LE CORSAIRE (PA Ballet): A flamboyant and passionate ballet of the pirates

le corsaire pennsylvania ballet review
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in LE CORSAIRE. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.

Pennsylvania Ballet’s biggest program of the current season, LE CORSAIRE is in the Academy of Arts from March 9 to March 19. This is the first time the company has presented the full length ballet, and the reason is clear by watching the performance.

Based on Lord Byron’s poem, “Le Corsaire”, the ballet was first performed by the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra (now Opéra National de Paris) in 1856. Through the mid to late 19th century, Marius Petipa, the choreographer who created such classical ballets as Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote, revised LE CORSAIRE for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg. This is the base of version for modern productions.

Though the plot may lack detais and can be confusing and obscure, the ballet is nothing but an extravaganza. If it is not gorgeous and brilliant, it’s best not to put on a stage.

Loaded with highly technical dance throughout its three acts, it challenges dancers, both soloists and corps de ballet, physically and mentally. The ballet mercilessly reveals the quality of ballet companies and their dancers.

When PA Ballet announced its program for the 2016-17 season, there was a huge anticipation that came with huge pressure and challenges. Among ballet fans, artistic director Angel Corella is known for his legendary performance in one of the title roles with the American Ballet Theater. Having Corella direct the ballet could mean so much to the company and the dancers in various ways.

For opening night, Lillian DiPiazza and Arian Molina Soca were cast as the title roles: Medora (a beautiful harem girl) and Conrad (a pirate captain who falls in love with her at the first sight). DiPiazza depicted the coquettishness and beauty of Medora very convincingly through her dance, which has shown drastic improvement in both technics and expressiveness through the current season.

Granted that her role demands constant dancing at high energy level, running around the stage and changing into multiple costumes, her steps started to show some instability towards the end. But she managed to devote herself to the moment and the emotions of the character and enchanted the audience.

Soca’s Conrad was as charming as his dance, though more of passionate and dramatic mime would make a more convincing story. (The moment he first met Medora and fell in love was almost unnoticeable, which makes it unconvincing that he risks his and his fellow pirates’ lives by saving her from the trader.)

One of the attractions of LE CORSAIRE is that it showcases male dancers with dances of highly technical jumps and pirouette. And PA Ballet’s selections for the key roles—Jermel Johnson (Lankendem, a Slave Trader), Sterling Baca (Ali, COnrad’s Faithful Servant), Etienne Diaz (Birbanto, Conrad’s First Mate)—were vibrant, stunning and alluring. Jermel Johnson, one of the most noble and beautiful ballet dancers in the company, expressed the trader’s temper and cruelty with his sharp and bold dance. Etienne Diaz’s dance was wild and explosive, like an uncontrollable firework as Conrad’s fellow pirate.

Sterling Baca performs his Ali just as his role requires: he is faithful and devoting to his master, his eyes gaze passionately on Conrad, he saves Medora single-handedly as Conrad falls in love with her, and he saves Conrad’s life when Borbanto attempts to kill him.  His solo is the most famous dance of the ballet, one that male dancers dream of dancing even just once in their life. In it, he was passionate and flamboyant, eliciting moments of gasps and awe.

Mayara Pineiro (Gulnare, Medora’s Friend) showed a slight nervousness and tension but did not fail to stun the audience with her grand fouetté.  Ana Calderon, Oksana Maslova, and Dayesi Torriente danced their solos beautifully. The dances by the pirates were also bold and exciting, presenting promising talents of young PA Ballet dancers. The scene in Jardin Animée could have been more dreamlike and elegant if each dancer paid attention to such details as the slight angles and forms of fingertips and toes and to dancing to the beautiful melody instead of counting the three beats of the waltz.

The gorgeous and exotic sets and costumes and the colorful and vibrant music lifts dancers spirits and adds richness to the ballet. Pennsylvania Ballet’s LE CORSAIRE is as gorgeous and breath-taking as it should be.

[Academy of Arts, 240 S Broad St] March 9-19, 2017; paballet.org.

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