'Le Corsaire' steals the breath away

Dance review

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Bolshoi means "big," and never was there a ballet better suited to the broad strokes of this Russian company than the swashbuckling tale of pirates and slave girls, "Le Corsaire." This ballet has it all -- a convoluted plot, beautiful classical dancing, spirited character dancing, five composers and a shipwreck.

Iconic ballet choreographer Marius Petipa was the original pirate, Conrad, in the first Russian production in 1858. He went on to toy with the ballet through five revivals at the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg.

Here in the United States, we best know the Konstantin Sergeyev adaptation, also derived from Petipa, through the American Ballet Theatre production. Now the Bolshoi has countered with a 2007 production by choreographer-of-the-moment Alexei Ratmansky and his assistant, Yuri Burlaka. (In a reality-based twist, Ratmansky recently became a resident artist, or choreographer, at ABT, and Burlaka now heads the Bolshoi.)

"Le Corsaire" might correctly be called a warhorse of a ballet, the old-fashioned kind that can easily dissolve into technical histrionics and melodrama. Not so at Kennedy Center. Ratmansky and the Bolshoi have lovingly re-created almost half of Petipa's vision and added some fresh-faced choreography to the rest.

One important note: This version doesn't swirl around the Corsaire or pirate, Conrad, but instead around Medora, the young Greek girl who falls in love with him. In fact, Conrad has but one star turn, that of the familiar pas de deux that is part and parcel of nearly every international standard ballet competition. Although he didn't have spectacular technique in his only solo, Ruslan Skvortsov made a dashing figure and led his band of men with verve and style.

As Medora, Ekaterina Shipulina had it all. A statuesque ballerina with an unending arabesque, she could have led her own crew of buccaneers under different circumstances. This was her showcase, from the exquisite opening solos with a veil, to the flamboyant pants role in the pirates' cave and a variety of classically sown variations in the Pasha's palace.

Boris Kaminsky's set designs, based on the original, conveyed the sumptuousness of a vaguely familiar Turkish locale, from a sun-drenched marketplace and almost Gothic wood-cut carvings in the caves to palatial splendor and the mesmerizing sea-tossed finale. Yelena Zaitseva's costumes went from the exotic flair of harem pants to soft extenuations of the classical tutu.

The company filled every nook and cranny with vivid characterizations and yet came in at three hours (possibly shortened for this tour). The marketplace scene remained my favorite, bustling with action that was supported by the fast tempo and spot-on playing of the Kennedy Center Orchestra.

The wondrous garden scene, "Sleeping Beauty's" garland waltz times a hundred, threatened to spill from the stage. This garden of earthly delights boasted dozens of women, some with garlands, others with bouquets in numerous arrangements. Solo after solo was beautifully nuanced and impeccably danced until it put the audience on overload.

Even though Ratmansky has gone, he left a company restored to its status in the upper echelon of international companies. And he remarkably reconfigured a ballet that had resorted to caricature into an evening of grand and sophisticated entertainment.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net .


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