Le Corsaire is a statement of intent for Tamara Rojo, the first full-length production she commissioned as director of English National Ballet. It’s also the first time this 19th-century warhorse has been staged by a British company. ENB’s Corsaire delivers both exotic designs and rigorous dancing, then adds a radiant performance by ballerina Alina Cojocaru.
Lord Byron’s poem Le Corsaire, an orientalist tale of shipwrecks and pirates, inspired many 19th-century ballets, most now forgotten. This one survived in Russia, revised and reworked to add more tricks, more odalisques, more spectacle. The programme lists nine composers of the oompah score. It wasn’t staged in the west until the late 20th century, when its exotic setting and whizzbang steps became a hit with audiences.
Anna-Marie Holmes created this production for Boston Ballet in 1997, drawing on the Russian tradition of Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev. Holmes has tweaked it for ENB, with new designs by Bob Ringwood, designer of Tim Burton’s Batman. His sets mix misty vistas and intricate palace architecture. The costumes are all bare midriffs and glittering sequins, but lines and shapes are clear. The action – you can’t really call it a plot – is brisk, with varied setpieces.
Le Corsaire isn’t in the same league as the great 19th-century classics. There are ballets that can move you despite their nonsense plots; this one is solid nonsense all the way through. It needs strong academic technique and plenty of personality. ENB take to it with gusto. The company dancing is lively and clean, with vivid work from soloists.
The ballet has plenty of male roles; publicity material is awash with oiled bare chests. Vadim Muntagirov gives his soaring jump a piratical swagger as the hero Conrad. Junor Souza leaps and coils as the slave Ali. Yonah Acosta makes a terrific impression as the villain Birbanto, with jumps and turns that seem powered by fury.
The focus on the men shifts with the arrival of Cojocaru. A world-class ballerina, she made headlines by leaving The Royal Ballet for ENB: this was her company debut. A romantic, ethereal dancer, she also has killer technique and glowing presence. She can flirt and ham with the best of them, lighting up the silly story with teasing warmth.
Until 19 October. Box office 0844 871 7652. Touring until 15 February. See www.ballet.org.uk for tour dates.