Big, bold and beautiful, in this production at Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre the Bolshoi Ballet lives up to its iconic reputation.
For this first visit to Australia in 19 years, the company is performing only in Brisbane, and its popularity can be seen in the fact that every performance by this big, showy ballet company has been fully booked. Le Corsaire, the first of the two ballets in this Brisbane repertoire, has never been performed in Australia before, and in one case it’s a showcase for the full sweep of talent, styles and adventures of the world-renowned company. If I say that in one sense it’s a bigger version of an end-of-year concert, where everyone gets to strut their stuff and has their five minutes of fame, I’m not putting it down, because that’s basically what this ballet is. Bravura dancing by everyone from principals to corps-de-ballet, exotic settings that take the audience into three different fairytale lands, and costumes out of a balletomane’s dream; all aspects combine in a showpiece that offers everything that classical ballet can do.
If the story is long and over-complex; if some of the characters aren’t always easy to distinguish from each other; if the music isn’t as tuneful and memorable as that in many other ballets; even if at almost four hours it sometimes feel very long and repetitive: none of that matters, because this is sheer escapism and beauty, a feast for the eye in every respect. The set pieces, especially the enchanted animated garden of Act II, danced to the music of Delibes rather than that of the original composer Adolphe Adam, are perfect of their kind. As indulgent as whipped cream, says commentator Valerie Lawson in the program, and she’s right. We let ourselves be smothered by the classical white tutus of the corps-de-ballet which echo the swans, dryads and Wilis of other classical ballets; we soak up the almost palpable scent of the over-abundance of pink and white flowers; we are enchanted by the scenery that itself moves and forms patterns for the dancers to engage with. None of this adds anything to the plot, but is an escapist dream-like fantasy which is how many people regard classical ballet, and there’s no harm in that. Beauty is its own excuse for being, as Emerson said many years ago, so we need not look for meaning in scenes like this any more than we do in grand opera, for the genres are similar in this way.
So rather than try and make sense of every scene, or twist and turn of the plot, it’s better to sit back and just luxuriate in the sheer magnificence of it all, because it’s all here. The showy pas de deux with the beautiful Medora and (in this version) her rescuer Conrad, made famous by Margot Fonteyn and a bare-chested Rudolf Nureyev as the slave Ali in 1962, here might not have quite the same rippling sexuality of that famous duo, but the difficult choreography is performed superbly and shows us all the tricks of the trade.
There are plenty of laughs in Act I, set in the Turkish market square where the slave girls are up for sale, and our modern social indignation goes out the window when the girls begin tormenting the randy old Pasha who is desperate to get his hands on them. This act is comic melodrama as wily old Isaac sells his ward Medora to the Pasha, but all the potential slave girls are captured by the corsairs and whisked off to the pirates’ den.
Then we move to the Pasha’s harem, with more high jinks from the odalisques, and the old jokes about rich old men and beautiful powerless maidens are acted out. More melodrama in the capture and death sentence of Conrad, leader of the corsairs and Medora’s lover, and in the mixed-up wedding scene where the Pasha unknowingly arrives the wrong bride.
A storm at sea, a spectacular scene where the pirate ship literally breaks in two, and a romantic happy ending — what more could any audience ask? This ballet has all the elements of high drama — or, rather, melodrama — and it’s better to accept it for what it is, rather than expecting serious human emotions and a credible plot.
This production of Le Corsaire is great fun as well as great spectacle, with sets and costumes unrivalled by any ballet company in the world, and sublimely talented dancers, and anyone in the audience who felt they didn’t get their money’s worth was there for the wrong reasons.
The details: Le Corsaire, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, was at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, from May 30 to June 5.