Le Corsaire is frothy a ballet as they come, with starry-eyed romance, swashbuckling heroism and remarkably little tension despite all the sword-fighting and slave-trading. Anna-Marie Holmes’s new production, created with ballet director Tamás Solymosi for the Hungarian National Ballet, doesn’t add much weight to this hokey concoction, but it does capitalise on the cheer and bravado that have steadily pleased crowds since the ballet was first mounted in the nineteenth century, offering colour galore and some exceptional performances from Hungary’s foremost classical ballet company.
Inspired by Lord Byron’s 1814 poem The Corsair, the plot follows the travails of a pirate named Conrad as he chases the affection of slave girl Medora. It’s a ballet Holmes knows well: in 1997 she staged a full-length version for Boston Ballet and has since revised this for a number of companies around the world, including American Ballet Theatre and English National Ballet. Among this latest adaptation’s chief assets is its vibrant stage design (István Rózsa), a kaleidoscope of rich maroons and azures that elevates the ballet beyond its silly premise. The marketplace of act one, with its spangled throws and bushels of flowers, is splendid, as is the pirate cave of the middle act, a feast of glittering treasure chests and ivy-adorned grottos that look plucked straight from Neverland. The costumes (by Nóra Rományi) are likewise alluring – think veils, bangles and plenty of midriff.
Mikalai Radziush is an engaging Conrad, swapping swagger for swoon when paired with Minjun Kim’s Medora, winsome in a two-piece tutu and glinting tiara. That said, it’s András József Rónai, playing slave Ali, who emerges as the male star, turning heads in the famous second-act pas de deux a trois with sky-high jumps and flashy, flawless pirouettes. Kim too gets some lovely turns in at this point, twirling blissfully amid twinkly blue light. Over the course of the show she proves an impressively efficient dancer, her pointework tidy and stature neat; and her polished grin is charming, if a tad one-note.
Other impressive performances include Cristina Balaban’s Gulnare, willowy and bouncy in all the right places, and the three odalisques (Lili Felméry, Yourim Lee and Anri Okada), who dole out nifty, sprightly allegro. The corps also put in a good show, particularly in the act three garden scene, where 16 ballerinas wave flower wreaths among a flush of fuchsia blooms. Their delicate lines are somewhat thrown off by the missteps of the small children drafted in to pad out the section, but the image of blossoming femininity is a lovely one all the same.
While Holmes’s staging hits all the high notes of this ballet – the bright hues, the beaming divertissements and flouncy showboating – it doesn’t quite overcome the shortcomings that have prevented it from entering the repertoire of classical greats, namely its piecemeal and at times implausible narrative (the result of multiple revisions over the years) and cartoonish conception of the Orient (bumbling sultans, coquettish concubines). The characterisations remain flimsy, with little depth or sensuality to propel the cast.
Still, the tasteful elements outnumber the cheesy ones, and there’s plenty of refinement from the dancers, plus a vigorous live orchestra. This production won’t be the one to tip Le Corsaire towards classical glory, but it’s an entertaining night out, with cheery buoyance in spades.