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Ballet is an art whose past is fragile, relying upon memory rather than a secure text. Stagings had no proper choreographic scores until the mid-twentieth century, and dance was handed down from performer to performer with all the inaccuracies that implies. The reclaiming of a balletic history has at times seemed like the reconstruction of a dinosaur skeleton from a single bone, and as unlikely of success. Yet latterly in Russia, at the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theatres, there has been a quest to explore a heritage by restoring celebrated productions.

Now, in Moscow, Le Corsaire has been re-staged. The keys to this and similar acts of dance-piety are the notations, in Stepanov script, of the ballets given at the Mariinsky Theatre as the nineteenth century ended, which the régisseur Nikolai Sergueyev abstracted from the theatre’s archives when he fled Russia in 1918. From these scripts stem most of the classics as we know them in the West: Ninette de Valois acquired our Royal Ballet’s versions from Sergueyev in the 1930s. These ”ledgers” (de Valois’phrase) record, in varying stages of completeness, both steps and production detail, and are now held in Harvard’s great Theatre Collection.

Deciphering them, adapting them to the style of today’s dancers, is a task only for the brave and those rich in resources. Nowhere better, then, than Russia, where the balletic past is honoured. Le Corsaire was an unfailingly popular ballet throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. Its grandest staging was in Paris in 1856, but it soon arrived in Petersburg, was much revised, its first score by Adolphe Adam given a patchwork of interpolations. It survived, variously corrupt, in Russia, and in London we rejoice in the Mariinsky’s madcap account - by Groucho Marx out of Ali Baba. Now Alexey Ratmansky, director of the Bolshoi Ballet, and Yury Burlaka, a specialist in dance-reconstruction, have made a production which seeks to show the ballet as Petipa finally transformed it in 1899. The plot may, fragmentarily, be Byronic, but it is really a romp for pirates, slave-girls, assorted eunuchs, and with a ship-wreck to round matters spiffingly off. The score has been cleaned.

The scenery, by Boris Kaminsky, is brilliantly of-the-period in suggesting Adrianopol under Turkish rule. The costumes by Yelena Zaitseva re-work those designed in 1899 and are admirable.. Ratmansky and Burlaka have restored a text, recapturing much of what I sense is the Petipa manner, and filled it with dance delights. The result is fascinating, and was given on Thursday and Friday nights, when I saw it on the Bolshoi’s New Stage, with exultant zest. Svetlana Zakharova, as the heroine Medora, was enchanting, witty and beguiling in step and manner, and she sailed with adorable grace through ferocious choreography. (At the second performance, Svetlana Lunkina was also a delight). The celebrated +Jardin anime+ is revealed as a far longer scene than heretofore, the stage a riot of danseuses with roses in baskets, bouquets, parterres, garlands, looking exactly like the photograph in the programme of the 1899 staging.

The shipwreck is tremendous and scary, and Gennady Yanin scuttles about the stage like an anxious crab, brilliantly comic as Medora’s venal father. And the piece asts three and three-quarter hours. Even my appetite for bravu lra variations, and yet more variations, began to pall. It is too much of a good thing - even though the thing is very good. As a conflation of nineteenth century productions, it accepts nineteenth century taste for gargantuan evenings in the theatre, and this may prove too fatty for today’s diet-conscious public. But it is, nonetheless, an occasion to gorge on superlative dancing, fascinating choreography, and an opulent sense of theatre. The clock has been turned cunningly back.


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