Posted 07 July 2012 - 12:06 PM
The role of “big bravura” in ballet has always been a much generated topic, especially when one of the world’s foremost companies—the Bolshoi—derives its name from “big bravura.” There are those who insist bravura is the direction which ballet should be going in: more athleticism, more tricks, more amplitude. Then there is the camp which insists that ballet should stay with its roots and never slide into the realm of circus acts. They argue that bravura is often tasteless, and at times proves a mockery of what ballet is. I see both arguments, but in Le Corsaire, I always feel that the more bravura, the better. With the weaknesses of the ballet—the overcomplicated storyline, the piecemeal score, the wishwashy characters—this ballet needs excitement wherever it can get it. And, last night, excitement and bravado were brought to a ballet which provided a packed house with an exciting evening of ballet. Le Corsaire is in many respects a men’s ballet, and a bravura ballet, and those in attendance enjoyed plenty of bravura from three danseurs known for it.
Dancing the role of Conrad, Herman Cornejo continued to be the revelation of the season for me. At first, his smaller stature would seem to more suit the role of Lankendem, the owner of the bazaar where the slave girls are traded in Act I. Indeed, Cornejo was superb as Lankendem on Wednesday. Conrad is a pirate who falls in love with Medora, and thus he plays more of a “leading man” role in the ballet. For some reason, I’ve always associated Conrad with tall men, but not last night. In spite of being very short, Cornejo looks surprisingly tall onstage when the role demands it. He made Conrad into this powerful, masculine figure with a palpable, endearing love for Medora. Gone was the efficiency of Cory Stearns two days before. Cornejo is anything but efficient as a dancer, with his truly infallible technique, precise musicality, and magnetic artistry. Even in a couple of instances where his pirouettes weren’t completely on, he covered any small error as if there was no error at all. Of Cornejo, Simkin, and Vasiliev, Cornejo is by far the bravura dancer with the best taste. Not only does he have the tricks, but Cornejo has a sense of true classicism. I notice that the debate over bravura never centers around Cornejo, perhaps one of the premier bravura dancers of our time, as Cornejo gives the audience everything. Remarkably, he satisfies all ends of the spectrum in terms of opinions on where ballet should be headed: he has line, artistry, musicality, and of course, the tricks. Unfortunately, Cornejo’s height which proves so useful for athleticism does not prove useful for maintaining a regal, statuesque bearing onstage, which is really no fault his own. He simply cannot evoke shades of being a prince in the way Gomes or Hallberg might in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, et al, and he is not a natural partner (although his partnering is much improved). And, even in this ballet, I preferred Cornejo just slightly in the role of Lankendem to Conrad because Lankendem is so suited to a dancer of his shorter stature. However, preferences in these matters are rather futile. Cornejo is sure to bring the house down regardless of the role, and he accomplished as much last night.
Taking over Lankendem for Cornejo last night, Danill Simkin proved himself another such bravura artist. I first heard about Simkin in 2008 when he was on the competition circuit, and the thing clear to me then, as it is now, is that Simkin is a young male dancer’s dancer. His formidable technical ability is seemingly unlimited. All of the laws of physics surely cannot apply to Simkin, whose pirouettes revolve on an unwavering access and whose jumps seem suspended by wires. However, the critics of bravura are right in that ballet should never be all about the circus acts. A tremendous difference between Cornejo and Simkin, and not just in this ballet, is their stage manners. Even in the showy, bravura roles (Puck, for one) Cornejo always seems like he is dancing for you. He is always giving to the audience, and the bravura is merely a foundation for that. Conversely, Simkin almost “takes” from the audience. He carries on with an almost smug smile which creates an image of expecting applause, bravos, cheers, and the liking after every variation, every turn, every jump he does. Unlike Cornejo, Simkin does not even make an attempt to bear any humility onstage; rather, he is a dancer who is good and knows it.
Now, is that smug smile an issue for this ballet? Not necessarily. It has been something which has bothered me in other roles of Simkin, but Lankendem is a showy character to the extreme. Simkin danced with remarkable virtuosity on Friday, but somehow Cornejo was even more spectacular in this role Wednesday. I noticed a stuck out popo in the grand plié landings of the opening assemble jumps, and the double tours at the end were all leaning toward his left side. I’m being a technical Nazi here, as Simkin was very, very fine. I hope the coaches at ABT are able to work their magic on Simkin in terms of having him develop a multi-faceted persona onstage. They are already working with him on his partnering, which showcased particular improvement last night (although it is still by no means great). I have no particular criticisms of Simkin last night, as indeed his performance suited the demands of the role very well, but his performance of last night reminded me too much of performances from other ballets in where he milks his bravura for all it is worth and leaves the audience with a smug persona which he mistakes for “artistry.” Which is a fault of his past performances and not this one, I realize, but I read similar criticisms of his debut as Siegfried in Swan Lake last week.
Ivan Vasiliev is a dancer who almost seems more animal than human. The amplitude of his jumps, the lightning quickness of his pirouettes, the stern passion onstage all seem to represent a wild cannibal more than a premier danseur. Yet, in the role of Ali, Conrad’s slave, the cannibalistic nature of his dancing is perfect. The Act II variation of Ali is something that is now expected to bring the house down, and Vasiliev gives the audience the unbelievable athletic ability it desires. A dancer without a great classical line, Vasiliev avoids this problem to spectacular fashion in a role when he can rely completely on his storied jumps and have his substandard lines tucked away with those baggy turquoise pants. At times, another criticism of Vasiliev has been his acting ability, but in this role that criticism is unfounded. In addition to the blinding passion and bravura Vasiliev brings to the stage, he brings a wonderful exotic mystique to the role of Ali. He, like Cornejo, also “gives” to the audience. There was this one moment where he finished one of his spectacular, “has no name” jumps, and he powerfully starred at the audience for a few seconds prior to unleashing into a space-devouring ménage. The moment was as memorable as any ceiling-grazing jump. He almost seemed to draw in energy from the audience for a few seconds, but he was giving to the audience in the sense that he desired their power. Vasiliev gave the role of Ali a true sense of loyalty. The way he bows down to Conrad, even the way he runs on and off stage to satisfy Conrad’s demands, showcased Vasiliev’s unforgettable, humble power in the role of Ali.
While a men’s ballet, Le Corsaire was not to be defined by just the men last night. Although she is often the unsung principal of ABT, Xiomara Reyes provided the role of Medora with palpable charm last night. Xiomara Reyes and Hee Seo might just have the two most natural smiles in the company. Reyes’s smile does not simply end at the teeth, it extends to the eyes. Without the sumptuous lines of other ballerinas, Reyes instead milked her allegro sparkle for all she could. As aforementioned, there were technical flaws in Reyes’s performance: some pirouettes in the first act that were off, I don’t think I spotted one turn of Reyes’s that took off from a true 5th position, and a rather impressive fouette series was slightly marred by a cheated final double pirouette to end. But I didn’t care so much about technical flaws with Reyes, because her performance was a technically and musically ambitious one. More than that, however, Reyes stood out because she developed a true rapport with her Conrad, Herman Cornejo, unlike the subdued chemistry between Part and Stearns on Wednesday. Not to mention, Reyes even sparkled life out of the often enigmatic Sarah Lane as Gulnare, and the two of them exemplified camaraderie with their friendship. Although Reyes lacked technical precision in many places and simply does not have the elegant long lines of a Veronika Part, I left the theatre thoroughly charmed. I was able to get her autograph at the stage door following the performance, and her vivacity is just as palpable onstage as it is off.
If there was a disappointing lead dancer in last night’s performance, it was probably Sarah Lane as Gulnare. In fact, her performance was not bad in the least, but last night Lane was quite calculated in comparison to the other dancers. Although technically quite a lovely dancer with those nicely tapered feet, elegant port de bras, and elastic extensions, Lane was impassive last night, especially in comparison to the comparatively vivacious Maria Riccetto on Wednesday. Corps member Mikhail Ilyin demonstrated much potential as Birbanto, a pirate and Conrad’s friend, as did a Joseph Phillips in the same role on Wednesday. Julio Bragado-Young gave the role of Seyd, the pasha interested in buying Medora, nicely played comedic timing. Even the three Odalisques, the same three as Wednesday (Melanie Hamrick, Kristi Boone, Christine Shevchenko), were much improved tonight, especially Shevchenko, who after struggling with the diagonal pique arabesque/pirouette sequence Wednesday, nailed it almost flawlessly last night.