“Le Corsaire,” the ballet equivalent of the movie matinee adventure tale, has been tweaked by successive generations of choreographers with one goal uppermost: to raise excitement and audience neck hairs through nonstop dancer bravura.
At American Ballet Theatre, it is the danseurs’ derring-do, mostly, that thrills. The company’s contingent of male elites — from principals to its corps de ballet — brought out all their tricks and then some Friday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as they reprised Anna-Maria Holmes' three-act staging from 1998.
The depth of ABT's male ranks is so great that the company can rewardingly people the cast of a fluffy story ballet like “Corsaire,” which is based oh-so-loosely on Lord Byron’s 1814 verse story, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev.
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With each soloist’s and principal’s entrance, another jaw-dropping feat was splashed across the stage. If only slo-mo replay were available.
First up was the agile Daniil Simkin, as the money-grubbing slave trader Lankendem, lifting off from one pirouetting leg into a spinning leap.
He was followed in quick succession by Mikhail Ilyin (in the ABT corps, formerly a principal with Miami City Ballet) as an effusive and musically expressive Birbanto, the traitor; then that powerhouse of spontaneous combustion, Ivan Vasiliev as Ali the obsequious slave; and lastly the romantic pirate hero in white tights, Herman Cornejo, whose beautiful line and exquisite partnering made him a dashing Conrad.
These four traded center-stage duties with a competitive edginess, until the second act’s legendary pas de trois. That is Ali’s spotlight moment, and Vasiliev filled it to overflowing unashamedly, unleashing a feral power and rocketing halfway up to the proscenium arch with every takeoff. It was as though we could feel him deciding what physical marvel to try on the cusp of each step. The audience roared, for both his feats and brashness.
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The fireworks were thrilling, but they also brought the ballet to an early crescendo, and just about capsized the balance of leading-man power. And what of those ladies who, like everyone else, contend with cartoonish characters?
The female parts require both athletic prowess and subtler, finer textures of shading. ABT’s ballerinas are more accomplished in the former style than the latter. The nuance and delicacy of upper-body movements did not find full flower here. As a result the classical Jardin Anime section in the third act failed to bloom.
As Conrad’s love interest Medora, Xiomara Reyes exuded a naïve one-dimensionality with her sweetheart smile and innocent demeanor. Reyes is poised, even lovely, but more dependable than creative. Give her credit for rebounding from a momentary slip to the floor, and for flashes of passion in her grand duet with Cornejo, who held her daringly aloft slightly past 180 degrees.
Sarah Lane, in the secondary ballerina role, portrayed Gulnare with, first, a believably tragic sorrow, than a charming playfulness. Misty Copeland, Yuriko Kajiya and Skylar Brandt tackled the variations of the three Odalisques with clarity and crispness, if with a few spacing issues, too. Copeland showed off her unerring balance; Kajiya a fragile purity. Brandt, a corps de ballet standout, has an endearing doe-like quality and lightning quickness in her small jumps.
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Borrowed from Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, the opulent new costumes, designed by Anibal Lapiz, and the new scenic designs, by Christian Prego, were storybook exotic. The one exception was in the Jardin Animee scene that had bizarre mobiles resembling giant jelly fish. And designer Brad Fields’ horrid lighting in that scene cast a glossy glare on the dancers, ruining Petipa’s geometric patterns.
Conductor Charles Barker, on the other hand, was consistently sensitive to the dancers’ needs and to the challenges of this thumping, patchwork score.
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