“Le Corsaire” – A Brief History of the Ballet and the Controversy Around It

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Boston Ballet in Ivan Liskas “Le Corsaire”

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“Le Corsaire” Virna Toppi, Alessandra Vassallo, and Maria Celeste Losa, Photo: Brescia-e Amisano, Teatro alla Scala 2018

Written by Robyn Jutsum

As we enter the second half of April (already?!), we are immersing ourselves in this month’s theme, Le Corsaire (French translation of ‘the pirate’)! The music was composed by Adolphe Adam initially, and over the years, the work of Césare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, and Prince Oldenbourg have been added to the mix. Choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev (1973) after Marius Petipa (1858), this Pirates of the Caribbean-esque ballet has its ups and downs, taking you down a swashbuckling rabbit hole in 3 acts with a prologue and an epilogue.

Though Petipa’s version is perhaps one of the most recognized versions, several interpretations have emerged over the years, including Jules Perrot’s in 1858, Agrippina Vaganova in 1931, and Yuri Grigorovich in 1994. Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1973 revival of Petipa’s version is the most common adaptation that companies in the U.S. perform, however, in Russia and parts of Europe, a 1955 adaptation by Pyotr Gusev is more often performed.

This Classical storybook ballet also contains one of the most well-known pas de deux in the ballet world, the Le Corsaire Pas De Deux, even becoming referenced in the ballet cult classic film, “Center Stage.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVMt5q2Zcow (Center Stage Clip)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKOhSaYlXrA (Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdDspzkwEkY (Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov)

Beyond this famous pas, the ballet has also created some other well-known chapters that are often performed independent of the full ballet, including the garden scene or, Jardin Animé, in Act III, and the odalisques variations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWSDX0iAyLI (DTH odalisques)

You can read a thorough synopsis of the ballet from ABT, broken down by act, here. The plot is based on the 1814 poem ‘The Corsair’ by Lord Byron. The ballet first opens on Conrad, a pirate, and his crew as they sail towards Turkey. When they arrive, Conrad falls in love with Medora, a girl being sold by a merchant and slave trader, Lankedem, at a bazaar. After Medora is sold to a pasha (high ranking Turkish officer), Conrad plans for his pirate crew to steal her back. Medora tries to convince Conrad to free the other girls that have been taken, but Conrad faces a riot as the other pirates do not want to let them free. In the chaos, Medora is recaptured and taken to the pasha’s palace. The pasha dreams of all the beautiful girls he has enslaved before being abruptly woken up by Conrad and his crew. Conrad and Medora are able to escape, however, their ship is overpowered by a storm at sea. The end of the ballet, the epilogue, leaves us with a scene of Conrad and Medora miraculously alive atop a rock, having been washed aside in the storm.

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American Ballet Theatre in “Le Corsaire”; Photo Credit: NY Times

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The Mariinsky Ballet in “Le Corsaire”

Today, Le Corsaire faces criticism for its outdated themes, sexism, cultural appropriation, and the general depiction of Middle Eastern culture and the slave trade. This is not uncommon, as other significant Classical and Romantic ballets such as La Bayadere and The Nutcracker have also fallen under scrutiny over the years for similar issues. When Boston Ballet put on a production of the ballet in 2016, Dance Informa assessed the balance between historical significance and spectacle in these types of ballets and touches on some of the issues that are embedded into the plot and production value. Here is another article that reviews ABT’s production* of Le Corsaire, pointing out the contrast between entertainment value (the lavish sets, colorful costumes, the prowess of the dancers) and alarmingly problematic themes (slavery, objectification of women, etc.).

Join us all month long for Le Corsaire-themed Cardio Ballet and special events including an exciting Le Corsaire ballet repertory class taught by ABT soloist, Luciana Paris, as part of our Stars of Ballet Series on Sunday, April 25th! You can also participate in this month’s Virtual Performance, choreographed by Eliza!

*Note that ABT and other companies have chosen to make updates (costuming, makeup, choreography, i.e.) to ballets like Le Corsaire to acknowledge the issues at hand

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