It has swashbuckling adventure, the romance of exotic lands, bravura choreography, and comic relief. What more does a ballet need? Well, narrative logic and stylistic cohesion wouldn’t hurt, and the lack thereof has always been one of the main criticisms of “Le Corsaire,” the Romantic classic about the beautiful slave girl Medora, the Turkish pasha who wants her for his harem, and the dashing pirate Conrad, determined to rescue her.
But 10 years ago, choreographer Ivan Liška took up the challenge to make the ballet both faithful to Marius Petipa’s famed 19th-century interpretation and compelling for today’s audiences. Boston Ballet opens its season Oct. 27 with the North American premiere of the 2007 production Liška created for the Bavarian State Opera Ballet.
“ ‘Corsaire’ offers an incredible opportunity for some spectacular dancing,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “The lead role has six solos, and the masterpiece ‘Jardin Animé’ is a gem of choreography for the group.” In Liška’s hands, Nissinen adds, the ballet finally makes more sense, with resonant human connections.
Loosely based on Lord Byron’s popular 1814 poem, “Le Corsaire” is one of the few Romantic classics in the ballet repertoire that doesn’t trade on the magical and supernatural. Traditionally, the melodrama of its plot is leavened with humor. Over the past two centuries, Byron’s poem has spawned numerous interpretations by a wide range of choreographers, with music by nearly two dozen composers.
“ ‘Corsaire’ [hasn’t] always fit in the boundaries of good taste,” Nissinen acknowledges, but he is very enthusiastic about Liška’s version. He explains that the choreographer has streamlined the score to include a mere six composers (most notably Adolphe Adam and Léo Delibes), incorporated vivid sets and costumes that set a more consistent tone, and made changes that allow the storytelling to unfold more persuasively.
“He has clarified it choreographically and stylistically,” Nissinen says. “He’s balanced it, made it more detailed, more tasteful.”
This isn’t Boston Ballet’s first go-round with “Corsaire.” In 1997, the company presented a version by Konstantin Sergeyev (after Petipa) billed as “The Pirate,” making Boston Ballet the first non-Russian troupe to present a full-length version of “Le Corsaire” since the legendary Petipa first put his stamp on the ballet in 1863 for St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet. (His version was based on Joseph Mazilier’s 1856 version for Paris’s Théâtre Impérial de l´Opéra).
Dance enthusiasts may be more familiar with the ballet through its stand-alone sequences, however, most notably the 15-minute divertissement “Le Jardin Animé,” which includes a bevy of children, and the famous virtuosic pas de deux, which is one of the showiest and most popular in all of classical ballet, often excerpted for performance at gala mixed repertory evenings and ballet competitions.
Liška’s full ballet harks back to Petipa’s final 1899 revival. It is based in large part on rigorous reconstructions gleaned by dance historian and musicologist Doug Fullington from Nikolai Sergeev’s intricately detailed Stepanov notations, which date back more than a century. For the Bavarian production, Fullington says he worked closely with Liška to “set the choreography, make emendations, add embellishments, and interpret the mime conversations written in prose in the notations.” The historical manuscript details not just movement specifics but motivation and emotional meaning.
For Liška, the reconstruction offered an opportunity to recover some traditional Petipa steps that had disappeared from the repertoire. “The steps always have meaning; they push the story forward,” he says. “My task is to feel what could have been in the style of Petipa — the dances, the situations, the mise en scène — then my joy [is] to make the performance alive, not a museum piece.”
Liška takes his task to maintain historical integrity very seriously. “While I was in the studio, I always left one chair free and imagined Marius Petipa sitting there. Always when I went to modern[ize], he kicked me,” he says, laughing, adding, “The form must be stylized, but the emotion must be true.”
That was readily apparent in a recent rehearsal for four of the alternating couples that will dance Medora and Conrad during the ballet’s run. Liška coaxes the dancers through a sequence, murmuring his own running script. “Look far away. Now go back. Ahhh, come back to me, I want to be with you. That’s it. Very nice.” The emotions vividly play across his face, and the dancers respond with subtly amplified gestures and expressions.
Then Liška and stager Colleen Scott (the two are married and manifest a lovely give and take) meticulously fine-tune the movement. They address dynamics, alignment, the kind of intricate positioning and energy flow that allows Medora to launch herself into Conrad’s arms for a soaring leap that spins and dips into an ecstatic swoon. “Yes!” he says with delight as the different couples find their rhythm.
The soft-spoken Liška, whom Nissinen calls “a gentle soul and a super pro,” also brings a sense of humor to the job. As he encourages Seo Hye Han’s Medora to press more deeply into the back of Lasha Khozashvili’s Conrad, he demonstrates the movement himself, sidling up seductively. “Like this,” he says, adding playfully, “They used to have sex in those days, you know.”
Modernization or not, one can’t help but think Petipa would approve.
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, Oct. 27-Nov. 6. Tickets start at $35, www.bostonballet.org