Some may well ask why a ballet from the 19th century about pirates, a slave trade in scantily-dressed harem girls and a pervy pasha should still have a place on the London stage in 2020. If there is a justification then it must only be about the dance.

Erina Takahashi, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Jeffrey Cirio
© Laurent Liotardo

Anna-Marie Holmes’ staging of the ballet, the rights to which she bought from the Bolshoi in the 1990s, was Tamara Rojo’s first commission when she became artistic director of English National Ballet. Given her subsequent predilection for original contemporary ballets, it might seem surprising that Rojo opened up the museum for her first pick. Her artistic motivation, however, falls into place when considered against the need to showcase ENB as a first-rate company with the highest classical credentials in a ballet that no other British company possessed. It may be a swashbuckling slapstick without a scintilla of political correctness but no ballet company could hope to meet its technical challenges without considerable strength-in-depth throughout its ranks.

After a gap of three years, Le Corsaire has returned to the ENB schedule to show that a new generation of dancers is more than up to the challenge. The cobwebs needed shaking out in an opening act that always struggles to get over the problem of introducing so many characters in that crowded bazaar, while setting the scene for the story’s multiple layers. One of Holmes’ changes from the original Russian version was to transfer the pasha from an evil (think of Aladdin’s Jafar) to a comical character. This is overdone and in the current version, that wonderful character artist Michael Coleman waddles around with a wobbly belly as something akin to a pantomime dame (the luxurious, high-collared sequined robes would suit Christopher Biggins very nicely).

Although the robes are glinting, the opening act of the ballet lacks sparkle. It’s all just a bit too over-the-top. When the villainous pirate chief, Birbanto (Erik Woolhouse) storms to the front-of-stage and beckons to the audience, which was chock-full of VIP thespian celebrities (Kingsley, Nighy and McKellen to name but three), one suspected they might respond with “oh, yes he will”!

The dancing upped a gear in the second act – set in a pirate’s cave with a seductive view out to sea (Bob Ringwood’s sets and costumes are spectacular) – and particularly in the uncredited Vakhtang Chabukiani pas de deux (effectively a pas de trois). To my mind, this dance and Le jardin animé of the final act are the only reasons to keep this ballet alive. There may have been new opportunities for younger dancers to shine in this revival, but it was a dancer who has been with ENB for a staggering 24 years (and doesn’t look a day older than when she became a principal in 2000) who led this opening night. It is tremendous that the hard-working, evergreen and still fabulous Erina Takahashi is now getting some of the recognition she truly deserves. In truth, she lost her way momentarily in the variation but from that point onwards, her dancing, as the heroine, Medora, was scintillating; so powerful in the coda and beautifully expressive throughout the ballet. As her love interest – the pirate chief, Conrad – Francesco Gabriele Frola brought more than a hint of Errol Flynn with his insouciant bravado and mighty leaps. As his servant, Ali, Jeffrey Cirio danced impeccably and excitingly in this most iconic of male solos (made on the virtuoso skill of Chabukiani and made famous by the ubiquitous film of Nureyev with Fonteyn, so early in their partnership).

Le jardin animé was danced exquisitely by the principals, soloists and corps de ballet and, in the supporting ballerina role as Gulnare – a slave girl bought by the panto pasha – Shiori Kase danced with a sublime precision aligned to an unusual – but, I feel, narratively appropriate – demeanour of sorrow. Brooklyn Mack brought his trademark charisma to bear on the slave trader, Lankendem.

Gavin Sutherland conducted the ENB Philharmonic with a driving gusto for this mix-and-match score of work culled from no less than ten composers that he himself edited (with Lars Payne). From my seat, there were some technical issues with lighting and performers occasionally being in different spots and the sight of the stagehands pushing away the boat in the very final moment of the shipwreck was a real case of the ship – and a very impressive coup de théâtre – being spoiled for a ‘hap’orth of tar’!

Ignoring the sales of women and the sails of that most unconvincing shipwreck, one must applaud the impressive dancing and accept that – while it is hardly an appropriate narrative for these woke times – this piratical carry-on of flashing scimitars and drugged roses certainly enlivened a dull early January evening!