It is a convention of classical ballet that dancers – particularly the corps de ballet in crowd scenes – should be smiling as they perform. Keeping those dazzling smiles in place is hard work at times (if you don’t believe me, try smiling for ten minutes straight next time you’re jogging or at the gym), so what I really love about English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire is the adorably unfeigned merriment displayed by everyone on stage. There is no doubt that these dancers are having an absolutely cracking time.

Dancers: Junor Souza, Erina Takahashi, Vadim Muntagirov, Alina Cojocaru © ASH
Dancers: Junor Souza, Erina Takahashi, Vadim Muntagirov, Alina Cojocaru
© ASH

Saturday saw ENB’s pirate ship sailing into London, three months after it was first launched in Milton Keynes. The expensive new production is the first complete staging of Le Corsaire – a nineteenth century ballet based on an epic poem by Lord Byron – by a British company, and Artistic Director Tamara Rojo has done her company a tremendous favour in choosing something which showcases their talent for animated storytelling. The plot is pretty silly – involving pirates, a dodgy pasha and a lot of kidnapping and counter-kidnapping of slave girls – but it’s a sufficient excuse for plenty of comedy, a love story, a bit of derring-do, jolly colourful costumes, and lots and lots of dancing.

The comedy was perhaps the strongest element on show last night. Michael Coleman’s rotund, bumbling Pasha always raised a laugh, and the magnetic Junor Souza as Lankendem, the amoral slave trader, stole every scene he was in. Snake-hipped and grinning rakishly, Souza sauntered around stage, occasionally knocking off some fantastic high jumps, and adding to the vocabulary of ballet mime hitherto-unknown market trader gestures for things like “you gotta be kidding, mate.”

The love story’s magnetism was weaker, for which the leading couple were mostly to blame. Matthew Golding, the guest star brought in from the Dutch National Ballet to play Conrad to Tamara Rojo’s Medora, is a fine dancer (his powerful jumps were a joy to watch), but he’s not desperately charismatic, and as I have observed before, he and Rojo lack significant chemistry. Rojo, one of the great ballerinas of our times, looked sadly uncomfortable as the slave girl around whose charms much of the plot is supposed to revolve. Perhaps the role doesn’t offer enough meat for such a noted dramatic ballerina, but it was hard to escape the conclusion that the pressures of directing the company and starring are beginning to tell on Rojo, and that her dancing is suffering as a result. She was able to muster neither the flirtatious briskness, nor the lovelorn lyricism displayed in the same role by Alina Cojocaru, the other prima ballerina playing Medora in this run.

English National Ballet Full Company © ASH
English National Ballet Full Company
© ASH

On the dancing front, the main attractions of the Rojo/Golding cast – apart from the above-mentioned Junor Souza – are Lauretta Summerscales as Gulnare (a.k.a the other slave girl) and Vadim Muntagirov as Ali, the bare-chested servant whose explosive solo is such a staple at ballet competitions. An audience favourite, Muntagirov gives a stunning rendition of both the big-jumping solo and the ‘anything you can do, I can do faster, higher and stronger’ dance-off with Rojo and Golding which is the highlight of Act II. Summerscales is a young dancer, only recently promoted to First Soloist, and she is yet to grow fully into the acting power and stage presence of a true prima ballerina, but she is still gorgeous to watch: airy, fluid, vulnerable and poised. The rest of the cast dances with a great deal of brio and bravura, from the sword-clashing pirates to the villagers, odalisques, harem girls and flowers.

The score, originally by Adolphe Adam (famous for Giselle) but much rewritten and amended, is full of Korngold-style swash and buckle, and the orchestra of English National Ballet (conducted by Tom Seligman) do their best, although the exigencies of modern ballet (dancers are much slower than their nineteenth century ancestors) mean the oompah sections have a sad tendency to sound like a barrel-organ running down.

The production’s charm is bolstered by veteran movie designer Bob Ringwood’s superb vintage Techicolor aesthetic (think Sinbad the Sailor), with painted backdrops featuring minarets, pleasure gardens and a moonlit deep blue sea. The warmly coloured costumes are liberally decorated with sequins, gold, mirrors, and embroidery, and tutus get away with their incongruity amid all this orientalism by being utterly lush (those in the Jardin Animé sequence are as frilly as ornamental carnations).

I find it hard to think of a full-length ballet in the current repertory of the London companies that are as much straight-up fun to watch as this Corsaire. Yes, it’s light-hearted and in some ways ridiculous (what is up with that last-minute shipwreck?), but with everyone on stage having such a great time, it’s hard for audience members not to leave wreathed in smiles too.