American Ballet Theatre’s final blockbuster effort for its spring season at the Met was the evening-length Le Corsaire, in a production, borrowed from the Boston Ballet, choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev after Petipa. In its current state, the piece is an extremely foolish undertaking. The authenticity of nearly every passage is in doubt, since the ballet has been continually emended from the time of its French and Russian incarnations, in the mid- to late nineteenth century. But you needn’t be a dance scholar to recognize mishmash; all you have to do is look at the stage and you see cavalier patchwork, feeble pastiche, and an appalling neglect of the emotional and, yes, moral truths that underlie the greatest nineteenth-century ballets based on tales requiring suspension of disbelief. (This one is inspired by the Byron poem, from which it has bleached most of the lusciousness and all of the irony.)
The present Corsaire is merely a classicism-goes-exotic affair, its locale a Turkey that invites passions to run amok, what with the local population of pirates, pashas, and exotic slaves of both sexes. (The ballet has not been revised for political correctness.) Of course it ends with a shipwreck. How else would you get the curtain down after three acts of mostly specious choreography and theatrical foolishness?
In the course of events, there’s the virtuoso Corsaire pas de deux (an interpolation to begin with), restored to an earlier pas de trois state, and the “Jardin Animé” scene for two ballerinas and the female ensemble, with its lovely formal-garden patterning (also an interpolation). The latter has been restored to include little girls manipulating flowered hoops – a device meant to give young ballet students stage experience, display the strength of a venerable company’s academy, and no doubt ignite the imagination of potential recruits to the profession. Back in 1981, when ABT was directed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, a staging of the “Jardin Animé” scene – as an independent entry and without the kiddies – revealed far more formal beauty; you could see the Petipa hallmark.
In the first cast of the current rendition, fine, glowing performances in the ballerina slots came from Nina Ananiashvili and Ashley Tuttle. Giuseppe Picone – tall, dark, handsome, and possessed of immaculate line – looked fabulous as the hero, but his dancing lacks an essential vitality. Angel Corella, José Manuel Carreño, and Vladimir Malakhov all took advantage of not playing the hero for once and lent truth and texture to the dramatic and character parts assigned to them.
The most shameful element in the production was not the weak choreographic text but the stagers’ spineless indecision about tone. At times, this Corsaire was played for beauty and poignancy; at others, almost sneeringly, as low comedy. It’s certainly possible to love your subject matter and simultaneously poke gentle fun at it. Balanchine did just this in “local color” ballets of his like Stars and Stripes and Western Symphony. But the moment you despise your subject or fail to trust your audience to share your leap of faith into the gloriously absurd, you’re done for.