Washington Ballet soars in ‘Le Corsaire’ at Kennedy Center

A dyspeptic pirate ship has its troubles navigating the billowing nylon seas on the Eisenhower stage, but the dancers sail through “Le Corsaire,” which the Washington Ballet is performing at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. If colorful spectacle and vibrant dancing is your cup of . . . grog, this ballet will not disappoint. It’s like a great big barrel of rum punch — the more you dip into it, the better it gets.

As fired up as it is, though, it takes a little while for the ballet to settle into its rhythms — the stage can’t always handle everything this production has to give. Anna-Marie Holmes’s adaptation of the 19th-century tale of a soft-hearted pirate, jolly slave girls and a pasha who hallucinates in perfect classical form calls for fuller sets, a bigger cast and more athletic propulsion than the Eisenhower can comfortably contain. At the ballet’s opening on Thursday, there was more than one occasion when you could credit the dancers with smart split-second judgments that kept them from spinning into the laps of audience members.

Not that there was anything cautious about that performance. An abundance of high spirits made the whole event especially engaging. As the Greek slave trader Lankendem, Jared Nelson had plenty of his own wares on offer — the soaring jump and solid technique, so casually employed, that make him the company’s reigning prince. Jonathan Jordan’s Conrad, the pirate-turned-abolitionist who falls for an enslaved maiden, needed no special tricks to prove he is a decent sort — his very gait is appealingly modest, and he moves with easy grace. As his traitorous pal Birbanto, Brazilian dancer Nayon Iovino — new to the company, and full of character — dripped piratude.

The evening’s knockout punches were delivered by the three star slaves: Brooklyn Mack, a human missile; Maki Onuki, as a delicate but strong-willed Medora, the woman who captures Conrad’s heart; and Kara Cooper as Gulnare, her friend. Cooper, especially, was a revelation — a ballerina of grand range and projection.

The story is complicated, involving kidnappings and cross-kidnappings, plots and counterplots, and a final weigh-in by Mother Nature in the form of a storm. (A big role for the wind machine.) This is why so many productions, such as this one, put less emphasis on the plot and more on a big, bright fantasy.

But along with all the fantasy — the lavish costumes and sets, worthy of applause on their own — there is lovely dancing here, the mark of serious focus and commitment. It’s too bad, then, that the dancers don’t have serious music to match. “Le Corsaire,” as all the Washington Ballet’s productions this year, is danced to taped accompaniment. Unfortunately, the decision to forgo an orchestra this season coincided with a year of full-length orchestral ballets, and the results have been undermined. “Le Corsaire,” which does not have a great score to begin with (it’s a mix of tunes by a handful of composers), especially suffers from the canned sound. At the moments of highest drama, every rumble of drums or crash of brass hurt the efforts onstage.

These dancers and and the whole artistic staff deserve better. One can only hope that next season, they will get it.

Le Corsaire

repeats Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.
and Sunday at 1 and 5:30 p.m., with cast
changes, at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St.
NW. 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.
www.kennedy-center.org

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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