Le Corsaire

The American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, May 28.

Other than the dancing, Le Corsaire has absolutely nothing to recommend it. The story is ludicrous at best, and worse, the music is hopelessly prosaic, a hodgepodge of paint-by-numbers early Romantic filler. It’s tragic, really, how nineteenth-century ballet companies that established the canon gravitated toward wallpaper music. Were it not for Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) and Prokofiev (Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet), the repertory music for full-length ballets would consist almost entirely of watery pastiche.

I know that the primary reason to go to the ballet is to see the dancing, but a striking score elevates a work. Without Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, for example, Swan Lake wouldn’t be such a paragon, and a lack of such keeps the otherwise exemplary Giselle from achieving real greatness. As for the dopey Le Corsaire, it probably wouldn’t be top-tier even with music by one of the Russian masters, but a score with some substance certainly couldn’t hurt.

I shouldn’t be grouchy: Le Corsaire is enjoyable enough. I had fun. Loosely based on a poem by Lord Byron, the story is outrageously silly, which generally keeps the outrageously offensive plot points from becoming too irritating. Conrad, a pirate (danced Wednesday night by Marcelo Gomes), falls in love with Medora (Nina Ananiashvili), a beautiful young woman being sold as a concubine at a Turkish bazaar owed by Lankendem (Gennadi Saveliev). Conrad manages to rescue Medora and her fellow odalisques, only to be betrayed by his friend Birbanto (Craig Salstein), who objects to Conrad’s new inclination to liberate their slaves. (Only the female slaves, though, are subject to Conrad’s largesse. His own slave, Ali, portrayed by Jose Manuel Carreño, isn’t so lucky. I’m just saying.) Eventually everyone ends up at the home of the pasha who bought Medora. With her help, Conrad frees the girls, defeats Birbanto, and then sails directly into a storm that drowns everyone but the two lovers. Whee!

Gomes and Ananiashvili’s pas de deux were beautiful, as one would expect: the usual pirouettes and arabesques, plus a few nods to the “exotic” story. The choreography often sends the prima ballerina leaping through the air—in poses that completely preclude landing on her own feet—so that her partner can catch her and sweep her directly into dramatic dips. It’s an intricate, breathtaking maneuver, and Gomes and Ananiashvili performed it beautifully; I gasped every time.

Even more exciting were the huge athletic leaps given to Saveliev and Carreño. Saveliev performed a kind of spinning leap I’d never seen before and still can’t fully conceptualize. (Is he really rotating his body to such an extreme, or is that an illusion?) Carreño’s big solo was probably the highlight of the evening. Such solo numbers for men are often rather graceless—leap, leap, applaud, applaud—but the choreography for Ali is unusually fluid and musical, with through lines connecting the acrobatics, and Carreño’s performace of it was incredible. He probably got more applause than anyone.

Normally, I get a bit annoyed by all the attention given to look-at-me pyrotechnics, but in the case of Le Corsaire, any distractions from the crazy, campy story are more than welcome. I can’t bear to think too hard about the simpering eunuch or the I Dream of Jeannie outfits, complete with transcluscent hijab, or the pasha’s jardin animé dream in which his harem dances around him, eventually joined by a chorus of similarly dressed little girls (ew!) and a small crew of little boys (EW!).

Le Corsaire is all quite colorful, though—I’ll give them that—which just makes the colorless music all the more mystifying. If you’re going to do the whole exotic orient thing (and I’m not saying you should), shouldn’t you vamp up the orchestration, too? Highlight some Turkish drums or winds? Maybe play with modal scales? Something?