Le Corsaire:  Bolshoi Ballet, live from Moscow to the Oxford Phoenix , 12 March 2012

Le Corsaire has both a complicated story and a complicated history.  Although based on Byron’s poem, which sprang from his travels and experiences at a particular historical moment, and first performed in Russia at a time when the empire was acutely concerned with developments in the near east, I felt that the context of this production was too vague to tell the story well, and this detracted from its emotional impact.  I found it hard to see how the conflicts between the Greeks, the Turks and the pirates, essential to the momentum of the plot, fitted together, and without clarity around those relationships it was reduced to an improbable story of two lovers who encountered a number of highly confusing difficulties.

I admired the technically magnificent performances of the principles, although, for myself, I don’t care for the way that Bolshoi dancers hold their arms and use their hands, and I was very unhappy about the extra flick of the wrists that some seem to favour as they hit a pose or the peak of a jump.

There certainly were times when the dancing showed conviction and sincerity, and I loved the set corps de ballet piece for the jardin animé, and the first Odalisque solo (the one in which she uses a series of brisés to fly across the stage).  However, I was disappointed by what I felt to be a lack of emotional tension between Conrad (Ruslan Skvortsov) and Medora (Svetlana Lunkina), particularly in the grand pas de deux with which we are all so familiar.  Gulnare (Nina Kaptsova) gave a spirited performance, but I did not believe that she really loved the Pasha, as the libretto flashed up on the screen before the trick wedding stated.

The production was based on the 1899 Petipa staging, with some costumes beautifully reconstructed from the original designs, however, to my mind it wasn’t danced in the style of a nineteenth century ballet;  the performances seemed very twentieth century, with very high extensions and the kind of “fireworks” that I associate with the Soviets.  The styles of sets and staging were variable:  in particular, I thought that the cave and the shipwreck might have been from Disney.  Perhaps this is due to the risk inherent in any recreation, which is the unconscious tendency to stamp it with our own times:  in this case I think it resulted in unintentional pastiche.

Much of the music was familiar to me, although I had never seen this ballet before, and while some is charming, the quality is inconsistent, and the artistic cohesion of the ballet wasn’t helped by the Bolshoi tradition of allowing dancers to take lengthy reverences during the performances.  Seeing this production helped me to understand why Fokine believed that ballet needed to be reformed.