Get Your Pirate On: Eight Reasons Why Le Corsaire Is a Must

English National Ballet will this week become the first British company to perform Le Corsaire in full. This 19th-century classic, loosely based on Lord Byron’s poem of the same name about a pirate and his love for a beautiful slave girl, is getting a new production by Anna-Marie Holmes, who has previously staged it for such companies as Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

Le Corsaire is known to British audiences mainly from other versions brought by visiting companies, so we are excited to see how English National Ballet gives it a new spin. In addition to all the swashbuckling action and virtuoso dancing, we have been promised an amazing shipwreck in the “storm at sea” climax scene. So, ahead of this Thursday’s premiere, here are eight reasons why you must catch Le Corsaire:

1) It’s a big-scale spectacle
French dancer Joseph Mazilier was the first choreographer to stage Le Corsaire in Paris (1856). The work soon found its way into Russia via another Frenchman, Jules Perrot, who staged it for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg (1858) with a young Marius Petipa in the role of Conrad, the Corsair. Petipa went on to become the most celebrated choreographer in Russia and produced four revisions of the ballet, each featuring additional dances and music.

Like many ballets of the time, Le Corsaire boasted exotic locations, impressive stagecraft, plenty of drama and technically demanding choreography. These traditions are preserved by Anna-Marie Holmes, who knows her ropes: she first came into contact with the ballet via Natalia Dudinskaya, her former teacher who had danced the lead role of Medora at the Kirov in the Thirties. Dudinskaya was also the wife of Konstantin Sergeyev, the Kirov choreographer who adapted a number of Petipa classics (including Le Corsaire, 1973) in the Soviet era.

2) It’s rarely performed on these shores
No other British company has Le Corsaire in its repertory, and for this new production AD Tamara Rojo has assembled a dream team of collaborators; besides Anna-Marie Holmes, who has developed a version that plays to English National Ballet’s theatrical strengths by placing special emphasis on the narrative, the company has also sought out Bob Ringwood, the Oscar-nominated designer famous for his work on Empire of the Sun, Alien 3 and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, and lighting designer Neil Austin, whose work in theatre, musicals, ballet and opera has won many awards, including an Olivier and a Tony.

 3) It has several interesting secondary roles…
Most classical ballets are built around a leading couple, and while Le Corsaire was originally no different, later revisions added increasingly intricate new solos, not only for Conrad and Medora, but for juicy secondary parts too. The result? The list of characters includes a slave (Ali) and a slave trader (Lankendem), Medora has a feisty “BFF” (Gulnare) and Conrad a second-in-command (Birbanto), all of whom are given flashy solos to match.

4) …as well as lots of party tricks
32 fouettés? Check. Barrel turns? Check. Jumps en pointe? Check. The characters in Le Corsaire pull out all the stops when it comes to virtuoso dancing. Look no further than ballet galas for proof: they often feature the “Corsaire Pas de Deux”, which was popularised in the West by Fonteyn and Nureyev. In addition, variations like Ali the Slave’s – one of the most famous in ballet – are often chosen by students participating in ballet competitions to showcase a high level of technique (as it combines impressive big jumps and intricate turns).

5) There are big ensemble scenes
From the bazaar with its townsfolk to pirates dancing in the cave, from slave girls in the harem to the famous “Le Jardin Animé” (the Enchanted Garden), a scene featuring ballerinas dancing in perfect sync surrounded by garlands, Le Corsaire is celebrated for its graceful and bold choreographic patterns.

6) The fresh talent at English National Ballet
English National Ballet currently has an enviable line-up of talent throughout the company: world stars Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov lead the premiere, with subsequent casts featuring Daria Klimentová, Fernanda Oliveira and Zdenek Konvalina, Tamara Rojo and Matthew Golding, plus all English National Ballet’s rising youngsters in the secondary roles.

 7) It has something for everyone
Le Corsaire could be described as the ballet equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster (think Pirates of the Caribbean!): it has adventure, pirates, romance, drama and hordes of ballerinas, and delivers thrilling punches through non-stop bravura dancing. Here’s a piece that combines inherent athleticism with the lyrical passages that typify 19th century ballets.

8) Last but not least, because of the shipwreck
Le Corsaire is famous for its show-stopping dances, but the climactic final scene, in which the pirate galleon is torn apart in the midst of a raging storm, is equally memorable. The shipwreck is a stage spectacle that is both impressive and fun, and ENB promises to deliver something special: literally, a boat not to be missed!

Go to set Le Corsaire - In Rehearsal

  • Ksenia Ovsyanick and Vadim Muntagirov in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Laurretta Summerscales and Arionel Vargas in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Erina Takahashi and Yonah Acosta in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Erina Takahashi and Yonah Acosta in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Yonah Acosta in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Fernanda Oliveira and Zdenek Konvalina in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Ksenia Ovsyanick and Junor Souza in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. Yonah Acosta in English National Ballet's Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Ksenia Ovsyanick in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Tamara Rojo in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo

  • Tamara Rojo and Fernando Bufalá in rehearsal for English National Ballet's new production of Le Corsaire. © Laurent Liotardo