English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire – Milton Keynes Theatre

Staging: Anna-Marie Holmes, after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev

Conductor: Gavin Sutherland

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

The English National Ballet (ENB) returns to Milton Keynes Theatre for its 70th anniversary season with its revival of Le Corsaire, last performed on the same stage in 2013 in a UK world premiere. A rarely-performed piece of work (in the UK at least), and loosely based on a poem by Lord Byron, Le Corsaire is described in a lot of the marketing materials as a “swashbuckling romp” – not least because it’s packed to the rafters with pirates and all manner of daft plotting, with a love story thrown in for good measure. This particular love story concerns dashing hero Conrad (Francesco Gabriele Frola) and his beloved, the beautiful Medora (Erina Takahashi), who must contend with kidnapping (twice), mutiny, poisoned roses and a shipwreck in order to ultimately be together. If that makes it sound like Le Corsaire is a bit of a mish-mash of lots of different and slightly random goings-on, that’s because it kind of is – there’s even a lengthy dream sequence. The tangle of plotlines is not a bad thing in itself, however, the inclusion of two 20 minute intervals feels overly long, so the slightly bonkers plot feels a bit more daft, with the audience pulled out of the action for a lengthy period. Of course, the reason for these intervals is to prepare the stage for the new locations visited in Acts II and III, and there is absolutely no denying that Bob Ringwood’s beautiful painted sets are stunning – they fill the MK Theatre’s cavernous stage with colour: sumptuous perspective foregrounds framing distant misty landscapes beyond. Ringwood’s costume designs are also incredibly beautiful, shimmering with texture and decoration and fully invoking the Arabian Nights feel of the piece.

The dancing on display is, as is to be expected of the ENB, wonderful to behold, and Le Corsaire’s patchwork score (written by ten composers) is brought beautifully to life by the large live orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. In his debut in the role of pirate hero Conrad, Francesco Gabriele Frola is a strong leading man and carries the role well – his pas de deux with Erina Takahashi in Act II is a particular highlight. Takahashi’s Medora is less fiery and feisty than expected, but her scenes with Conrad are beautiful – you can really feel the love between them. As Medora’s friend Gulnare, Shiori Kase perfectly showcases the character’s teasing charm and naughtiness in her scenes alongside Michael Coleman’s foolish, bumbling Pasha. The standout performance of the night, however, is that of Jeffrey Cirio, in his debut performance as Conrad’s sidekick, Ali. He moves beautifully, powering through leaps and spins effortlessly and he really comes into his own during the ballet’s best-known number, a pas de trois with Conrad and Medora, earning the biggest applause of the night, and at the curtain call. The rest of the company – particularly the women, in their roles as slave girls, or members of the Pasha’s harem – feel woefully underused, spending the majority of the ballet’s first two acts in the background, lounging against backdrops and watching the action unfold in front of them. This is rectified slightly with the dream sequence in Act III, with the Pasha’s harem dancing in his fantasy garden, but it can’t help but feel a little tokenistic – as if the sequence is just there to give the rest of the female company something to do – given that the scene itself doesn’t really add anything to or further the narrative.
This is a beautiful production to look at, from the set design, score, and scenery to the fabulous costumes and first-rate dancing from the principal cast. However, there’s definitely an element of style over substance here. The plot has everything thrown at it, so is consequently a bit of a jumble, and the pace of the piece is hindered significantly by the lengthy intervals, making it feel overly and unnecessarily long, as opposed to fast-paced and exciting. Le Corsaire is worth seeing for the spectacle of the piece, but if you like your ballet with more substance, this may not be the one for you.

Runs until 23 November 2019                                                    Image: Laurent Liotardo

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Style over substance

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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