can certainly dance the steps but has yet to find a way of adding character to the role and her dancing.  Daniel McCormick made his début as another elegant Ali, making his mark in the pas d’action, delivering his bravura solo with ease and partnering the lovely Shiori Kase as Medora.  Kase’s Medora has a delightful youthfulness and her face lights up whenever she sees Conrad, starting with throwing him the rose from her balcony.  There is a charming demureness to her Medora, even in her gently flirtatious dealings with the Pasha in Act I, and her heartbreak at being sold to him was evident in the way she beseeched Lankendem (Aitor Arrieta in another excellent début) not to do it.   In Act II, her natural elegance was infused with an overwhelming love for Conrad which shone through the pas d’action and the following pas de deux.  A highlight of Kase’s flawless technique is her ability to turn, perfectly exhibited in the coda of the pas d’action in which she threw off an immaculate series of fouetté turns, alternating singles and triples in the first sixteen.  Her dancing in the jardin animé was a delicious confection of delicate footwork and, like, Oliveira, serene balances in the adagio section. Kase’s gentility and Mack’s bravado made this an irresistible combination and lucky audiences in Liverpool will be able to experience this on the opening night of “Nutcracker” next week.

 

For me, the Friday night performance was the most uniformly satisfying and featured further débuts, including Francesco Gabriele Frola as the volatile Birbanto.  Apart from his solo in Act I, I particularly liked his dance with lead villager Emily Suzuki.  I was very pleased to see her in a featured, if small, role lighting up the stage with her charming personality and my eye was also drawn to her beautiful style as part of the ensemble of flowers in the jardin animé scene.  Gulnare was danced by Emma Hawes.  I thought her début at the Thursday matinée was rather tentative but on Friday she appeared happier with the dancing and gave us some lovely, delicate footwork in her Act III solo.  She had the advantage at both performances of Souza’s Lankendem in their Act I pas de deux, making the high lifts look effortless and allowing the lift in which he holds her aloft in a backbend to show her despair at her predicament.  This performance also benefitted from Anjuli Hudson’s first Odalisque solo in which I finally saw diagonals of beautiful, cleanly beaten brisés.  Hot on the heels of his amazing Birbanto, Erik Woolhouse impressed even more in his début as Ali, almost matching the panther-like quality I admire in Souza’s interpretation, and wowing the audience with his pyrotechnics in Act II.  Jeffrey Cirio also wowed me in his début as Conrad, with powerful dancing that always showed Conrad’s strength of character, making him a thoroughly believable leader of the pirates, tough but capable of magnanimity and kindness, as well as being totally in love with his Medora.  This was Katja Khaniukova’s UK début in the role, having previously danced one performance on tour in Poland. Gulnare was the first leading role I saw Khaniukova dance with ENB and I remember being very impressed with the way she brought depth to the character, as well as by her elegant technique.  Having had a sneak preview of her Medora when she danced the pas de deux version of the pas d’action two weeks ago in the Dancing for a Dream Gala, I knew her dancing would have all the required panache for that, especially her series of fouetté turns which she started with a sensational multiple pirouette.  She was outstanding in the jardin animé scene for her accomplished execution of the choreography in which she was so assured that she played expertly with the music in the series of gradually speeding up relevés in retiré, so much so that I longed to see her as Raymonda in the Act III sequence.  Gavin Sutherland, garnering luscious sounds of the patchwork score from the orchestra, accompanied her perfectly.  My breath was also taken away by her amazing balances in the adagio section in which, having let go of her attendants’ hands, she serenely balanced en pointe and slowly brought her raised leg from arabesque through retiré before closing it in front, not once but several times, each as steady as the first.  As with her Gulnare, I was impressed by the many fine details and depth of character she brought to Medora, always reacting naturally to whatever was happening on stage, especially in the confrontations between Birbanto and Conrad, culminating in a powerful moment when she exposes Birbanto as the attempted murderer of Conrad.  But it was the wonderful chemistry between Khaniukova and Cirio which took this performance to another level, evident from the moment she threw the rose down to him with such tenderness, through their meltingly beautiful pas de deux to their final embrace as they survive the shipwreck, giving this ballet the heart it so desperately needs and, for me, endorsing their recent Critics’ Circle nominations for Best Female and Male dancers.

 

Edited by Irmgard
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Thanks for this fascinating and comprehensive review. I have tickets for the Coliseum in January (cast still tbc) so it's wonderful to hear your views on the approaches of the different dancers.

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I went to the Milton Keynes matinee today and - well, that was an exuberant experience!  The ENB buckled their swashes (whatever swashes are) and turned out an exhilarating performance with guest artist Brooklyn Mack as Conrad, Shiori Kase as Medora, Julia Conway as Gulnare and Daniel McCormick as Ali.  The scenery was spectacular!  Really exotic and well-lit, including wonderful effects such as the pirate’s vessel sailing on the high seas.  The ENB orchestra was excellent, as always.

 

Mack was perfect for the main role with his spirited dancing and heroic looks.  I’ve wanted to see him for some time and wasn’t disappointed: he is expansive and musical and his partnering was exceptional - seemingly effortless, stylish and attentive.  And what charisma there is in that smile!

 

Shiori Kase was sure-footed and at times dazzling.  I particularly liked her expressive arms – I’ve noticed this propensity in quite a few Japanese dancers. 

 

Some of the numbers were slightly ragged (eg the Odalisques’ Pas de Trois) but nonetheless enjoyable to watch, and the opium-induced dream scene was charming.  The Pasha himself (Michael Coleman) managed to convey a combination of comedy and sleaze.  But to me, the star of today’s show was the American Daniel McCormick who was spectacular. 

I agree with @Irmgard that this ballet doesn’t have a lot of soul, but it is entertaining to watch.  All in all it could so easily become a kitsch ‘blockbuster’ but it is just saved by the painterly designs and admirable dancing of the company.

corsaire curtain small.jpg

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It's great to have such a detailed review from Irmgard - especially since it enables me to endorse her view of the simply wonderful performances given by the following dancers in particular:

(in the order I saw them):

as Medora: Fernanda Oliviera; Shiori Kase and Katja Kaniukova

as Conrad: Francisco Gabriele Frola; Brooklyn Mack; Jeffrey Cirio

as Gulnare: Shiori Kase

as Lankendem: Ken Saruhashi; Junor Souza

as Ali: Jeffrey Cirio; Ken Saruhashi; Daniel McCormick; Erik Woolhouse

as Birbanto: Erik Woolhouse

They were all soooooo good that it seems invidious to single anyone out. But particular Kudos must go to Erik Woolhouse who followed his fearsome Birbanto with a fantastically athletic Ali . He was new to both roles and made a big impact in both of them. Like Junor Souza in the original cast, Daniel McCormick also seemed born to dance Ali. Erik and Daniel are young dancers with the magic quality of what I can only describe as 'stage energy'.

 

I would also like to single out Alison McWhinney, Anjuli Hudson, Jung ah Choi, and Katja Kaniukova among the Odalisques but, in doing so, I should note that many of the other dancers essaying these roles were new to them and they are obviously fiendishly difficult - as is the choreography for Medora and Gulnare.

 

Emily Suzuki made an energetic mark in her debut as the Lead Villager  and followed that up with corps work of eye-catching beauty in Le Jardon Animee. She has the most wonderful epaulement. I also much enjoyed Adela Ramirez reprising her roles as Lead Villager and a Rose. Adela seems to have been on the ENB stage for as long as I can remember but never gives her performances less than her all.

 

Le Corsaire as a ballet certainly has its weaknesses but it is hard to beat for enjoyment when dancing of the quality offered by ENB is on display.

 

 

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I saw the Friday evening performance with Katja Khaniukova and Jeffrey Cirio in the main roles and Erik Woolhouse as a splendid Ali. I agree with Irmgard that there were many wow moments and Khaniukova's technique looked so effortless - I noticed too the balances with the leg coming in front at the end. She deserves to be nominated for best female dancer, not forgetting her acting as Frieda Kahlo earlier this year and she also merits principal status. 

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This is probably a daft question but is Conrad the largest male role? I want to make sure, once the casting for the Coliseum is announced, that I book for the leading man I want to see & it's a bit confusing with some of the principals dancing multiple roles. Wikipedia unhelpfully does not provide a plot synopsis for Le Corsaire so I can't deduce it from that as I usually do for unfamilliar to me plays/operas/ballets.

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19 minutes ago, Dawnstar said:

This is probably a daft question but is Conrad the largest male role? I want to make sure, once the casting for the Coliseum is announced, that I book for the leading man I want to see & it's a bit confusing with some of the principals dancing multiple roles. Wikipedia unhelpfully does not provide a plot synopsis for Le Corsaire so I can't deduce it from that as I usually do for unfamilliar to me plays/operas/ballets.

 

Yes, whenever I've seen it, Conrad is the largest male role and the hero although all of the male parts are pretty good.  It's very annoying that the Coliseum doesn't publish casting very far in advance.  I messaged them on facebook and they said they'd announce the Coliseum cast this week.  I hope you get the leading man you want for it.  I've just picked the day I can do and am hoping for Brooklyn Mack as he looks amazing on Youtube.  Although I'd be happy with any of them as I like most of the principals at ENB. 

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36 minutes ago, Dawnstar said:

This is probably a daft question but is Conrad the largest male role? I want to make sure, once the casting for the Coliseum is announced, that I book for the leading man I want to see & it's a bit confusing with some of the principals dancing multiple roles. Wikipedia unhelpfully does not provide a plot synopsis for Le Corsaire so I can't deduce it from that as I usually do for unfamilliar to me plays/operas/ballets.

Ali has the really famous variation though.

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32 minutes ago, Dawnstar said:

This is probably a daft question but is Conrad the largest male role? 

 

That's a difficult question as both Lankendem and Birbanto have a lot of very prominent stage time and can dominate the ballet (as can Ali) if a particular Conrad is not equal to the 'competition'. Irmgard (above) gives an example of a performance in which Conrad did not come across quite strongly enough.

Maybe, if you are a newcomer to Le Corsaire, Dawnstar, it would be a good idea to enquire on here as to which overall  line-up people would recommend.

It's certainly good news that the casting is due out this coming week.

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Just now, capybara said:

 

That's a difficult question as both Lankendem and Birbanto have a lot of very prominent stage time and can dominate the ballet (as can Ali) if a particular Conrad is not equal to the 'competition'. Irmgard (above) gives an example of a performance in which Conrad did not come across quite strongly enough.

Maybe, if you are a newcomer to Le Corsaire, Dawnstar, it would be a good idea to enquire on here as to which overall  line-up people would recommend.

It's certainly good news that the casting is due out this coming week.

 

You're right, Conrad can come across as rather bland if the performer isn't careful because Lankendem and Birbanto are both strong characters. 

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11 hours ago, Dawnstar said:

This is probably a daft question but is Conrad the largest male role? I want to make sure, once the casting for the Coliseum is announced, that I book for the leading man I want to see & it's a bit confusing with some of the principals dancing multiple roles. Wikipedia unhelpfully does not provide a plot synopsis for Le Corsaire so I can't deduce it from that as I usually do for unfamilliar to me plays/operas/ballets.

Conrad is most definitely the largest role in terms of stage time and he is the Corsair of the title.  It is basically the story of his quest to regain Medora (who is repeatedly kidnapped in this plot!) but, being essentially a 19th century ballet, Medora dominates.  If you want a synopsis, there is one on ENB's website (www.ballet.org.uk).  However, as Capybara has said, the other male dancers also have strong roles and can sometimes steal the show, especially Ali who hardly appears in Act I apart from rescuing Medora for Conrad, and then only has the pas d'action (pas de trois) in Act II in which he has the most famous solo in the ballet and shares the partnering of Medora with Conrad.  I well remember Junor Souza as Ali in 2013 almost stealing the show from Vadim Muntagirov's Conrad on the strength of this one scene and his amazing stage presence (similarly in 2016 when Brooklyn Mack was his Conrad).  I am hoping he is cast in this role again for the Coliseum performances! Interestingly, when ENB first announced the casting for Milton Keynes, they only listed Conrad, Medora and Lankendem (the slave trader), adding the other main characters later.  Birbanto and Lankendem have about equal stage time with Birbanto probably getting slightly more dance time.  Hopefully this will help you in deciding which performance to book for!  On the strength of the Milton Keynes performances, bearing in mind I missed one cast, I found the cast in which Cirio was Conrad was the most uniformly satisfying but I would not want to miss some of the dancers in the other casts, particularly the other Medoras.  It will be interesting to see if the Milton Keynes casts remain together for the Coliseum or if there will be a bit of mixing and matching going on.

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On 24/11/2019 at 22:25, capybara said:

 

That's a difficult question as both Lankendem and Birbanto have a lot of very prominent stage time and can dominate the ballet (as can Ali) if a particular Conrad is not equal to the 'competition'. Irmgard (above) gives an example of a performance in which Conrad did not come across quite strongly enough.

Maybe, if you are a newcomer to Le Corsaire, Dawnstar, it would be a good idea to enquire on here as to which overall  line-up people would recommend.

It's certainly good news that the casting is due out this coming week.

 

Thanks everyone for the replies. I was intending to book the cast with Frola as Conrad, assuming that cast gets at least one performance date that I can make. I thought he had strong stage presence in Manon & Cinderella so imagine he won't be overshadowed in Le Corsaire. 

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Another good example of Conrad being overshadowed by Birbanto and Lankendem is the Vienna State Ballet's DVD performance, unfortunately there is no Ali in this production either, otherwise I think it is a thoroughly enjoyable performance, as with all Corsaires it has a different mix of music and choreography, including the Sylvia adagio music for the "cave"pdd! 

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