Sunday, May 17, 2015

Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, Esplanade Theatre, 15 & 16 May 2015

photo by ASH, from ENB
A whirlwind tale, a desperate romance, bellicose battles and heady harems -- consider me properly swashbuckled by the English National Ballet's triumphant return to Singapore after 46 long years. What kept the company away I don't know, but I hope the cheers and shouts at everything from the simple perfection of crisp double pirouettes, to gravity-defying pas de chats en tournant, will bring them back as quickly as possible. I am not done adventuring with this merry band of buccaneers.

Le Corsaire is a terrific potpurri of sights and sounds. No less than 3 choreographers and 10 composers are credited in the programme as having added to this work since its inception in 1856, as it fell in and out of favour over time, finally arriving in fine form as Tamara Rojo's first full length commission at the ENB in 2013. The story darts this way and that, following the intrepid Conrad as his love Medora is captured, rescued, then captured again, and rescued some more, in time for them to anticlimactically sink together beneath the seas.

Each plot twist allows for refreshingly unique choreography, with the pirates clashing swords to their temps levés, or the dreamscape of Pasha's wives bourréing with their flower garlands -- all set against the rich colours and textures of Bob Ringwood's full bodied backdrops. Where the mix of creative wellsprings could have perhaps led to chaos, the result is instead harmonious, with showy choreographic moments complementing more sensitive ones, and measured use of cymbals and clarinets. Perhaps one unifying aid is a generous helping of allegro throughout the piece, stringing everything together with a buoyant consistency.

I would say most of this harmony however, comes down to how ENB has assembled Corsaire with impressive care. With their interpretation of a light-hearted bumbling Pasha, a cheeky Medora who swipes his staff away, and a useless Conrad who sniffs a poisoned rose not once but twice, one is not lost in the veering story as you feel these are simply the kind of antics these silly pirate types get up to everyday. And with Rojo's request for "a full period production as though it was staged in the 1850s with illusionistic painted scenery", the piece is firmly grounded in a traditional setting that gives it a strong overarching voice. ENB Orchestra's Music Librarian Lars Payne also put much care into reconstructing the original score, and it is in such dedicated touches of authenticity that Corsaire never loses its centre of gravity.

Photo by Dave Morgan for DanceTabs
If ENB proves itself true to form in its productions, so it does as well with its dancing. Every company would appear to have its own signature -- from what I have seen, the Royal's is its dramaticism, the Paris Opera Ballet its immaculate corps, and now for the ENB, it is an incredible control in their technique. Every single dancer on stage has this in spades, executing perfect pirouettes, holding eternal balances, adding just the right resistance to each adagio, and closing surely and neatly on every single jump -- a degree of core strength I suppose I could have surmised from the costumes' terrific display of abs. I couldn't help but put on my new found ballet-engineering hat and note that there's also a very unique flavour to their movement, in the form of a distinct deceleration then acceleration at the end of every motion, as if each pose came with a triumphant exclamation point.

And at the pinnacle of this technical excellence is of course Tamara Rojo, whom I gladly saw not once but twice due to Alina Cojocaru withdrawing for personal reasons. Her reputation precedes her, so there is really nothing more to add other than that I was checking for strings attached to the rafters in the roses she held during her preternatural Act 3 balances, and that I audibly exclaimed "What." after her endless sequence of double and triple fouettés. Not that I could be heard, amongst all the other astounded audience members around me. Just as Medora teased Pasha, so was Rojo teasing Gavin Sutherland's (very excellent) orchestration in her Act 2 solo, in a game of chicken almost, as to who would restart the music or end the balance first. The only short hiatus in my engagement was unfortunately the Act 2 pas de deux, which looked so MacMillan in its choreography, but rendered sadly none of its emotions. Fortunately the weight of the piece wasn't pinned on any real emotional depth, or this would have been the kicker for me.

Despite Rojo's talent and presence, Isaac Hernández, Cesar Corrales, Yonah Acosta and Fernando Bufalá still nearly managed to steal the show each night. The height of Acosta's pas de chats as Ali was unrivaled, and the number and variation of Corrales' and Hernández tours and battus en l'air were beyond my balletic vocabulary to describe, from my never having seen such a spectacle before. Corrales as Ali on the 16th night was almost giddy with delight in challenging himself to do 10 (or was it 11, or more?) pirouettes, and Bufalá was also not to be outshone as Birbanto on the 15th, spinning like a top with such cool confidence. Corsaire is very much a stunt piece for the men, but Shiori Kase was also remarkable as Gulnare on the 16th, moving easily from quick and sharp allegro to smooth and steady pirouettes -- yet another example of astounding ENB control.

Rarely does a piece so lift my spirits with the incredible and pure joy of dance. I'll never give up the Royal because of its dramatic bite, but with all the superlatives I just peppered into this review, I daresay ENB has offered up some strong competition for my next visit to the UK.