Some 19th-century ballets have stood the test of time with style. Pony show Le Corsaire, loosely fashioned out of Byron’s bittersweet prose, isn’t one of them. Its outmoded kitsch, poor patchwork score, fake exotic scent and uneven plot translate into a desperate self-whispered complaint "Someone please pass the aspirin!" at the first interval. But Ratmansky’s clever restoration – a lengthy two and a half hours – embellished by the theatrical emphasis that is the Bolshoi Ballet trademark added choreographic and aesthetic sense to a ballet that doesn't have much to say these days. If regular Corsaires are painful to watch, the Bolshoi's version is a guilty pleasure to enjoy once in a while.

Maria Alexandrova (Medora) © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi
Maria Alexandrova (Medora)
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi
The opening night starred a homegrown Bolshoi cast of spectacular soloists, offering a deep contrast to the previous day's Swan Lake, an otherworldly vision of long-limbed Vaganova beauty (Svetlana Zakharova, Tsarina with a capital T). As epic lovers, Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov fired up the stage in the name of their off-stage chemistry, with a little help from stunning dancers such as Nina Kaptsova, Denis Rodkin and Ana Turazashvili, not to mention the commitment of the corps de ballet to playful comedy. Alexandrova is by no means what a typical ballerina is supposed to look like nowadays in the ballet world. Her athletic figure, straightforward dancing and authoritarian stage presence single her out as a force of nature, reminiscent of Plisetskaya’s vivid personality. As the main protagonist of the ballet, Lantratov seemed galvanized by his ebony-haired partner, a charismatic but stiff Medora whom he abducts from a picturesque slave market. Once a shy boy on stage, he was moved by a tireless verve, displaying a virile dash of glamour. What's more, he looked increasingly sensitive to the slightest choreographic nuance. 

Opposite to Alexandrova’s hardness was Anna Tikhomirova’s Gulnare. Hyperextended legs, celestial elevation, strong acting skills and witty facial expressions make her an ideal ambassador of the Bolshoi female style. She’s a natural heir to Natalia Osipova, yet endowed with delicate features and versatile interpretations. One can only hope she will be offered new leading roles as Makhar Vaziev is willing to push a new generation forward.

Vladislav Lantratov (Conrad) © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi
Vladislav Lantratov (Conrad)
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi

The captivating highlight of the evening lay in the “Jardin animé” tableau, one that displays Petipa's opulent taste for meringue-flavoured apotheosis. Whoever had indigestion over Sleeping Beauty's first act might actually leave right in the middle of it! But gourmet balletomanes fall for the quaint loveliness of this dancing garden, filled with flowerbeds, fairy-like tutus and white fantasies. The shipwreck makes a cinematographic impact on the last scene. Yet with their self-mocking sense of humour, Lantratov and Alexandrova manage to turn a ridiculous ending into a witty twist, as if to tell the audience "we are not fools here".

Nina Kaptsova and Vyacheslav Lopatin in the Pas d'esclaves © Alice Pennefather
Nina Kaptsova and Vyacheslav Lopatin in the Pas d'esclaves
© Alice Pennefather

Ratmansky's obvious gift for historical accuracy and enhanced storytelling is certainly inspiring for blooming choreographers. But for all its insightful reconstructions and clever connections between Russian past and Russian present, Le Corsaire could just as well fall into disuse forever. Had it not been for the Bolshoi Ballet's undisputed talent, Le Corsaire – by Ratmansky or not – would have tasted like an over-long meal.

***11