As ballet, it has its drawbacks, but as a circus, the Kirov's "Le Corsaire" is unrivaled. What else can you call a stage production that has so many things going on at once, and with such brash eagerness to please? Ballerinas in bikini tops -- lots of 'em! Wacky Turks in huge mushroom-cap turbans! There's also a bumbling, skirt-chasing Pasha, a stable of gallant pirates and a "slave" who gets the plum role, stealing the show with one eye-popping, contortionist display after the other. The gaudily draped sets leave no doubt about it: You're peeking under the Big Top.
"Le Corsaire," which opened Tuesday for a six-day run at the Kennedy Center Opera House, does not so much romance you as pummel you with Russian might. In fact, it looks quite a bit more like a hard-driving production of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet than a work by that company's historically more refined and artful rivals in St. Petersburg.
Lately, however, the Kirov seems to be aiming beneath the artistic high bar it so famously set in past decades. Lacking the athletic standard of the current age, a melt-your-heart stylist like Natalia Makarova wouldn't stand a chance in her native company now. With the exception of last year's "Swan Lake," the Kirov's aggressive edge has felt sharper with each of the troupe's appearances here.
Yet pushiness is not entirely out of place in "Le Corsaire," nor is spectacle. Inspired by Lord Byron's poem about the high-seas escapades of a corsair, or pirate, the ballet typifies the mid-19th-century fascination with adventure and exoticism (it takes place in Turkish-patrolled Greece, processed through a Russian view of how the French might see it). It revised the G-rated standard of romantic ballet, with its fairies and sylphs and noblemen, to a PG-13 level, appealing to a baser appetite for violence and (implied) sex. No single composer would do for this extravaganza; the score is a pastiche of works by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo and Pyotr Oldenburgsky.
There is a good degree of fun in the ballet. The Turks are full-bellied buffoons; the harem-building Pasha is a witless voyeur. The plot is essentially a game of who-gets-the-girl, as Conrad, the corsair of the title, frees the maiden Medora from the Pasha's clutches, and Lankedem the slave-trader plots to get her back, only to have Conrad ultimately whisk her off in his getaway ship.
Credit the Kirov with attempting to make something of the drama in this silliest of ballet story lines. There is more scene-setting and exposition here than in, say, American Ballet Theatre's swifter-paced version. The choreography in this 1987 redo is by Pyotr Gusev, based on the 19th-century work of Marius Petipa, and the emphasis is squarely on the dancing. Swaths of standard-issue ensemble work are studded with virtuosic displays by the principals.
Inexplicably, however, most of the A-list dancers have stayed in St. Petersburg, especially among the ballerinas -- according to the announced casting, company standouts Diana Vishneva and Daria Pavlenko will not be here this week. Tuesday's Medora, Viktoria Tereshkina, possessed force but little impact.
True, she had all the technical prowess you could ask for, as well as courage to match any pirate. She had encountered some slick spots on the stage a few times earlier in the evening, falling once and slipping a few other times, but there was nothing tentative about her seemingly endless series of whipping fouette turns; they could have been computer-generated for all their jackhammer precision. Yet she often left a ragged edge on her steps. Her footwork lost its neatness after the flashy bits were done, and her arms and hands were brittle rather than soft. She offered no hint as to what kind of a creature Medora was, nor as to why Conrad should risk all for her. Ekaterina Osmolkina was a similarly twiggy, steely Gulnara, Medora's best girlfriend.
As Conrad, Ilya Kuznetsov was less a swaggering pirate than a prince among men -- big, blond and polished, consuming the stage with his leaps, hanging in space for extra revolutions in airborne turns. He grew unbecomingly desperate, though, in the ballet's central pas de trois, a dance for Medora, Conrad and Ali, Conrad's slave. This segment is most often danced (and frequently excerpted) as a duet between the maiden and the devoted slave, and you have to wonder why the Kirov returned to its three-way origins. Conrad came across as unnecessary, especially next to Leonid Sarafanov's Ali.
A slight dancer who can bounce like a superball, Sarafanov ignited the single loudest burst of shouts and applause I can recall hearing at the Kennedy Center in decades of performances. An acrobatic wizard, he could twist his pelvis around his spine -- his torso going one way while his legs pinwheeled the other -- as he shot lengthwise through the air, grimacing like a sprinter at the finish line. He did it twice, and it was a perfect 10 each time (as you would expect, since he had abandoned the realm of ballet for the Olympic arena at that point). Kuznetsov couldn't top that, and looked put out by Sarafanov's ovation, but he gets points in my book for sticking to ballet steps.
Teymuraz Murvanidze's set designs presented a spectacle of another order; each scene took place beneath a bizarrely abstract thundercloud of fabric. It looked as though great golden orbs were dripping multicolor goo over the first act's marketplace, while in the second act the pirates' cave was overhung with wads of crumpled foil. Worst of all was the riot of pinks framing the garden scene in Act 3, where the Pasha's harem dances for him. The dancers even wore peach-colored wigs.
Evidently this wasn't enough for the designers. About halfway through this scene, fountains start gushing loudly in the background. It was the ballet's single metaphoric moment: Like those waterworks, "Le Corsaire" pours on the effects, the colors, the technical dazzle and every sort of extreme, but for all its exertions it never enters your heart. Still, I'm not sorry I saw it. Excess is a tradition in ballet, and nobody carries it on with more relish than the Russians.
Performances continue through Sunday, with cast changes.
Kirov dancers rehearse Act 1 of a version of "Le Corsaire" that is more acrobatic than balletic.