Le Corsaire

Ballet in 3 acts
Music by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Grand Duke Pyotr Georgievich of Oldenburg & Léo Delibes

World Première
23rd January 1856
Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra, Paris
Choreography by Joseph Mazilier

Original 1856 Cast
Medora
Carolina Rosati

Conrad
Domineco Segarelli

St Petersburg Première
24th January [O.S. 12th January] 1858
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Choreography by Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa

Original 1858 Cast
Medora
Ekaterina Friedbürg

Conrad
Marius Petipa

The Three Odalisques
Nadezhda Amosova
Anastasia Amosova
Anna Prikhunova

Première of Petipa’s first revival
5th February [O.S. 24th January] 1863
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1863 Cast
Medora
Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa

Conrad
Christian Johansson

Première of Petipa’s second revival
6th February [O.S. 25th January] 1868
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1868 Cast
Medora
Adèle Grantzow

Première of Petipa’s third revival
22nd November [O.S. 10th November] 1885
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1885 Cast
Medora
Eugenia Sokolova

Première of Petipa’s final revival
25th January [O.S. 13th January] 1899
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1899 Cast
Medora
Pierina Legnani

Conrad
Pavel Gerdt

Gulnare
Olga Preobrazhenskaya

Birbanto
Iosif Kschessinsky

The Seyd-Pasha
Alfred Bekefi

Plot
Loosely based on the poem, The Corsair by Lord Byron and set in and around AndrianopleLe Corsaire is a swashbuckling spectacle about the adventures of the chief corsair, Conrad, who saves his beloved Medora, a beautiful harem girl, from being sold to Seyd, Pasha of the Isle of Cos, by her guardian and master of the bazaar, Isaac Lanquedem. Medora’s attempts to make a Conrad a better man than the pirate he is are nearly thwarted by Birbanto, his first lieutenant, who aids Lanquedem in selling Medora to the Pasha. Luckily, with the help of Gulnare, the Pasha’s favourite slave, Conrad succeeds in freeing Medora from being married off to the Pasha when Gulnare switches places with her as the Pasha’s bride.

Iosif Kschessinsky as Birbanto, Pierina Legnani as Medora, Pavel Gerdt as Conrad and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare (1899)
Iosif Kschessinsky as Birbanto, Pierina Legnani as Medora, Pavel Gerdt as Conrad and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare (1899)

History
Le Corsaire was originally staged and choreographed by Joseph Mazilier for the great Carolina Rosati. The ballet was premièred at the Paris Opéra on the 23rd January 1856 with Mme. Rosati dancing alongside her fellow Italian, Domineco Segarelli, who created the role of Conrad. Le Corsaire was first staged in Russia for the Imperial Ballet by Jules Perrot on the 24th January [O.S. 12th January] 1858 with the Prima Ballerina, Ekaterina Friedbürg as Medora and Petipa as Conrad. For this production, Petipa assisted Perrot in rehearsals and even revised several of the ballet’s key dances; the most noted being the Grand Pas des Éventails and the Scene de séduction of Act 1, scene 2 and the famous Pas des odalisques of Act 2.

Throughout his sixty-year long career, Petipa staged four revivals of Le Corsaire; his first revival was staged especially for his first wife, the Prima Ballerina, Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa, with the Premier Danseur, Christian Johansson as Conrad. The production was premièred on the 5th February [O.S. 24th January] 1863 with a supplemented and revised score by Cesare Pugni. On the 6th February [O.S. 25th January] 1868, Petipa staged his second revival of Le Corsaire especially for the German ballerina, Adèle Grantzow and as with his first revival, Petipa called upon Pugni to compose new dances. Petipa’s third revival of Le Corsaire was staged especially for the Russian Prima Ballerina Eugenia Sokolova on the 22nd November [O.S. 10th November] 1885 and finally, his fourth and most important revival was staged on the 25th January [O.S. 13th January] 1899. Petipa staged his final revival for the legendary Pierina Legnani, who danced Medora alongside Pavel Gerdt as Conrad and the great Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare.

Pavel Gerdt as Conrad, Pierina Legnani as Medora and Alfred Bekefi as the Seyd-Pasha (1899)
Pavel Gerdt as Conrad, Pierina Legnani as Medora and Alfred Bekefi as the Seyd-Pasha (1899)

Le Corsaire was notated in the Stepanov notation method and is part of the Sergeyev Collection. Notation for the ballet first began in 1894 with the famous Le Jardin Animé scene becoming the first passage from the full-length ballet ever to be notated. The notation of the full-length ballet was completed between 1904 and 1906.

Today, Le Corsaire is presented in various productions around the world. These productions include Pyotr Gusev’s 1955 staging for the Mal/Mikhailovsky Ballet that is performed today by the Mariinsky Ballet, Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1973 revival that is today danced by the Mikhailovsky Ballet and Ivan Liska’s 2006 production for the Bayerisches Staatsballett (Bavarian State Ballet), which includes twenty-five notated passages that were reconstructed by Doug Fullington. In 2007, Alexei Ratmansky and fellow Russian choreographer, Yuri Burlaka staged a revival of Le Corsaire for the Bolshoi Ballet that is heavily based on Petipa’s 1899 revival and includes the original 1899 scenery and costume designs.

 

Did you know?

  • The role of Conrad was originally a purely mimed role and it would not be until many years later that the role included any dancing. By the 1870s, Conrad had ceased to being a purely mimed role and there was a famous performance in 1887 when Enrico Cecchetti danced up a storm in the role.
  • The original Grand Pas for Act 1, scene 2 was the Grand Pas des Éventails until it was replaced with the so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux in 1915. Set to Adolphe Adam’s original music, the Grand Pas des Éventails is performed by Medora and 16 coryphées and Petipa retained this pas for Pierina Legnani in his 1899 revival. On two occasions, Petipa substituted the Grand Pas des Éventails for new showcase pieces – he first replaced it in 1868 with a pas de six for Adèle Grantzow and again in 1887 with a pas de deux for Emma Bessone and Enrico Cecchetti.
  • The opening waltz of Le Jardin Animé was originally composed for Léo Delibes’ ballet La Source, which premièred at the Paris Opéra in 1866 with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon. It was known as the Naïla waltz, but in the end, it was never used in La Source and eventually, Delibes inserted it into Le Corsaire as the opening waltz for what later became Le Jardin Animé.
Alfred Bekefi as the Seyd Pasha and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare (1899)
Alfred Bekefi as the Seyd-Pasha and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare (1899)

Pas d’esclave

When Le Corsaire was first staged in Russia in 1858, the casting of Ekaterina Friedbürg, who was a guest foreign ballerina, in the role of Medora greatly angered the Imperial Ballet’s native Prima Ballerina Marfa Muravieva. The year before, Muravieva had created the lead role of the Butterfly in Petipa’s one act ballet, La Rose, la Violette et le Papillon to the music of Grand Duke Pyotr Georgievich of Oldenburg, which was presented during a court performance on the Duke’s estate at Tsarskoye Selo. In order to quickly placate the offended Muravieva for not being cast as Medora, Petipa extracted her central pas from La Rose, la Violette et le Papillon and added it to the first act of Le Corsaire so she could still be in the production. The pas was rechristened as the Pas d’esclave and has remained in Le Corsaire ever since. Eventually, new variations were introduced to the Pas d’esclave; the well-known male variation was added in 1914 by the Premier Danseur Pierre Vladimirov and the female variation is that of the Prima Ballerina Maria Gorshenkova to music by Riccardo Drigo from The Vestal. In many productions today, the Pas d’esclave is performed by Gulnare and Isaac Lanquedem, but in the original context, the Pas d’esclave is actually performed by two anonymous slaves who have no other part in the ballet’s action. Isaac Lanquedem is meant to be a purely mimed role and Gulnare is not supposed to make her first appearance until the second act.

 

Le Petit Corsaire

For his first revival in 1863, Petipa choreographed and added a new variation for his wife in Act 1, scene 2 entitled Le Petit Corsaire, in which Medora, dressed as a corsair, dances for Conrad and the other corsairs with a prop megaphone. During the dance, she mimes the phrase, “I have no moustache, but nonetheless, my heart is as strong as a man’s!” In the original production, the variation ended with Mme. Surovshchikova-Petipa calling out in French, “Au bord!” the nautical command given by corsairs before plundering another vessel. Le Petit Corsaire became one of the most celebrated passages of Le Corsaire in Imperial Russia and was one of the first pieces in the art of ballet ever to be documented to film. It was the famous Principal Character Dancer and Ballet Master of the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres, Alexander Shiryaev who was responsible for filming his wife Natalia Matveyeva performing the dance in the early 20th century. Shiryaev was also the grandson of Cesare Pugni, who composed the music for Le Petit Corsaire.

Medora's abduction in the grotto scene (1899)
Medora’s abduction in the grotto scene: in the centre is Pierina Legnani as Medora, with Pavel Gerdt as Conrad behind asleep on the couch (1899)

Pas des odalisques

In the original 1856 production by Mazilier, what later became the famous Pas des odalisques was originally a waltz performed by a group of harem girls to entertain the Pasha’s Sultana. In the 1858 revival, Petipa revised and expanded this piece into a classical pas, consisting of an entrée, three variations and a coda. The entrée is set to Adam’s original music, while the first and second variations and the coda are set to new pieces composed by Cesare Pugni. The third variation was transferred from another part of Adam’s original score. Petipa’s revised and expanded Pas des odalisques was first performed by the ballerina, Anna Prikhunova and the famous twins, Nadezhda and Anastasia Amosova.

 

Le Jardin Animé

In 1867, Joseph Mazilier came out of retirement to mount a revival of Le Corsaire in honour of the 1867 Exposition Universelle given that year in Paris. Before she was invited to Russia to dance in Petipa’s second revival, Adèle Grantzow danced Medora in Mazilier’s revival and Adolphe Adam’s former pupil, Léo Delibes composed new music especially for her performance. After Grantzow’s departure from Paris in 1868, Le Corsaire was removed from the Paris Opéra’s repertoire, never to be performed by the Parisian ballet again. For this revival, Mazilier staged a Pas des fleurs to Delibes’ new music additions, which Petipa retained for his second and subsequent revivals of Le Corsaire. He greatly revised and expanded this pas into a new and elaborated version called Le Jardin Animé, complete with garlands and a manicured lawn à la the gardens of Versailles.

For Petipa’s third and final revivals, two new variations were added to Le Jardin Animé – a harp variation for Eugenia Solokova that later became the traditional variation of Gulnare and what became the traditional variation for Medora. This variation is danced in many modern productions today and is one of the many variations that Pierina Legnani created, but it was not created for her performances as Medora. The music is by Riccardo Drigo and it is a supplemental variation that he composed for Legnani when Petipa revived his 1883 ballet Pygmalion or The Statue of Cyprus for her in 1895. For the 1899 revival of Le Corsaire, Legnani interpolated this variation in Le Jardin Animé and it has been retained in this scene ever since as the traditional variation for Medora.

An interesting passage of Le Jardin Animé that has been changed in modern productions is the opening sequence Medora performs at the start of the adagio. In most stagings today, Medora holds a pose en attitude, but in Petipa’s staging, she performs four développés to the front with each one getting higher and higher, as if to represent a blooming flower.

Le Corsaire - Pierina Legnani as Medora & Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare - 1899
Pierina Legnani as Medora and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare in “Le Jardin Animé” (1899)

“Le Corsaire Pas de deux”

One of the most famous passages danced today in Le Corsaire is the so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux, but contrary to popular belief, this pas de deux is not the creation of Petipa. It is erroneously believed that he created this pas de deux for Pierina Legnani for his final revival in 1899, but this is false. At one point, however, the Imperial Ballet production of Le Corsaire did include a pas de deux that was danced by Conrad and Medora in Act 1, scene 2. In 1887, Riccardo Drigo composed a new pas de deux for the performances of Emma Bessone and Enrico Cecchetti in Le Corsaire, which was eventually removed from the ballet. However, it is important to note that the Le Corsaire Pas de deux composed by Drigo in 1887 is not the famous pas de deux that is performed today.

The so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux performed today is actually the creation of Samuil Andrianov, who is noted for being the teacher of the young George Balanchine. In 1915, Andrianov staged his own revival of Le Corsaire with himself as Conrad and the great Tamara Karsavina as Medora, in which he replaced the Grand Pas des Éventails of Act 1, scene 2 with a pas d’action, known today as the Le Corsaire Pas de deux. The pas was originally danced by Karsavina, Andrianov and Anatoli Obukhov, who served as an additional cavalier.

After Petipa’s retirement in 1904, it became more common at the Mariinsky to set a novelty piece to a pastiche of music taken from various sources chosen by dancers and/or the choreographers. The so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux is one such piece, as are many famous pas de deux created thereafter. None of the music used for this pas de deux is either from the full-length Le Corsaire ballet or by Adolphe Adam. The music is actually by Drigo and the Russian composer, Baron Boris Fitinhoff-Schell.

  • Adagio – an orchestration of Drigo’s nocturne for piano called Dream of Spring, a piece that he never intended for choreography.
  • Male variation – a supplemental variation Drigo composed for Petipa’s 1886 revival of his 1870 ballet Trilby.
  • Female variation – a polka-rhythm variation by Fitinhoff-Schell from Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti’s 1893 ballet Cinderella.
  • Coda – a supplemental piece Drigo composed for Petipa’s 1895 revival of his 1883 ballet Pygmalion, or The Statue of Cyprus.

It was Agrippina Vaganova who transformed Andrianov’s original pas d’action into a classical pas de deux in 1931 for the graduation performance of her star pupil, Natalia Dudinskaya, who was partnered by Konstantin Sergeyev. Vaganova removed Conrad from the pas and made it into the famous pas de deux that is danced today by Medora and the additional cavalier, who later became known as “Ali the slave”. The choreography for Ali that is danced today is by Vakhtang Chabukiani and the role was first made into a character in the full-length ballet by Pyotr Gusev when he staged his own version of Le Corsaire for the Maly/Mikhailovsky Ballet in 1955. The so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux was first introduced to the West in 1962 by Rudolf Nureyev after his defection from the Soviet Union the previous year. The pas de deux was first performed in the West by Nureyev and the great British Prima Ballerina Assoluta Dame Margot Fonteyn.

 

Sources

  • Fullington, Doug, Petipa’s Le Jardin Animé Restored. The Dancing Times: September, 2004. Vol. 94, No. 1129.
  • Naughtin, Matthew (2014) Ballet Music: A Handbook. Lanham, Maryland, US: Rowman & Littefield
  • Guest, Ivor. CD Liner notes. Adolphe Adam. Le Corsaire. Richard Bonynge cond. English Chamber Orchestra. Decca 430 286-2.
  • American Ballet Theatre: Theatre program for Le Corsaire. Playbill 24-26,31. 2005
  • Bayerisches Staatsballett (Bavarian State Ballet): Theatre program for Le Corsaire, 2007
  • Bolshoi Theatre: Theatre program for Le Corsaire, 2007
  • Mariinsky Ballet: Theatre program for Le Corsaire, 2004