If you’re into your classical ballet, I think it’s safe to say that the Milton Keynes Theatre was “The Place To Be” yesterday for the opening performance of the first ever full production of Le Corsaire by a UK company. Unsurprisingly the place was packed with enthusiastic balletomanes who felt they were about to witness an important evening in the history of ballet. It’s really bizarre that this is the first such production; I am sure I have seen it staged in full before – but it may have been either at the Paris Opera or by the Royal New Zealand ballet. Anyway, I was as enthusiastic as anyone to see what was in store.
It sure is lavish. The sets and costumes are by Bob Ringwood of Batman fame, and evoke an exotic atmosphere of 19th century Eastern Promise. You would expect Aladdin and his genie to emerge any minute from the Market squares and minarets, and it would be a perfect setting for a revival of Kismet. The attention to detail is superb; the craftsmanship that went into the physical creation of those sets and costumes is immense. The Pasha’s sedan chair and entourage, the pirates’ horde of treasures, the dresses of the harem girls all shimmer and shine with jewels and crystals, giving an incredible image of rich luxury. And what a delight to see and hear a full orchestra! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were reflecting that it’s something you rarely see; most dance nowadays seems to be accompanied by a backing track or at best a handful of musicians; and in the big musicals the orchestra is often kept obscured at the back or even completely out of sight. They were terrific, and filled the theatre with the ballet’s rich score.
But it’s all about the dance, isn’t it? Technically, it was a complete treat from start to finish. There are few things more serene than the exquisite elegance of a ballerina, or more inspiring than the athletic bravado of her male counterpart; and this production is crammed with both. It was so rewarding to see Petipa and Sergeyev’s choreography after having recently seen another company perform Swan Lake to the drabbest, most inelegant choreography imaginable. It’s no wonder this form of artistry survives the decades. Conrad, the corsair himself, is danced by Vadim Muntagirov with incredible joie-de-vivre, performing his leaps and twists with great accuracy and amazing strength. His love, Medora, whom he has to rescue from the slave trader Lankendem, is the gorgeous Alina Cojocaru, winner of almost every award under the sun, who simply radiates beauty in everything she does. There’s hardly any point describing the manner in which these incredibly skilful people dance – they are just extraordinary, I cannot analyse further on their abilities. It’s hardly surprising they stop the show after every dance to take a bow.
Dmitri Gruzdyev, member of English National Ballet for twenty years now, is a characterful lowlife Lankendem, a slave trader in it purely for the money and the sex, you’d imagine. He couldn’t care less that Conrad loves Medora, and gives some delightfully dismissive “so what” gestures when challenged. When captured, he becomes a snivelling coward too, which was very nicely portrayed. I was very impressed with his Act One pas de deux with Erina Takahashi as Gulnare; she danced with incredible grace, but he also gave her great support. Similarly I also really enjoyed the partnership of Yonah Acosta as Birbanto and Crystal Costa (Lead Villager) – not only was it beautiful but it had an injection of quite a lot of fun too. But probably the audience’s favourite was a stunning performance by Junor Souza as the slave Ali, with some superb solos and excellent character playing – I don’t think he’s going to remain at “Junior Soloist” level for long. I’m not entirely sure about the decision to make the Pasha a figure of fun. Mrs C thought it was a bit too cartoony, and whilst I quite enjoyed Michael Coleman’s performance I did find the character of his assistant, with his constant flapping around him like Pingu on speed, rather irritating. We were, however, both very impressed at the performances of the children from the Tring Park School – keeping perfect time and acting as elegantly as it is possible for children to do.
The only other aspect that slightly disappointed me was not the fault of the English National Ballet, or Adolph Adam, or Petipa and Sergeyev; it’s just that for me the third and final act rather runs out of steam. There’s the long scene representing the Pasha’s dream of his harem – a simple device to get a full dance sequence out of your top ballerinas, but there’s no story element to it; then the final denouement takes place quite rapidly, and I found Conrad’s shooting Birbanto a little underwhelming – sorry if I have ruined the story for you (it might have worked better if Mr Acosta hadn’t started to get up off the floor until the curtain had finally come down all the way to stage level); the much anticipated shipwreck scene is rather quick and (apart from Ali’s athletic exit) doesn’t really contain any dance as such; and the very final scene is more of a whimper than a bang. But this is still a tremendous production and chock-full of superb performances, and I am sure it will have a hugely successful tour.
Audience etiquette question #1: I sat next to two elderly ladies, absolutely enthralled by the production, and politely confining their intelligent conversation about the show to the intervals. However, one of them spent the entire evening waving the most rattly fan in front of her face – it sounded like she was juggling a bag of marbles all night. It was very distracting. I didn’t say anything, but I am sure others would have been equally disturbed by her. Should I have said something?
Audience etiquette question #2: At curtain call a gentlemen in the row in front and about four seats to my left couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and stood up during the applause when Mr Acosta came on and stayed standing for the rest of the call. It’s a genuine source of embarrassment when you start a standing ovation and no one else follows you, but I always think it looks really awful if you then decide to sit down again. So I say, stand up, and stay stood up if that’s how much you enjoyed it. However, another man sat behind him remonstrated with him for standing up and asked him to sit down. “Didn’t you enjoy it?” asked the standing man. “Yes but I want to see it” said the seated one. Abashed, the man sat down again. Are there rules about ovating alone during a curtain call?