Dance review: Nimble comedy, superlative technique from the English National Ballet

Dancers from the English National Ballet during a full dress rehearsal at the Esplanade Theatre on May 13, 2015. -- ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Dancers from the English National Ballet during a full dress rehearsal at the Esplanade Theatre on May 13, 2015. -- ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Apart from the staples of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, local audiences are largely unaware of other classics in the classical ballet repertoire. This could be the reason for less-than-brisk ticket sales for the winsome production of Le Corsaire by English National Ballet, which opened on Thursday at the Esplanade Theatre. The obscurity of this ballet can be attributed to its patchwork score, which is credited to no less than nine composers, and its thin plot surrounding pirates and harem girls. There is however, much room for spectacular dancing, which the company delivers with panache and precision.

Inspired by an 1814 poem by Lord Byron, Le Corsaire is a romp through the opulent Ottoman Empire, via the abduction and rescue of two slave girls, Medora and Gulnare. Bob Ringwood's luscious designs locate the ballet in an Orientalist fantasy, with decidedly Western fountains flanking the Taj Mahal and the ruins of a once-majestic temple as the pirates' hide-out. This staging by Anna-Marie Holmes eliminates some of the ballet's tiresome drama in favour of nimble comedy, and distills it to its essence - a grand showcase of superlative classical technique. With its choreography credited to multiple choreographers, Le Corsaire is composed of steps which entertain, rather than illuminate.

These steps are danced exceedingly well by Shiori Kase, crystalline in her musical phrasing as Gulnare. She is a delightfully sweet presence, zipping through her solos with bright-eyed elan. The beloved ballerina Alina Cojocaru, best known for her moving fragility in tragedies such as Giselle, is a luminous Medora. A dancer of nuance rather than spectacle, she soars in the central romantic duet, imbuing her performance with a stirring joy and profundity. Throughout, the corps de ballet is spirited. The men clearly relish the swashbuckling machismo, while the women are splendid as slave girls and dancing flowers in the dream scene. Alison McWhinney, Ksenia Ovsyanick and Laurretta Summerscales sparkle individually, and as a trio of Odalisques in Act I.

The performance, however belongs to its four leading men, who rip through bravura passages with ease. Yonah Acosta is a seething Birbanto, his multiple pirouettes seemingly propelled by indignation. A slave-trader who has had all the girls himself, Fernando Bufala's Lankendem is vividly drawn. Alejandro Virelles' Conrad is a man transformed by love - he partners Cojocaru tenderly but is an aggressive leader of the pirates. The evening's loudest applause is accorded to the gravity-defying jumps and exhilarating spins of Cesar Corrales' Ali. Fresh-faced, he will no doubt come to match his skill with presence in time.

Despite its convoluted plot, this production of Le Corsaire is a rollicking ballet replete with the pleasures of classical dancing of the highest order and glittering designs lit alluringly by Neil Austin. It would be a shame to miss it, given the various accomplished dancers who will inhabit its roles in the performances to come.

Book it

LE CORSAIRE

Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3 and 8pm; Sunday, 3pm

Admission: $60 to $220 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)