The Bolshoi Ballet's 'Le Corsaire' at the Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Surely girls have never been chased so joyfully, nor have they disarmed their men so utterly, nor have pirates been so piratey than in the Bolshoi Ballet's "Le Corsaire."

In terms of sheer swashbuckling, this ballet can go toe-to-toe with "Pirates of the Caribbean," while it also soars in the ballerina department, supplying one of the most demanding female roles in the classical repertoire. At one point there are nearly more tutus onstage than the Kennedy Center Opera House can hold, but if fiery folk dancing is more your thing, you will find it here, too, in heel-drilling, thrilling abundance.

In short, this production, which opened Tuesday and runs through Sunday afternoon, fairly bursts with dazzling ingredients. But most exciting of all, for its entire three (!) hours it runs on a current of extraordinary energy.

It's rare even at the upper reaches of the field to find an entire ballet company that can transfer such unmuzzled electricity to its audience, but that is the Bolshoi's distinction. We've seen the same deeply held investment in what it's been doing on earlier tours here. This 2007 production of "Le Corsaire" is the work of the singularly gifted choreographer Alexei Ratmansky (now in residence at American Ballet Theatre but who led the Bolshoi at the time) and the current Bolshoi director, Yuri Burlaka. The two based their account on the 1899 version by Marius Petipa; it's both true to its turn-of-the-century origins -- with a fascination for the exotic East (Turkey) and its harem girls, expressed through Western classical dance -- and exuberantly alive.

It's alive because every moment of it lives. Too many full-length ballets are exciting only in spots -- when the principals dance, usually -- and sag during the obligatory ensemble scenes. Not so here. Every last obscure cast member, from rug seller to fruit monger, juices his character to the fullest.

In the first act's marketplace you see lots of gesturing with bejeweled fingers. Light, breezy dances lift out of the ensemble like steam from a stew. Amid stacks of rugs and bowls of oranges, a pasha and other buyers discuss money and women with an enthusiasm you can taste. (You know exactly what they're talking about in their silent gestural language of mime; it comes at you like a song.)

This isn't your ordinary bazaar, however; women are the main goods, herded in to be sold as slaves. Human bondage and all manner of stereotyping are handled lightly, without apology, as they must be (complaints can be lodged at Petipa's grave). Light, indeed, is the chief tone here -- it's more comic ballet than anything else, studded with sight gags and pratfalls and deliciously rendered double takes.

The plot is complicated and the cast of characters extensive, with assorted muftis, sultanas and eunuchs, but you needn't get hung up on piecing together who's who. It becomes (relatively) clear in the unspooling: Conrad is the leader of a band of wonderfully rank, longhaired corsaires (pirates); he's in love with Medora, a slave who is the prize of the market, favored by both the doddering old owner of the bazaar, Lanquedem, and a rich pasha.

Conrad and Medora manage to round up the other slaves and escape the bazaar; they hide out in a cave by the sea until they're betrayed and Medora is kidnapped and sold to the pasha. Yada yada yada: Conrad and his brethren crash the pasha's party and get Medora back; they flee in a ship, but now it's the sea that betrays them, coughing up one of the most spectacular shipwrecks you could hope to find on dry land.

Tuesday's cast was strong at nearly every turn, but the leading couple, Maria Alexandrova and Nikolay Tsiskaridze, were of another order altogether. With his single gold earring, unruly black hair and heavy five o'clock shadow, Tsiskaridze has the heart-stealing bad-boy air of a Colin Farrell, with a hungry, bravura jump to boot. Over the years that the Bolshoi has been a regular visitor here, we've seen Alexandrova grow from perky up-and-comer to a ballerina of queenly command and polish, still in possession of a high, catlike jump.

When she flies from one side to the other in a big, crotchy leap -- legs shooting to each side -- it's like a cry for Lebensraum. Move it! you feel her shout, and the crowds are pushed to the corners. She has also mastered the full-body coordination that is a hallmark of Russian technique, with feet and legs keeping one rhythm, the waist relaxed and responsive and the arms sweeping along on their own melodic line. At two hours, and then three, into the ballet, she was still stretching those legs and feet like rapiers.

The technical sparks of these two dancers were of a piece with the fundamental urgency of the whole. Take the saber-clashing mazurka in the first act, danced by an ensemble that tears across the stage in boots and heeled shoes. This is folk dancing as a part of living, as natural and necessary as breathing. At one point there's even a bit of mimed rowing thrown in, native spice from a seafaring culture. And even in her tutu and toe shoes, Alexandrova melts seamlessly into the foot-stomping group. This merger demonstrates Ratmansky's genius -- the expressive and dramatic logic behind it is so sound; her energy comes from the same source as theirs.

The folk dancing that erupts later, in the corsaire's cave, has a slightly different flavor: the feeling of letting loose in one's home turf. Those scooting, heel-clicking steps skate the dancers across the stage, and after tipping their partners back in a deep dip, the men yank their women up into a full, hot embrace.

This earthy display is followed by one of the most excerpted moments in classical ballet, the pas de deux between Conrad and Medora, heralded by a harp cadenza and the familiar Drigo melody. (Pavel Klinichev conducted the Opera House Orchestra, drawing out bright, singing notes in what is one of ballet's most mix-and-match mongrel scores, with bits by Adolphe Adam, Leo Delibes, Cesare Pugni and others.)

Rather than the sterile display of technique that it so often becomes, the pas de deux was suffused with the same brusque feeling and intensity of the corsairs' dance. Tsiskaridze nearly ran out of stage for his manege of turns. Alexandrova punctuated an abundance of light, stretchy jumps and turns with a snapped-still arabesque, her stream of molten metal suddenly turned to steel.

Among other dancers who stood out, Gennady Yanin, as the elderly Lanquedem, is a treasure of a comic character dancer, but never a buffoon. He could also tug at the heart, with his palsied hands feebly trying to fend off abuse from the pirates. Anastasia Stashkevich and Denis Medvedev danced a glorious pas de deux in the first act, she with the delicate fine-tuning of a Swiss watch, he with the sleek power of a Ferrarri; you feared his velvet britches would burst with every slicing leap.

Boris Kaminsky's set designs grew more magnificent with every act. The scenery for the corsaire's cave in Act 1, Scene 2 had the soaring vertical lines of a Gothic cathedral, though it seemed not so much hollowed-out stone as carved wood, with the sea glowing in the distance. Yelena Zaitseva's costumes are layered in shimmer and richness.

The final ocean scene is Kaminsky's crowning glory, with its lapping waves born of lighting and a fog machine. But as the sea rises to wreck and swallow the pirate ship, you'd swear there's some kind of moral fury -- or is it ecstasy? -- at work.

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