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Derring-Do in Boston:
Boston Ballet's Cinderella and Le Corsair


by Mary Cargill

The Boston Ballet, which has had a long-standing tie with Russian ballet companies (the Artistic Director designate, Anna-Marie Holmes, studied in Russia) presented the first non-Russian production of Le Corsair, renamed The Pirate, in March. The Director, Bruce Marks, basically imported the Bolshoi production, staged in 1992 by Konstantin Sergeyev, including the sets and costumes. Natalia Dudinskaya, formerly a ballerina with the Kirov, and Vadim Desnitsky, Sergeyev's assistant, also helped set it. The Pirate is best known for its flashy pas de deux, long associated with Rudolf Nureyev, so it is appropriate that the Nureyev Foundation helped fund this production for one of the companies with which he was so closely associated.

The full-length ballet is by many hands--the choreography is credited to Petipa and Sergeyev, but that is too modest. The music could be a dictionary definition of pastiche, with contributions by the usual suspects, including Adam, Pugni, Delibes, and Drigo. Obviously, subtle artistic integrity is not on the menu; The Pirate is a hot-blooded romp through many styles, with stops on the way for some glorious dancing.

The story, remotely connected with Byron, revolves around a Barbery pirate, Conrad, his second in command Birbanto, and a Greek slave girl Medora, who is owned by Lankendem, purchased by the Pasha Seyd, and loved by Conrad. Conrad steals her and returns to his grotto, apparently accompanied by trunks of clothes. (Medora has as many costume changes as any 1940 movie star escaping through Europe in Adrian gowns and picture hats.) Birbanto attempts a mutiny, which is thwarted, apparently by Conrad's powerful arabesque. However, Birbanto uses the poison flower trick to abduct Medora (and her clothes). Meanwhile back at the Pasha's palace, there is much dancing, including the inevitable transformation/vision scene involving the ballerina and the corps, much loved by nineteenth-century audiences. Conrad and his pirates sneak in, recapture Medora, kill Birbanto, sail away, survive a shipwreck, and embrace on a rocky shore.

As is common in many modern productions of nineteenth-century ballets, most of the mime has been dropped. So the ballet opens with Conrad (a charming Robert Wallace) and Birbanto (the menacing Laszlo Berdo) engaged in what seems to be a stomping match, each trying to out-scowl and out-jump the other. This was exciting on a gymnastic level, but shoving the narrative into the program notes and treating ballets simply as an excuse to jump trivializes the ballet, and is untheatrical, since it dilutes the effect of the real highlights--if someone is shouting all night, a loud noise has no impact.

Fortunately, this trap was generally avoided, and the story did take over. The production itself is lovely--real Arabian Nights scenery with the supers carefully arranged to make an interesting and lively background, a beautiful blue grotto for the pirates, and a thrilling and realistic shipwreck. The costumes were a bit too bright for my taste, especially in the elegant transformation scene, where the Pasha's harem becomes a living garden. I also did not like the concept of playing Seyd and Lankendem as low comedy. If they are buffoons, Medora has nothing to fear, and there is no real feeling a relief and joy when she and Conrad are finally reunited.

The choreography is an amalgam of styles. It includes an utterly charming character dance for Medora, where she prances happily in the pirates lair with her little trumpet, looking as if she would be completely at home in the original 1856 Mazilier production. The brief program notes indicate that Dudinskaya reinstated this piece for the Boston production, but gives no other information, and the small amount of material on the history of the ballet that I was able to find does not mention it. Wherever it came from, it is a gem. As is the more familiar Jardin Animé, occasionally performed on its own as an abstract ballet. With its elegant corps and beautiful choreography, it is a real highlight. I especially remember Medora, bouréeing downstage to Delibe's music, through garlands of flowers that the corps lay down for her, as if nature itself were bowing to beauty. The twentieth-century shows up in the Chabukiani-style Corsair pas de deux (danced by Medora and Conrad's mysterious turquoise-bloomered slave Ali), the rapturous Soviet-style heavy lifting pas de deux for Conrad and a night-gowned Medora, and in the latest male acrobatic jumps, turns, and spins.

 

The Pirate is not a great ballet, but is an extremely enjoyable one, with pockets of great choreography. The Boston dancers seemed to enjoy themselves, and did a fine job. Robert Wallace, formerly with ABT, was Conrad. He is a charming dancer with a clean technique and a soft jump, but he does not have the internal swagger and oversized stage presence of a danseur noble. He was more of a Franz than a pirate; I am sure he would never make anyone walk the plank. His Medora was Natasha Akhmarova, whose charm and joyful dancing complemented her Conrad. Medora is pretty much of a cipher, with little subtlety, but Akhmarova was absolutely charming in her trumpet dance and quite moving in the abduction scene. Her solo in the famous Corsair pas de deux was cleanly, if carefully, danced. The abandon was supplied by Patrick Armand as the slave Ali, who was elegant, flowing, and sensuous. He seemed to take the role at face value, and didn't camp it up; quite an achievement since he was dressed--quite properly--like someone from Sheherezade.

Another set piece is the Pas d'Esclave in the first act, where a couple dance at the command of the Pasha. It is a formal, classical pas de deux, but like many Petipa pieces, can have glints of emotion. After all, the poor girl is a slave under the command of a lascivious brute. Jennifer Gelfand danced it as a technical tour de force directed straight towards the audience, making it hard, shiny, and flat, with none of the emotional undertones which can give it some variety. Her partner was Regan Messer, who added some difficult, showy, and bizarre jumps of his own, well-danced, but out of place. I also enjoyed the brief glimpse of Karla Kovatch's long-limbed and elegant Zorema, the Pasha's favorite sultana, whose presence had absolutely nothing to do with the ballet, but whose solo was lovely.

Cinderella

The Boston Ballet moved from an old story to an older one when it presented Cinderella in May. An old story, but a new version, imported from England. The young British choreographer Michael Corder created a new version for the English National Ballet last year, which was quite successful, winning several awards; the is the first work of his to be presented in the U.S. There has been a great deal of moaning about the current lack of true classical choreographers, but it may be that people have not really been looking, or Michael Corder's name would be more familiar. Mr. Corder is Royal Ballet trained, and in fact made his debut in Sir Frederick Ashton's own Cinderella, but his version is not a "son of" or "a long way after" Ashton, as is Ben Stevenson's much produced version.

He has attempted a more mythological and less traditional pretty fairy tale version, which suits the (to my ears) somewhat ponderous music. According to interviews, it was the score which first attracted him to the ballet, and he was used it all, without any rearrangements or cuts.

The story is all there, lonely Cinderella with her spectacularly dysfunctional family, the Fairy Godmother, and the Prince. The Cinderella I saw, Larissa Ponomarenko, was lovely. She is a slim, fair, elegant dancer, and a subtle and moving actress. There is no mime per se in this production, emotions and feelings are all danced. I am not one who finds traditional mime old-fashioned and boring, but the music, unlike the nineteenth-century ballet scores, was not written for it, since the Soviets had abandoned that style. We see Cinderella first in her dreary kitchen, yearning for happiness, dancing a dreamy solo that makes the audience love her from the start. All of her solos are beautiful, though by the end of the ballet, a bit repetitious, since the music does tend to go on. But Cinderella's sad little dance when she returns form the ball was very moving, dancing with the Prince in her memory, and then facing her sad reality. Ponomarenko was able to convey all of Cinderella's feelings just through the tilt of her head or the droop of her shoulders.

The Fairy Godmother is closer to the Lilac Fairy than to the traditional disguised old crone looking for a good deed in a naughty world. Like Aurora, Corder's Cinderella is good, and does not have to be good before she is rewarded. Nor is there any extra sentimental dollop poured on in turning the Fairy Godmother into the spirit of Cinderella's mother. In myths, after all, goodness exists above human emotions. The mythic element was reinforced by having the Fairy Godmother associated with the moon. She makes her first entrance on a dry ice cloud, bouréeing in with her arms wide above her head in a crescent shape. It was a simple and beautiful image, one that I don't remember seeing before. Prokofiev did not write a solo for the Fairy Godmother (Ashton interpolated other Prokofiev music), so she was, like the Lilac Fairy, more of a gracious presence that a real dancing force. Kyra Strasberg in the performance I saw danced with a magisterial elegance.

Following the original libretto, the Fairy Godmother summons the seasons to entertain Cinderella before she leaves for the ball. Their dances were the only major choreographic disappointment. Perhaps to distinguish them from Ashton's wonderful solo variations, Corder made them into pas de deux. There isn't really enough music for a full-scale duet, and each variation consisted of a lot of lifting a turning. All looked very similar and the only was to tell which season was which was by the color of the costumes.

The Fairy Godmother's attendants, the stars, however, have some beautiful choreography. Like Petipa and his twentieth-century successors, Corder understands the beauty and variety of straight lines, constantly forming and shifting. The Boston corps were a bit sparse for their large stage, but the shape of the choreography was classical without being pastiche.

Cinderella's sisters are not the comic cross-dressing gems Ashton created for himself and Sir Robert Helpmann, or the dreadful slapstick embarrassments of some other versions, but attractive young women who happen to be really nasty, given to pinching and shoving. One is tall (Jennifer Glaze) and one is short (Jennifer Gelfand), but there is no other real characterization. Some comedy ensued with the dancing master and the hairdresser, nothing like the inspired wit of the Ashton version, but blessedly free of cheap laughs. The dancing master also accompanies the sisters to the ball, essentially replacing the jester so prominent in other productions. I do wonder if the hired help would really be invited, much less take over the dancing, but given his elegant solo, I am glad he was. Robert Wallace, in the performance I saw, was very funny. A bit obsequious, politely appalled at the sisters, and charmed by Cinderella, he clearly knew where his bread and butter were coming from. His solo at the ball was clean and elegant, with springy jumps and crisp turns.

More male dancing was in the offing when the Prince bounded in with two friends, who had a jumping contest. This entrance, though exciting, was, to my mind, misjudged. After all Charming, like his cousins Désiré and Siegfried, is searching for his soul mate, and this party is not just an evening's entertainment after a night out with the boys.

This all changes when Cinderella arrives, carried somewhat precariously by the Season's cavaliers. Ashton's simple but magical entrance, in which Cinderella walks on point slowly down the center stairs is more in keeping with the modest Cinderella I think, than an entrance reminiscent of the Siren in The Prodigal Son, but Ponomarenko managed to look modest and awed. The dances with the Prince (the ardent and elegant Patrick Armand) were beautifully choreographed, nothing flashy or very innovative but always in character. Then, of course, it is midnight, and Cinderella disappears.

The third act includes the three national dances Prokofiev wrote for the original scenario, in which the Prince searches for Cinderella around the world, getting a little local color along the way, like any proper nineteenth-century ballet hero. Corder has reinterpreted this into a dream sequence, with the sisters and stepmother dancing nightmare variations. He wakes up, finds Cinderella, and they have another gentle pas de deux as the moon gives way to the sun. I found nearly three hours of uninterrupted classical dancing a bit long--the great nineteenth-century ballet makers (and Ashton) knew how to vary the pace and highlight classical sequences with character counterpoint. But the matinee audience full of children were enthralled; the little boy next to me announced when it was over "I just hated those sisters!" He may have hated the sisters, but he loved the ballet, and so did I. As an artistic whole Cinderella far surpassed The Pirate, but expecting a ballet like The Pirate to have artistic consistency is like expecting a variety show to be a Bach Cantata. Of course, if forced to chose one form over another, I would go with Bach, but lucky Boston does not have to choose. And lucky Boston got some very good dancing.

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