To contemporary eyes, Le Corsaire commits several of 19th century ballet’s cardinal sins: overblown Orientalism, imperilled women, a patchwork score, a plot as flimsy as a pair of well-worn harem pants.
Nevertheless, English National Ballet’s production – staged by Anna-Marie Holmes with sumptuous designs by Bob Ringwood – overflows with irresistibly enjoyable displays of bravura technique and classical spectacle.
It’s silly and unsubtle for sure, but there are moments in which you sense that these artists are dancing on a knife-edge of risk and reward. When swashbuckling hero Conrad (Francesco Gabriele Frola) sweeps rescued slave girl Medora (Erina Takahashi) into a series of sky-high lifts, the unfurling reach of her limbs describe something of a vast ocean vista, a brief gesture towards the sublime. This is where the real adventure happens, for all the sequin-studded particulars of the narrative.
Replacing indisposed principal couple Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez, Frola (who pulls off some stunning feats of elevation, like a gull riding a gust) and Takahashi receive strong support from the gorgeously lyrical and precise Shiori Kase as Gulnare (Medora’s friend, also trafficked into a harem) and Jeffrey Cirio’s agile Ali, while Erik Woolhouse ramps up the snarling swagger as Conrad’s treacherous colleague Birbanto.
The corps dance confidently overall, with Julia Conway standing out among Act I’s odalisque divertissement for her tightly controlled gyroscopic turns. Accompanying all the hurly-burly, conductor Gavin Sutherland draws out ship-swaying energy from the orchestra, bringing a colourful dynamic to the score’s thrumming menace and fragrant melody.