Pennsylvania Ballet set sail its handsome new production of Le Corsaire last night at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and, oh, what a voyage it was. Stylish swagger among the men, shimmering beauty among the women, pyrotechnical wizardry among everyone – it was all on full glorious display in this Corella-staged Petipa-based classic which is loosely tethered to Lord Byron’s poem of the same name. For all intents and purposes, Le Corsaire is the balletomane’s high glycemic, high calorie carbohydrate that reignites all those cravings for the gazillion revolution pirouettes, the split-switch leaps, the fouettes, the manèges with every variety of sauce imaginable. Guilty pleasures, for sure. Enjoy, but don’t weigh yourself in the morning.
No living artist is more identified with this ballet than Angel Corella who for more than a decade and a half generated pandemonium in the Metropolitan Opera House whenever he set foot on stage in the role of Ali, the slave, in Le Corsaire. Now as artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet, he is handing down not only his famous role of Ali but also his roles of Conrad and Birbanto for which he is fondly remembered. Step by step, the ballet is handed down from generation to generation like a cherished family recipe for Grandma’s bourbon cake – except, as we’ve learned, no one will ever be able to make it taste just like Grandma's. That won’t keep everyone from gobbling down the new cakes, however.
Praises to the chef for Sterling Baca’s Ali, Arian Molina Soca’s Conrad, Lillian DiPiazza’s Medora, Jermel Johnson’s Lankendem, Mayara Pineiro’s Gulnare, and Etienne Diaz’s Birbanto in last evening’s premiere.
The pressure of Corella’s past brilliance turned into inspiration for young Sterling Baca who was making his debut as Ali. He charged through his Act II solos like we have never seen him dance before. Ever. Baca has had impressive technique and power for a while now. But this sudden authority, fearlessness, and leadership on display was unexpected and nearly overwhelming to watch. Only in the end was he unprepared – for the ovation that the audience dealt him. His face registered a slight shock at the wave of cheers.
The glamour composite score of Arian Molina Soca and Lillian DiPiazza is simply off the charts. They could stand there twiddling their thumbs while gazing into each other’s eyes, and Haglund would be fascinated. Their bedroom PdD and the PdT with Baca’s Ali were heavenly. Soca’s manèges of aerial turning arabesques and arrow-like coupés jetés displayed an uncommon clarity and ease. What can we say about the beauty of his leg lines… They’re Cuban made – enough said. The effortless partnering, especially the spinning of DiPiazza’s pirouettes, brought gasps from the audience. Lillian, a beautiful dancer under the previous artistic director, is now in full bloom. She, too, exhibited a new authority in her dancing. Her lovely arabesque line has added height and length. Where before there was a sense of caution when approaching fancy technical matters, now there is confidence.
Jermel Johnson’s high-spirited Lankendem gave us those crazy elastic assembles that went right into grand plie. (Don’t try that at home.) There was a shade of Oberon’s over-confidence and conniving in his Lankendem. You’ll recall that Oberon sprinkled special flower powder on Titania that would cause her to fall in love with an ass. Here, Lankendem sprinkled insta-sleeping powder in a flower which he arranged to have couriered to Conrad via Medora. We’re not suggesting that Lord Byron got his idea from Shakespeare, but it is an interesting coincidence.
Mayara Pineiro danced a stunningly beautiful Gulnare. Delicate, warm, steely, plumbed and square as can be. She may turn out to be Corella’s greatest find. Also Cuban educated, her own harrowing story of defection is a testament to her will to survive and her love of the art form. Tomorrow afternoon Mayara debuts as Medora. Those lucky enough to have tickets will surely be in for a treat.
Etienne Diaz, a young corpsman who arrived at PA Ballet with Pineiro, is also Cuban born but was trained in the U.S. He possesses many qualities that remind us of Corella including a fiery intensity and urgency. He’s quite short, but his lines have lengthened and straightened over the brief time that he has been with the company. As Birbanto – and like a very young Corella would – he sometimes applied more force than his placement would sustain. But he was exciting to watch and is definitely a name to look for in future castings.
The three-act production runs just over two hours with two intermissions. The production designs utilized a palette of burnished plum/rust with lots of gold and aptly conveyed an ancient Turkish time. Especially beautiful was one of Medora’s tutus that had a spectacular gold top layer.
In addition to PA Ballet’s sharp Corps de Ballet, elite students from The School of Pennsylvania Ballet danced in the production. In the Jardin Animée section of Act III, the small children nearly stole the show for a time. They ran out and dove into their choreography like one sees from students of NYC Ballet’s School of American Ballet – little stage animals, completely aware that everyone was looking at them instead of the grownup professionals behind them. The student dancers who were mixed in with the corps de ballet were excellent and indistinguishable from the professionals.
If there was a weakness observed in this production, it might have been the orchestration which sometimes killed the momentum of the action on the stage or did nothing to spur it on. Several different pieces of music with less engaging and less energetic melodies were used in Act I than is customarily heard in the ever-popular staging by Anna-Marie Holmes which is performed by ABT and Boston Ballet. We observed an ongoing problem of the ends of variations not meeting ends of music which we’ve noted before. Sometimes it appeared that the dancers fizzled while waiting around for the end of the music. Other times it was just the opposite problem — the music lagged or paused while waiting for the dancer. It really took the punch out of the moment, more so than if an outright mismatch of finish with music had occurred.
Le Corsaire has four three more performances this weekend (two on Saturday, one on Sunday) and then its final four performances begin next Friday. This is a "don’t miss” event if you are in or close to Philly.