Anna-Marie Holmes created her version of Le Corsaire for Boston ballet in 1997. A year later it arrived in New York when it was loaned out to the American Ballet Theatre. Italian dancer Giuseppe Picone played the romantic hero, Conrad, opposite Nina Ananiashvili as Medora. Holmes has mounted her version — and versions of her version! — from Hungary to Hong Kong, with Tamara Rojo inviting her to stage it for English National Ballet in 2013 with Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov. La Scala knew it was getting a hit.
Although Le Corsaire is criticised for its hotchpotch of composers and choreographers, and its, frankly, quite silly story, as entertainment it works marvellously. It is a dancing showcase and gives a great many soloists the opportunity to show off. Do we worry about young girls being sold into sexual slavery? Not really. Do we care when Conrad's ex best pal Birbanto is shot dead? Nope, nothing. Do we despair when the slaves Gulnare and Alì, who danced so well during the three acts, are drowned in the closing minutes of the ballet? Not even a tear. Does that matter? Not a jot.
It's all great fun: Luisa Spinatelli has given the dancers ravishing costumes to wear with some startling juxtapositions of colour; Holmes has pared the ballet down to a racy two and a half hours, including intervals; Petipa and Co provide the most exacting choreography to thrill an audience, and the orchestra plays some of ballet's biggest hits. You could only dislike this if you're the sort of person who sniffs at Nutcracker's second act.
One of Holmes' greatest talents is to clearly tell a story. She knows exactly how to draw the attention of the audience to the important details on stage, and when you are having to convey plots about sleeping potions on flowers and abductions, that's just as well. She also gives it great pace.
Le Corsaire finds La Scala's ballet company dancing at its best. Nicoletta Manni plays Medora with technical aplomb and grace though sometimes — and a change of makeup might be the solution — her face doesn't always shine through, even to the mid stalls. Alternating single and double pirouettes throughout her pas de trois fouettés is typical of her assuredness, and she possesses an easy, floating grand jeté. Her Italian fouettés were straight out of the ballet manual, with small suspensions before each sequence as though it were all so simple. However, the lyrical duet with Timofej Andrijashenko, who plays Conrad, at the end the second act was also danced beautifully and tenderly, under Spinatelli's magical starry sky.
It may have something to do with Andrijashenko's Russian blood, but the boldness of his gestures and the noble line of his port de bras make for a very regal pirate. There is also daring to his dancing which can take away some technical cleanness but is certainly exciting to watch. His decelerating pirouettes are a joy, something shared with several men of the company, including Marco Agostino who was effective as Lankendem, the slave trader.
The biggest turner of all was Mattia Semperboni who stole the show as Alì, the slave. His pirouettes à la seconde slowed almost to a standstill until he whipped them up to full speed again, and that was just one of the acrobatic tricks he had up his sleeve. It was the panache of his delivery that conquered the audience, and he was awarded his own, single bow at the end of the pas de trois. He is, currently, in the corps de ballet, and was stepping in for principal dancer Claudio Coviello who is injured.
Martina Arduino was Gulnare, another slave girl, and this newly nominated principal dancer is clearly enjoying her opportunities on La Scala's stage and is starting to own it. She has all the right reasons to look at home here as her dancing rarely lets her down, and she glows with pleasure as she executes some of the most difficult moves.
Antonino Sutera guarantees a committed and energetic performance, and as the two-faced Birbanto he alternates between broad grins and boo-hiss moments of Eisenstein proportions.
The three odalisques — which in Holmes' version appear during the Act 1 slave market — were Virna Toppi (all sparkle and sureness), Alessandra Vassallo (with her captivating ‘Nuñez smile') and Maria Celeste Losa (with impressive triple turns during the third odalisque's variation in the pas de trois).
A special word for Alessandro Grillo as the Pasha who treads the fine line of taking broad comedy acting to its limit (and it's actually funny) but without ever exceeding it.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.