by Carmel Morgan
June 17, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
The Bolshoi Ballet returned to the Kennedy Center in June to perform a revival of Marius Petipa’s “Le Corsaire,” which features new choreography by Yuri Burlaka and Alexei Ratmansky. Burlaka and Ratmansky were ballet school classmates in Moscow. Following their graduation neither was initially hired by the Bolshoi. However, the pair were ultimately reunited at the Bolshoi later in their careers.
Burlaka, who recently stepped into Ratmansky’s shoes as the Bolshoi’s artistic director (Ratmansky is now American Ballet Theatre’s Artist-in-Residence), is known for his expertise in carefully researched productions of the classics. Thus, the company’s version of “Le Corsaire” honors the ballet’s rich history. According to Burlaka, who participated in a public question and answer session on June 15, 2009, led by DC area dance critic and scholar George Jackson, both he and Ratmansky dug through the layers of Petipa’s “Le Corsaire” and “cleaned out the extras.” The lush costumes designed by Yelena Zaitseva – in seaside colors of white, blue and rust, plus Turkish-inspired hats and sashes – were based upon 1899 sketches by Evgeny Ponomarev.
Whether completely faithful to its origins or not, the Bolshoi’s “Le Corsaire” was indisputably beautiful. In addition to Zaitseva’s gorgeous costumes, Boris Kaminsky’s set, especially the pirate ship in Act III, scene 2, took one’s breath away. Damir Ismagilov’s lighting design enhanced the image of the pirates’ wave-tossed ship adrift in the fog. The huge ship’s sails billowed in the wind. As the sea erupted and the ship tilted dangerously in the storm, dancers dramatically flailed to the sides and fell overboard. Even Hollywood special effects professionals would have been impressed when the ship actually broke in half and the sails ripped. For visual thrills, Act III, scene 2, alone was worth the price of admission.
For those less interested in costumes and set design and more interested in the skill of the dancing, “Le Corsaire” still delivered. On Wednesday night, Ekaterina Shipulina as Medora and Ruslan Skvortsov as the scheming pirate Conrad led the cast. They both finely executed their roles. Shipulina expressed a lot through her upper body, while Skvortsov showed off great jumps. As a couple, however, the two supposed lovers seemed awfully subdued in their passions. They were dignified, certainly, but since when are pirates and the women they kidnap dignified? More time in mime school might have enlivened their uncharacteristically calm performances.
In contrast, Ekaterina Krysanova gave an utterly affecting performance as the Pasha’s slave girl Gulnare. Krysanova has an unusual face. While she may not possess one’s idea of delicate ballet beauty, she has plenty of personality. Krysanova absolutely threw herself into the role of Gulnare. Her artful storytelling and spirited dancing constantly drew my eyes to her. Other highlights included swinging, slinging, stomping group folk dances and the incredibly lovely “Le Jardin Animé,” in which the intricate patterns of the dancers and shrubbery were best viewed from the balcony.
Despite its length of around 3 hours, this version of “Le Corsaire” remained entertaining throughout. The Bolshoi seemed to have spared no expense in creating this revival. The number of dancers stretched across the stage at times boggled one’s mind. How enviable that in Russia ballet is government supported! Since the finances are taken care of, Burlaka is able to concentrate on choreography and the artistic development of his dancers. The Bolshoi Ballet’s stunning “Le Corsaire” was made possible, in large part, because of the company’s freedom from fundraising worries.