There are two possible reactions to American Ballet Theatre's production of Le Corsaire: one can be shocked and horrified at the offensive depictions of Middle Eastern culture and the slave trade, or one can be entertained by the nonstop bravura dancing. For those who are offended by, say, the storyline (one line in the synopsis is: "Dealers and buyers fill a noisy bazaar where slave girls are being traded") ABT has inserted a disclaimer into the program. It reads in part: "As you prepare to experience ABT's production of this classical ballet, we want to acknowledge the challenging subject matter depicted in the ballet: slavery, piracy, and the subjugation of women... In our Corsaire ABT has chosen to adjust certain scenes in tone and character out of respect for those whose lives and status were marginalized."

Skylar Brandt in <i>Le Corsaire</i> © Rosalie O’Connor
Skylar Brandt in Le Corsaire
© Rosalie O’Connor

I've seen ABT's Le Corsaire (staged in 1999 by Anna-Marie Holmes) many times and saw it again last night and couldn't figure out where the "adjustments" were. Slave girls still dance happily in the Pasha's harem, and the Pasha is still a roly-poly, oblivious bundle of Middle Eastern stereotypes (albeit played with comic aplomb by Roman Zhurbin).

Anyway, I made the decision to enjoy Le Corsaire as a never-ending display of bravura dancing. It's hard to take a ballet with credits like this seriously anyway: choreography after Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev; music by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, and Prince Oldenbourg; music reorchestrated by Kevin Gale. It's obviously such a stitched together ballet.

Last night's cast consistently delivered on the bravura dancing. Former Washington Ballet dancer and gala circuit favorite Brooklyn Mack was making his debut as Conrad (replacing the injured Herman Cornejo) and he's a star. He's handsome, with a huge soaring jump and winning smile. He has ballon, which is often more impressive than pure elevation. His split leaps hung in the air. He's a strong partner – in the Cave scene he held Skylar Brandt (Medora) in a huge upside down lift with no effort.

Mack couldn't help but be upstaged by the astonishing Daniil Simkin (Ali) in the famous Corsaire pas de trois. Where do I begin with Simkin? He started his variation with a diagonal of four consecutive "540's." On Instagram, he's been teasing the possibility of doing a triple saut de basque. Well, last night he did it, and the audience roared. He's not just all about tricky jumps though; his feline grace and back flexibility make him a perfect foil for Mack and Brandt in the pas de trois. He ended his ménage of sauts de basque with one extra extreme backbend. It was thrilling.

Brooklyn Mack and Arron Scott in <i>Le Corsaire</i> © Rosalie O’Connor
Brooklyn Mack and Arron Scott in Le Corsaire
© Rosalie O’Connor

Skylar Brandt as Medora and Sarah Lane as Gulnare were both pleasing and pretty. Brandt has a very strong technique. In the pas de trois she seemed as if she were holding herself up in the big overhead lifts. Of course she could do 32 fouettés with some doubles sprinkled in, and another series of Italian fouettés in the Jardin animé scene. But there was something slightly bland about her presentation. Maybe her extremely fixed smile throughout the evening even as she was being dragged away from her love Conrad and into slavery?

Sarah Lane as Gulnare had the less showy role but made more of an impact. Her large expressive eyes and beautiful port de bras added some refinement to what otherwise often descended into a circus show. She was the only slave girl to look sad about her gilded cage life in the harem. And she had the tricks too – in her variation she did a fast diagonal of pique turns alternating with double fouettés.

The smaller other roles were filled well. Blaine Hoven as slave trader Lankedem was not as campy as I've seen this role played in the past, but he danced well, as did Arron Scott as the treacherous Birbanto. The three Odalisques were also a good group with Catherine Hurlin making a strong impression as the third Odalisque.

The only weakness was that ABT's corps was ragged. The Jardin animé scene which with companies like the Mariinsky or Bolshoi can look so beautiful with ABT's corps suffered from awkward timings and sloppy formations.

But overall it was a night that recalled the early 2000s era of ABT when they had the strongest male roster on the planet and dancers like Angel Corella, Vladimir Malakhov, Marcelo Gomes, David Hallberg and Herman Cornejo regularly traded roles in Le Corsaire and thrilled the audiences.

Perhaps ABT's disclaimer in the program notes should have simply said: "When you watch Le Corsaire, prepare to be both offended and entertained. We hope you'll be more entertained than offended."

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