American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 8, 2013 evening
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2013 by Carol Pardo
American Ballet Theatre tends to program the same handful of full-evening ballets during its annual run at Lincoln Center. The company tries to make the familiar tempting with mix and match casting, and a novelty or two thrown in, so that audiences will keep buying tickets for a ballet they already know by heart. This season "Le Corsaire" has new sets and costumes, and a new orchestration of its score, but the reason to see it again lies in the casting, plucked from throughout its ranks.
The novelties included two guests, Royal Pallet principal Steven McRae as Lankendem, the vendor of female flesh to a hapless Pasha (and to anyone else who can meet his price) and Maryinsky principal Denis Matvienko in his debut as Conrad, the hero with the bouncy and repetitive choreography. Company stalward Marcelo Gomes was Ali, the slave who does the real work (rescuing maidens from pirates and his master from certain death, the lion’s share of the partnering during the (in)famous pas de deux, etc.) while Conrad moons around and jumps. Gillian Murphy, another home-grown principal, danced Medora, the tease who sets the plot in motion. Gulnare, her partner in captivity, was soloist Misty Copeland. Finally, corps member Mikhail Ilyin was Birbanto, Conrad’s turncoat friend and fellow pirate. Together they provided a lesson in how to create a character and how that character tells the story at hand.
McRae’s Lankendem was first and foremost a businessman. Throughout the first act he kept a close eye on his human merchandise (when Gulnare tried to escape, he was right there blocking her path every time) and on his client, checking for a reaction as each new girl was brought forward for his delectation, haggling over price when the bemused pasha is in thrall to female beauty. When chaos broke out in Act 3, Lankendem stuck to the pasha like glue, making his getaway literally on the heels of his best client. McRae told the entire story through his character, never letting the mask slip, but he also delivered the pyrotechnics ABT audiences have come to expect and cheer. The split jumps to the knee were all there, but so rapidly and suavely delivered that their force didn’t register until after the fact, like a puma soundlessly tackling its prey.
Like Lankendem, Birbanto was a businessman. He was also a friend and comrade in arms to Conrad, at least until Conrad let their inventory, go free and with them, the men’s livelihood. Betrayal provoked betrayal. Today, both Birbanto and Lankendem would be making their way up the ladder on Wall Street. Birbanto would fall victim to his emotions. Lankendem, who kept his cool and weighed his options when surrounded by captors with very sharp knives, would thrive and triumph. Ilyin made his character’s disappointment real—this was the first time in a long association that he and Conrad were not on the same wavelength—and he lit into the character dancing which comprise so much of Birbanto’s role with gusto.
By turning his back to the audience during the coda of the pas de deux, Gomes conveyed the social standing of a slave, one who should not show his face in public. But, partnering like every ballerina’s dream or reeling off turns à la seconde at a perfect ninety degree angle, he was anything but invisible.
Matvienko’s dancing did not show the authority needed for a classical hero until his last solo, when the triumphant Conrad has rescued his beloved for the final time. But from the first moment, his mime was elegant, musical and clear. And he knows how to lead a woman on stage as though she is the most beautiful thing he has ever beheld. Like McRae, Matvienko told the story by his reactions to it.
This was particularly necessary because Murphy didn’t react to him at her first entrance. When she’s carried onstage, Medora should glow with the rapture of love at first sight from up high on her litter. No such luck, so she had to spend much of the performance playing catch up, as if trying to prove a theorem from a false hypothesis.
Copeland’s Gulnare also began on a jarring note. Her adagio is a study in shame and captivity and the expressive possibilities of classical technique. Copeland executed a series of jeté lifts brutally, the legs at a more than 180 degree angle breaking the line of her legs and her costume. Whatever the intended expressive point, the extreme angle of the legs flattened her body in space, while the broken line was needlessly coarse in a production which claims Petipa as its source. In her subsequent solo and throughout the rest of the performance, Copeland reined in her attack and her Gulnare became a wronged girl eliciting empathy.
"Le Corsaire" has always had a thin story. In this new production it also has costumes with too many bare midriffs and far too many sequins. Act 2 is viewed through a hole in a scrim surrounded by jagged rock forms, as if through the entrance to a mine. The "Jardin Animé" begins at night, continues under a sky taken from John Constable, and ends under a canopy of wagon wheels dripping pink goop. But sharply drawn, believable characters almost sweep all that away.