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Why Le Corsaire is My Favorite "Terrible" Ballet

Photo via metopera.org

I have a guilty pleasure to confess: I kind of really, really love Le Corsaire.

I totally get why many people hate this ballet. Although it's loosely based on a Lord Byron poem, the plot as it exists in ballet form today is absurdly thin. More importantly, it's morally repugnant: Centered around the selling and stealing of sex slaves, it basically portrays women as weak, non-human objects, and Muslims as evil or buffoon-like. (Yep, the last stereotypes that need to be reinforced today.)

Much of the story is silly, unnecessary or nonsensical. Like how the women flirt coquettishly as they're being bought and sold. Or how in the end, the two lead characters survive a sinking ship solely because of "the strength of their love," as American Ballet Theatre's program notes put it.


Still, I can't help smiling through just about the whole darn ballet. It's a buffet of virtuosity. The dancers perform like they've been let off the leash and given permission to let loose with all their favorite tricks.

Sure, many would argue that this very quality is why Le Corsaire indulges the worst vices of ballet, valuing physical virtuosity over artistry. But you don't go see this ballet if you're looking to enjoy great artistry. The best dancers might be able to bring some depth to it, but really, audiences at Le Corsaire just want to soak up the logic-defying leaps and be stunned by the gloriously endless turns of dancers who've trained their bodies into peak physical condition.

On Monday night, I took a friend who has never seen classical ballet to watch ABT perform it at the Metropolitan Opera House. After the Conrad-Medora-Ali pas de trois, she turned to me and said, "There's more screaming going on in this audience than at the US Open!"

Up until then, she had been trying really hard to follow the storyline, but all the hooting and hollering made her finally realize that the whole ballet is just a 2 1/2 hour-long choreographed dance-off.

To be perfectly honest, I am a bit biased. This ballet holds a special nostalgic place in my heart since I learned so many of the variations and group dances as a teenager at ABT summer intensives. And I'll never forget being blown away by Angel Corella's slave performance during my very first summer living in New York (after having watched him in the classic ABT video so many times as a kid).

As uncomfortable as the characters and plot make me, I can't deny how thrilling it is to see Daniil Simkin soar across the stage with his smirky grin. Or watch Catherine Hurlin hold her balance just a moment past how long any normal human should be able to. Or count how many pirouettes Jeffrey Cirio pulls off.

Yes, ballet needs to add up to much more than these tricks to be an art form that really matters. But I love that once a year or so, these incredible technicians have a vehicle to show off their most impressive chops.

In an ideal world, a brilliant choreographer would somehow remake Le Corsaire in a way that strings together its best highlights while editing out all the offensive parts (because, really, those parts are so inane they don't really need to be there anyway).

In the meantime, am I going to be watching this ballet again tonight? You bet I am.

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