Exploring the history behind Le Corsaire

With a cast of pirates, odalisques and slave dealers it is obvious that the ballet Le Corsaire (The Pirate) is somewhat different from the usual fairy tale or legend-based fantasies of long 19th century ballets. It includes some fantastic elements, dreams of animated flowers and drug-sprinkled lotus blossoms, which clearly link it to the period of its origin, but its appeal lies in its spectacular nature. Located in a seraglio and pirates lair in the Ottoman Empire Le Corsaire’s narrative encompasses abduction, murder and shipwreck linking it more closely to the silver screen of Hollywood than our usual understanding of romantic and  academic ballets of a century and a half ago.

The inspiration for this ballet is the poem The Corsair published in 1814 by Lord Byron whose works were widely read in the 19th century. Its international popularity is indicated by the extent to which it inspired productions including Hector Berlioz’s swashbuckling overture in 1831 and Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Il corsaro (1848). Choreographers were drawn to the poem and the earliest ballets – by Giovanni Galzerani for La Scala, Milan in 1826 and François Albert for the King’s Theatre London 1837 – were more faithful to the poem’s narrative than Joseph Mazilier’s production for the Paris Opéra in 1856.

Mazilier and his librettist, Vernoy de Saint George, recognised that all they really needed were the names of the characters and the poem’s exotic location. They transformed Medora into a feisty active heroine instead of the stay-at-home mistress of the pirate Conrad, while Gulnare became bright but more accepting of her fate rather than the adventurous rebel of the original. Of course in a pirate drama there were significant roles for men, a useful reminder that men did have a place in 19th century ballets, although prized as much for mimetic as dancing abilities. With its famous scene of ‘the ship sinking beneath the waves amid the lightening flashes and violence of the storm’, Le Corsaire as choreographed by Mazilier’s to score by Adolphe Adam (composer of Giselle) quickly became an international success being adapted and staged in London, Turin, Milan, Boston (USA) and St Petersburg.

It underwent revisions in Paris with its revival in 1867 when the ‘pas des fleurs’ was added but it was in Russia that Le Corsaire was kept alive with successive productions by Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa (both of whom also contributed significant stage appearances in this work). The evolution of the ballet is extremely complex and as many choreographers as composers have altered the ballet. I would suggest that we may recognise hints of Perrot’s contribution for which he drew inspiration from the paintings of Eugene Delacroix in some of the dances for pirates and Petipa’s chorography in the solos for odalisques in the first act and the’ Jardin animee’ (animated garden) dream sequence.

Where we do not see Petipa is in the famous Corsaire pas de deux that Russian musicologist and dance historian, Maria Babanina, has shown is based on the 1915 pas d’action for Conrad, his slave Ali and Medora by Samuil Andrianov. It was the Soviet virtuoso Vakhtang Chabukiani who, in the 1930s, developed it into a showpiece pas de deux eliminating the ballet’s hero and focusing on Medora and the slave. This was the basis of the pas de deux which Rudolf Nureyev initially with Margot Fonteyn in 1962 popularised in the West. It has become a favourite gala divertissement with each danseur adapting it to highlight his own tricks to retain its excitement.

Go to photo Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Le Corsaire pas de deux in New York, 1968 © Leslie E. Spatt

As the pas de deux secured its place in the repertory the full ballet seemed to fall out of favour only to be re-discovered and the last half century. In the West Le Corsaire re-emerged on the stage on Lake Constance in the Bregenz Festival of 1975 in a most curious version by Zagreb Ballet. Staged by Vaslav Orlikowsky complete with chunks of La bayadère, reports suggested a ballet of ‘fun, vigour and eroticism’.  Twelve years later the Kirov brought a new staging to first Paris, then to London, which stood the ballet on its head, opening with the shipwreck and telling about half the traditional narrative in a lively, slightly tongue-in-cheek production. It restored interest in the ballet now reproduced in a range of productions world-wide. The Corsair English National Ballet is acquiring derives from Anna-Marie Holmes’ productions for Boston (1997) and American Ballet Theatre (1998), in turn from the 1974 Konstantin Sergeyev staging for the Kirov. It is a production that allows dancers the opportunity to display virtuosity and personality as Conrad and his crew once again set sail in the pirates’ ship.