Le Corsaire should be one of the highlights of ABT’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House and enjoy a packed house night after night after night. It is a fun-filled, pyrotechnics-filled, fantasy-filled fluff of a ballet that gives dancers the opportunity to show off, to compete with one another, to tell an outlandish story with tongue in cheek seriousness, to display their comedic talents, and to dance their feet off. Hardly any of the men in the company get this any more. Watching this ballet die a slow death has been horribly painful. For the director of ABT not to have developed the talent within the ranks who were capable of carrying on the legacies of Bocca, Carreno, Corella, and Stiefel in Le Corsaire is just plain negligent. Somebody please walk him to the end of the plank.
ABT uses its weekday matinees to launch its junior dancers out onto the stage in featured roles along side its principals. So, we’re not going to go into much detail about the many shortcomings of the matinee performance yesterday. We are relieved, however, that Veronika Part (Medora) seemed unharmed after being pitched to the floor by Joo Won Ahn’s Lankendem as he carried her out of Act II. He then fell on top of her. It will be a debut that he doesn’t forget. His own solo dancing was clean, but there was no sense of Lankendem in his character. No greediness, no slime, no oil, little else but hearty, clean dancing and a handsome smile. Gabe Stone Shayer’s debut as Birbanto fell short of anyone else who we have seen dance this role. It was as though he were a little kid playing pirate, and there was little in his dancing that suggested why he was cast in this principal role.
On the other hand, when our Veronika – looking more sensationally svelte than we have ever seen her – came flying across the stage in a grand jete, it was like watching the Great Lord of the Eagles swoop in for a silent landing. Oh, to be a little mouse under her tender talons (just for a half second)… Medora is far from an ideal role for Veronika but she certainly gave it her all and is deadly beautiful in the midriff-baring costume. (She also looked lovely in her light blue-violet flouncy tutu in Act II.) What a joy it was to see her in choreography that demands speed. Her fast piques whistled around in a circle gathering steam with every one. She toyed with the Pasha’s desires and then laughed in his face at his effort to hook up with her. She was totally in the game.
Cory Stearns portrayed Conrad, a role that he has danced for several years. In classical roles, he can seem lacking because there is no visible effort or interest in being brilliant. Yesterday his dancing was okay but not beyond okay, and the acting was best in the fight scenes with the other guys. He shows a lot more consistency in his variations than he used to, but that arabesque resists 90 degrees and those coupe jetes don't split much. While there was a cordial chemistry between Conrad and Medora, the partnering seemed labored sometimes. Maybe that was due to the lethargic tempi throughout the afternoon which suggested the conductor could use some Geritol or Dulcolax.
Devon Teuscher enjoyed a very promising debut as Gulnare with an exceptional diagonal of pique/fouettes. She showed true classical strength in all the major areas and made a good start on Gulnare’s character. However, we found her shoes to be noisy with an overly-prominent profile. A softer, flatter, and tapered shoe would enhance her lovely lines.
James Whiteside made a good effort as Ali but it was a conservative effort. The manege of coupe jetes were speedy and forceful. Is it possible that he never saw Corella dance this role? Corella positively ascended to a monadic plane when he danced Ali - his oneness with space, time, music, gravity, and character was something a little beyond human. When watching him dance Ali, one could see him ever reaching for a level of performance that could exist only in his own mind. That was nearly two decades ago. Where is the current crop of Corellas, Carrenos, Stiefels, and Boccas who made the stage and this ballet so thrilling? They’re posing on Instagram.
The Spirit of Le Corsaire picked up the pace a little bit in the evening performance as did the tempi. As Conrad, Exchange Artist Mathias Heymann from the Paris Opera Ballet was competent, but nothing more. He was certainly heads and shoulders above Cory Stearns, but are we really at a point with ABT where Stearns has become a measuring stick? The purpose of this so-called exchange has yet to be disclosed by ABT. Maybe it is to show audiences what the dancers at ABT cannot do or perhaps to show audiences just how badly this company’s own talent is developed and managed.
Gillian Murphy’s Medora showed that she was back nearly to 100% from her calf injury. She had the benefit of a strong, skilled partner – (something that ABT apparently thought it could not provide for her from its own danseur stables; not Hoven, not Forster, not Baca, not Hammoudi) – and showed a vibrancy and cheeriness to go with her technical ease. She started packing the virtuosity into her variations early on and seemed only a shade shy of her normal velocity.
Stella Abrera’s Gulnare sparkled with the brilliance of diamonds and glowed with confidence. Her dancing, always beautiful and often the most beautiful on stage, carried a new importance and vibrancy. We just loved it when she came downstage to finish her variations or when traversing the stage during the story action. Each arabesque line was like a long, unbroken note of music. Her feet distinguished her with their soft pliancy, articulation and QUIETNESS. The theatrical aspect of her performance was on point, too.
Gabe Stone Shayer’s Lankendem was better than his Birbanto a few hours earlier, but was miles away from the huge performances given by Malakhov, Radetsky, Saveliev and Matthews. He spends too much time standing around smirking and being cute. His partnering of Stella was far from what she deserved. What in the world is going on here by giving this corpsman two new principal roles in one day – another affirmative action advancement of an ill-prepared dancer? Why did he get this role instead of Hoven or Baca or Mantei. Sean Stewart would have killed the role of Lankendem. His dancing in the corps this season (as in all seasons) has been superb.
Daniil Simkin’s Ali was full of impressive tricks which he delivered in between his broad smiling at the audience. There was no slave in this Ali, that’s for sure, but there was plenty of audience pandering. He did manage to press Gillian over his head like she was a piece of paper during the Act II PdT. Now she has to worry that McKenzie might try to match them up in Manon or Swan Lake.
Arron Scott was a superb Birbanto. He attacked the role like De Luz, Cornejo, and Salstein did. Splendid and fierce allegro was his to throw whenever he wanted. This man is having quite a season. Luciana Paris was the most perfect Lead Pirate Woman since Erica Cornejo, but we really need to see her in some ballerina roles instead of mostly character shoes. She has a resume that rivals some principals.
The Pump Bump Award, once again, goes to Stella Abrera and Arron Scott for the results of their 150% efforts in Le Corsaire. That’s where people should put their money this season if they want the best return.