If Le Corsaire the poem is all bryonic heroism and lofty verses, then Corsaire the ballet, loosely based on Lord Bryon’s epic poem about the love story between an abducted greek maiden and her pirate lover- is its whimsical, slightly mocking sibling. Yet in a surreal, absurdist sort of way classical ballet, with its ordered beauty, seems a fine instrument to express the poem’s formal euphony, and it finds in Alina Cojocaru’s Medora the embodiment of Bryon’s 'ray of beauty'.

Alina Cojocaru © ASH
Alina Cojocaru
© ASH

In ballet this is made even more complicated by the fact that physical beauty is insufficient if a dancer’s face doesn’t embrace 'the light'. Cojocaru’s does; impressively, irresistibly, intuitively. As Medora, she is a vision of romantic delight, coruscating in Conrad’s (played by Alejandro Virelles with clean lines and a likable presence but without much swagger) arms with wondrous, percolating joy. Even when movement is reaching its conclusion it is not shortened or resolved but instead expanded with rapturous fullness.

Cojocaru’s dancing is also a miracle of the small things. The inclination of an arabesque, the tilt of a head…all seem to contain a story in itself. Sometimes Cojocaru reaches a step but in delaying or accelerating the lift of her eyes, the opening (or explosion) of her arms she reveals something else; hesitation, thought, joy. And, perhaps, it is this – the extemporaneous quality of her dance – that transforms streams of steps (and in Corsaire the steps can often feel exactly that; pretty but ultimately purposeless) into a terpsichorean conversation with mind, movement, music.

Opposite her, Shiori Kase is an exquisite Gulnare. With eyes directed to the heavens, Kase floats through the music’s melodic tremor while finding sweet moments of stillness. Elsewhere, Laurretta Summerscales and Cesar Corrales (the program mistakenly lists Junor Suoza as Ali) danced with particular luminescence. Summerscales, whose dancing is physically expansive and who has a lovely musicality, was a vividly-drawn third odalisque. And Corrales -ricocheting through space with piquante-force is a physically polished dancer of bracing promise. Plaudits too to the character leads. Unfortunately, the program doesn’t give their names.

English National Ballet in <i>Le Corsaire</i> © ASH
English National Ballet in Le Corsaire
© ASH
When dancers perform with such lucid commitment, it's almost sophistic to complain about the ballet’s inherent weaknesses; its lack of seriousness and its rather cursory view of women. Though the sets and costumes are visually gorgeous there is, for this viewer at least, unease in the way the slave women sashay around in mid-riff skirts wearing expressions of stylized pain; simultaneously brutalized and sexualized. It’s a hedonistic and often empty evocation of a hellenistic world.

Perhaps, the evening’s best choreographic moment comes in the form of The Jardin Animé scene. Bathed in a warm pastel glow and replete with rustling tutus this floral kaleidoscope of intricate patterns can, when done well, be a phantasmic vision of female beauty. From the corps – literally a moving flower bed – it asks for clarity, lilting arms and classical breadth (on Thursday night it needed more mystery, more scale). And from both its ballerinas: a distinct perfume. There is no narrative here, pseudo or otherwise. It is what Corsaire has been about all along; the dance and the dance alone.

And when the dance speaks with as much wit and if it brings you Cojocaru as Medora then, perhaps, nothing else really matters.