With pirates, beautiful women, a shipwreck and a garden scene so elaborate that Sleeping Beauty would be jealous, there’s never a dull moment in “Le Corsaire,” one of ballet’s wildest spectacles. And it’s about to come to a movie theater near you, performed by the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet.
First created in the 19th century, “Le Corsaire” was danced almost exclusively by Russian ballet companies for most of the 20th. As a result, it is lesser known in the U.S. than classics like “Swan Lake” or “Giselle.” But technology is making up for lost time: “Le Corsaire” will be broadcast into 1,600 cinemas worldwide on October 22, marking the start of the 2017-2018 Bolshoi Ballet Cinema Series.
These broadcasts bring world-class ballet to the public for the price of a movie ticket — with the added benefit of expert commentary, plus close-ups and views that are impossible to see in person. (Plus, depending on your location, there’s likely to be popcorn and easy parking.)
“Le Corsaire” is especially appropriate for movie screens because this exotic adventure, adapted from an epic poem by Lord Byron, was once popular entertainment at its height.
It was later reworked during the Soviet era, but this 2007 production looks back to the origins. Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and scholar Yuri Burlaka worked to make this as close as possible to the 1899 edition, created by one of ballet’s great master choreographers Marius Petipa.
The action starts with one of the most difficult scenes to create on a stage: A pirate ship crashes in a storm, leaving the head pirate, Conrad, washed up on shore. There, he’s found by a beautiful slave girl, Medora.
They fall in love, and Conrad rescues her just before she’s to be sold at a Turkish bazaar. Their escape sets off more adventure, escapes and leads to a huge ballet in a garden featuring a whopping 60 corps de ballet dancers in wide, white tutus.
Sound a little farfetched?
“You just have to strap in and go with it,” said Russian ballet expert Joel Lobenthal, author of the forthcoming book, “People’s Artist: The Life and Death of Yuri Soloviev.”
Lobenthal notes that audiences may be surprised by the ballet’s ethnic depictions and slavery of women, but that’s part of the package when preserving original works of ballet that otherwise would be forgotten.
“It has things that are not politically correct,” said Lobenthal, “whether we like it or not.”
There’s one aspect of watching the Bolshoi broadcasts that newcomers and diehards alike tend to agree on. And that is commentary by Katya Novikova, a Bolshoi spokeswoman who serves as a guide or host during the broadcasts, giving introductions in English, French and Russian.
“She brings a lot sophistication and vivacity,” said Lobenthal, who describes her contributions as expert and more than a talking head or a sports announcer. “She’s heavy duty.”
Her commentary on “Le Corsaire” can be particularly helpful. After all, why is this retro plot still so entertaining today?
“It’s silly, but it doesn’t pretend to be a psychological drama!” said Novikova, who also points to the extreme size of the cast, about 100 people, as part of what makes this production special.
Whole brigades of pirates, gypsies and slaves all have their own dances, making for a huge variety that would have been expected when it debuted in St. Petersburg in 1899.
The October 22 performance from the Bolshoi stage will be transmitted live to locations in Europe, though due to time differences, will be delayed for the U.S.
The cast is set to be led by Bolshoi star Olga Smirnova as Medora. Smirnova has made a splash with her dramatic, lush dancing, particularly in the “Diamonds” portion of George Balanchine’s “Jewels.”
“She’s their international face at the moment,” said Lobenthal.
Igor Tsvirko, who will dance as the head pirate Conrad, is an “energetic and muscular dancer,” said Novikova. And Denis Savin, a thrilling dancer with acting skills, will take on the role of the Birbanto, Conrad’s pirate pal.
For ballet fans, this production is of note because it changes up the beloved, famous “Corsaire” pas de deux. This virtuoso duet is designed to wow the crowds with fast turns from Medora and impossible leaps from Conrad’s devoted slave, Ali.
So why, you may ask, would a slave dance with his master’s girlfriend? And why did the slave get the ballet’s signature moment?
The slave’s extra trills and decorative dancing added exotic color, said Lobenthal, who considers the slave’s prominence a left over from the Soviet era.
But in this version, Conrad himself dances in the spotlight with Medora. In other words, after shipwreck, narrow escape and all kinds of action, the hero gets the girl.
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