Ballet is an art written on air and on unremembering muscles. In earlier times a ballet died at curtain-fall, to be resuscitated at its next performance from memory: the use of reliable notation in the latter half of the 20th century, and then the advent of video, has meant that dance-works have gained permanency of a kind.
But seeking ballet’s past – how choreography looked in step and style – has usually been an archaeologist’s task, re-creation from fragments in the hope that the shard may lead to the pot. Dispiriting experience of this practice in optimistic and sometimes insolent “revivals” of lost masterworks has taught me to be wary of even the best-intentioned offering. The passage of long years brings significant change in dancers’ physique and training, and in theatrical means. And is it like? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper, but the work is, more than likely, betrayed.
(Latterly, two important creations by Andrée Howard were denatured by the Royal Ballet and by Rambert.)
So what to make of the Bavarian State Ballet’s resuscitation of Le Corsaire, a celebrated old extravaganza that has an impossibly vexed theatrical history, from its creation in Paris in 1856 by way of no fewer than 14 recensions in Russia? We know it from the Mariinsky Ballet’s 1987 version, which is wholly adorable as a romp and no less wholly corrupt in its components, with the delights of Petipa’s balletic rose-garden, Le Jardin animé, as its crown.
In Munich at the weekend we saw a staging by the director of the ballet troupe, Ivan Liska, which seeks to remove accretions, and some of the barnacles that the old Petersburg repertory has acquired (favourite solos interpolated from other ballets, to keep a star ballerina happy; dramatic logic sacrificed to effective incident; music from hither and yon, merrily ascribed to Adolphe Adam, author of the ballet’s original Paris score) and thus to show something of Petipa’s Petersburg staging in 1899. To help in this quest for authenticity – albeit the narrative remains profoundly silly, and the Mariinsky’s current production does the decent thing and ignores it almost entirely, preferring to win our hearts with bravura dance and high-camp dramatics – Liska has returned to Adam’s music, with the addition of Delibes’ felicities for the Jardin animé. He has, further, called on those notations in Stepanov script (made in Petersburg at the turn of the last century and recording, imperfectly, the Mariinsky ballets of the time) that offer clues to step and staging.
The result is intriguing, carefully done, and not as jolly as it might be. The Munich dancers work with a will: the ranks of the corsairs, suitably moustachioed, boldly leap and exude balletic menace, and the narrative goes its sub-Byronic way, replete with two well-managed shipwrecks. The production’s flaw, I suspect, lies in a compromise between evoking the grandeurs of late-19th-century Russian ballet and offering a work to tickle the palate of today’s Bavarian audience (who seemed delighted with every moment).
Liska’s artists cope with their tasks, but Lisa-Maree Cullum, as the heroine, Medora, could not efface memories of the sublimely beautiful and witty Altynai Asylmuratova in the role with the Kirov Ballet, who believed utterly in the prodigious dances and smiled entrancingly at the drama. Her chum Gulnara, queen of the harem, was fetchingly done by Natalia Kalinitchenko. The eponymous Corsaire was eagerly shown by Lukas Slavicky, with Alen Bottain no less bold as his treacherous side-kick Birbanto, and there was a fine, space-greedy account of Ali (accoutred in harem pants and temperament) from Tigran Makeyelyan.
The Jardin animé, freshly realised from notation, was heavily decked with garlands, in intriguing patterns, and smirking hordes of children, all of whom should have been in bed hours before. The design, by Roger Kirk, was afflicted with a serious rash of sequins on the costumes and even at moments on the sets, which were effective without much charm.
And, for me, this was the staging’s fault. If the old ballets are to be brought back from the dead, their power to win an audience, to beguile us into time-travelling belief, depends not just on sincerity, but also on theatrical verve. And that, despite this Corsaire’s honourable intentions, I found lacking.