Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet Company has a vast and storied history. Formed under the czars as the Russian Imperial Ballet, it was later known as the Kirov Ballet, named after Sergei Kirov, an assassinated associate of Joseph Stalin.
The company is now identified by name and connected by performance venue with the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, touring the world to offer stellar productions of less commonly-staged works. One such production, “Le Corsaire,” appeared recently at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Featuring impressive choreography by Pyotr Gusev, “Le Corsaire” is based on Lord Byron’s narrative poem “The Corsair,” or “The Pirates’ Isle.” The work takes us back to the swashbuckling pathos of the Byronic Romantic Era when certain types of corsairs/noble pirates were believed to be free and noble spirits forced into outlaw status because of their so-called “crime” of non-conformity:
O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire and behold our home!
Unfortunately, these misunderstood rogues were often confused with, and forced to associate with, true criminals: slave traders, thugs and similar low-lives.
In this fantastical world of adventure, we meet a group of shipwrecked corsairs, living among exotic enemies while helping, and being helped by, beautiful women who in turn have their own grudges against society.
As such, the story has elements (both in Byron’s poem and in the ballet based on it) which to modern eyes smack of British imperialism, sometimes even by the very corsairs who have been cast out of British polite society! Quoting again from Byron: “Our flag (is) the scepter (which) all who meet obey!”
The Mariinsky Ballet revels in the Romantic exoticism and cultural contradictions of the era.
The production begins with a ship tossed about by a storm at sea; the large orchestra provides dramatic and visceral tonal color enhancing the peril of the crew. Soon we are introduced to the noble corsair (and possible spy?) Conrad, who meets and falls in love with the equally smitten Medora. Medora herself is soon placed in peril when her guardian sells her into slavery.
That forces Conrad into action, assisted by his fellow corsairs and the clever slaves Gulnare and Ali. Hijinks and plot twists then ensue: an Ali Baba/Arabian Nights-style cave conceals mysterious treasures and potions.
Ballerinas play the part of seductive harem girls, while their male counterparts jump and leap in martial form as the nineteenth-century cloak and dagger cabals proceed. Musically, and in terms of story, “Le Corsaire” reminds one of “Scheherazade”: Could all be an exotic dream? This possibility is hinted at by a figure off to one side, smoking a hookah, and elsewhere by potions.
As one might expect from the Mariinsky Ballet, the cast is simply breathtaking. The production witnessed by this reviewer featured Yekaterina Chebykina as Medora, who acts and dances her part with an exacting combination of assertiveness and fragility. Xander Parish was perfect as the noble pirate Conrad. Maria Shirinkina shone as Gulnara, embodying both trickery and grace, while Timur Askerov similarly exuded both warm-heartedness and cleverness as Ali.
The vibrant, exotic music of the production is the work of French composer Adolphe Adam. As mentioned above, the story and text come not from the Russian or French traditions one might expect, but rather from George Gordon, Lord Byron, one of the most famous poets of the British Romantic Era.
Byron died 195 years ago this month on the battlefield, fighting to help the Greeks win independence from the Ottoman Empire. Lord Byron is undoubtedly a respected poet in English literature even now, but as a historical figure, his exotic life and heroic death have been much more celebrated in continental Europe.
A casual watcher of the Mariinsky production might be impressed by the sheer spectacle of the acrobatic dancing. This ballet offers so much more, however, with the music shifting between the Scheherazade as mentioned earlier strains to a Turkish-styled Can-Can-like number, to a beautiful epilogue in three-quarter time suggestive of operettas by Franz Lehár to be composed far in the future. The production is also spectacular for its costumes, particularly the white-clad ballerinas.
Throughout the show, the sets (including a beautiful spewing fountain presented in utter verisimilitude) are reminiscent of paintings. “These are our realms, no limits to their sway—” Again a quote from Byron’s poem for in the realms of the imagination, this production has no limits and pulls out all stops. At the very close of the performance, we return where we began: a ship at sea, but this time in calm waters bathed in a beautiful sunset.
“All must end in that wild word—farewell!” writes Byron in The Corsair. This production, too, has bid Washington, D.C. the wild word farewell, but this reviewer looks forward to future Mariinsky Ballet productions at the Kennedy Center. Of particular note is “Paquita,” coming this October, with tickets going on sale July 16.