July 31, 2007 3:55 pm

Le Corsaire, Coliseum, London

Of course it’s all improbable. An orchestral fugue to mark the return of a group of Corsairs to their island hide-out. The heroine dancing a solo armed with the pistol and dagger she has taken from a lecherous Pasha. A marriage in which the veiled bride is replaced by a friend. Eunuchs, odalisques, a garden of beautiful women heavily outfitted with roses, child performers and music from seven composers. And a culminating shipwreck! It is not only improbable, it is tremendous fun, a feast of ballet’s most searching demands and most unlikely moments, an unlikely view of late 19th-century dance as shaped by that master of such things, Marius Petipa. It is, of course, Le Corsaire , as revived, revised, re-thought by Alexey Ratmansky and Yury Burlaka for the Bolshoi Ballet, and on Monday night it marked the opening of the company’s latest London season.

I thought it best fun at its Moscow premiere in June, and this opening performance confirms my delight in the piece. Seek not (as if you would!) for cogency. Instead, you accept, as one does with soap-operas, the cumulative effect of wall-of-death dramatics aided and abetted by prodigiously good dancing.

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Queen of it all is Svetlana Zakharova, more beautiful than ever, more serene in command of the dance, more beguiling in playing her role – she smiles, and the world is well lost – and more absolutely a prima ballerina than any other dancer I know at the moment. She is surrounded by the grand resources of the company: the enchanting Ekaterina Shipulina as her friend, Gulnara; the delicious Nina Kaptsova partnered by the new Wunderkind Ivan Vasiliev in a duet for slaves; three odalisques, led by the vivid Natalya Osipova; Denis Matvienko as the hero, Conrad, master of emotional bravado and of the show-stopping duet; and, an especial delight, Gennady Yanin as Medora’s guardian.

There is so much to enjoy in this madcap evening. What sustains it all is Ratmansky’s skill in revising the piece, an evident respect for what we can discern as Petipa (the re-fashioning of the last act’s pas des éventails is brilliant) and the blissful skills of the Bolshoi’s dancers. The second act looks cramped on the Coliseum stage; but the shipwreck is a triumph of stage machinery and admirable (as throughout the evening) lighting. Cheers, and more cheers.

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