A pirate romp: English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire

London Coliseum
January 9, 2020

David Mead

The big ballet classics are not exactly renowned for strong plots but Le Corsaire is sillier than most. Based on the Lord Byron poem, it involves swaggering pirates, a fat pasha (for a stereotype to beat all sterotypes look no further), girls trafficked for sex, a rose imbued with a sleeping potion, kidnaps, rescues, deception and betrayal. There’s a hint of love interest but it’s hardly romantic. It’s hard to disagree with the scholar who commented that it was “one of the most incoherent and ill-focussed of Byron’s narrative poems. One would like to know how many of the ten thousand people who bought it on its first day of issue read it more than twice.”

But what Le Corsaire, the ballet, does have is bags of fine dance to a cheerful, if mostly unmemorable collage of music from here, there and everywhere. Indeed, in Act I especially, the action barely stops, the story just something on which to hang one fine solo after another. English National Ballet’s production by Anna-Marie Holmes with designs by Bob Ringwood (Batman, Empire of the Sun, Star Trek Nemesis) is also fabulous to look at with its backdrop of domes and minarets reaching heavenward into a hazy sky, and costumes brimming with colourful fezes, embroidered waistcoats, veils and bling.

And it is fun. Much of that is down to the English National Ballet dancers who give it their all. But as much as Fernanda Oliveira as Medora and Julia Conway as Gulnare might try, Le Corsaire is a bit of a ballet for them men.

English National Ballet in Photo Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in <i
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Joseph Caley put in his best Errol Flynn act as the pirate leader. I also enjoyed the all-out approach of the decidedly swarthy Miguel Angel Maidana as the two-timing, treacherous, second-in-command colleague Birbanto.

For all the fine macho posturing and dance of the first act, the real fireworks come in the big Pas d’action of the second, in which Daniel McCormick positively soared as Ali. Oliviera may have shimmered like a vision of perfection in her light turquoise dress but here she was a little less certain, disappointingly failing to complete the fouettés.

Among the soloists, I was most taken by Francesca Velicu; a most appealing Odalisque.

Michael Coleman was his usual superb self as the Pasha, whose sole aim in life seems to be to stock his harem with ever more beautiful girls, and then to dream about them when he’s asleep. No, that dream does not make narrative sense, but it does give the women something to do, and if you want lots of dancers in tutus you have to find a way of working them in.

One of the ballet’s biggest problems is that it’s then all over so quickly. The ballet omits Gulnare killing the Pasha as in the poem but Conrad’s shooting of Birbanto (I do rather like the sense you get that he mused about fighting with knives before whipping out a gun and getting it over with), his, Medora, Ali and Gulnare’s escape, and the final shipwreck are all over in a flash.

Even so, Le Corsaire is a first-rate romp to herald the new year.

Le Corsaire continues at the London Coliseum to January 14. For full details of this and other forthcoming English National Ballet performances, visit www.ballet.org.uk.