Ballet in four acts and five scenes
Music by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Grand Duke Pyotr Georgievich of Oldenburg & Léo Delibes
Libretto by Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilier
Décor by Andrei Roller and Heinrich Wagner
23rd January 1856
Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra, Paris
Choreography by Joseph Mazilier
Original 1856 Cast
Saint Petersburg Première
24th January [O.S. 12th January] 1858
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Choreography by Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa
Original 1858 Cast
The Three Odalisques
Première of Petipa’s first revival
5th February [O.S. 24th January] 1863
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Original 1863 Cast
Première of Petipa’s second revival
6th February [O.S. 25th January] 1868
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Original 1868 Cast
Première of Petipa’s third revival
12th December [O.S. 30th November] 1880
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Original 1880 Cast
Première of Petipa’s final revival
25th January [O.S. 13th January] 1899
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1899 Cast
Loosely based on the poem, The Corsair by Lord Byron and set in and around Andrianople, Le 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.
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. 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.
Le Corsaire in Russia
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. The Grand Pas des Éventails was the original Grand Pas of the grotto scene until it was replaced with the so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux in 1915. Set to Adam’s original music, the Grand Pas des Éventails is performed by Medora and 16 coryphées. At one point, the dancers come together and create a kaleidoscope effect, reminiscent of a peacock’s magnificent plumage.
Petipa also added introduced two new dance numbers to the ballet; the first was a pas de deux for the first scene entitled the Pas d’esclave, which was added especially for the young Marfa Muravieva, a new and rising star, who had graduated from the Theatre School the previous year, and was set to music composed by the Grand Duke Pyotr Georgievich of Oldenburg. The Pas d’esclave has since gone onto become one of the most famous pieces of Le Corsaire ever since. Eventually, new variations were introduced to the pas; the well-known male variation that is currently danced today was added in 1914 by the Premier Danseur Pierre Vladimirov and the female variation is that of 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, it is performed by two anonymous slaves who have no other part in the ballet’s action. Isaac Lanquedem is a purely mimed role and Gulnare makes her first appearance in the second act.
The second new number Petipa introduced was a pas de trois for the second act entitled the Pas des odalisques. In the original 1856 production, what later became the 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.
Petipa’s first revival
Throughout his sixty-year long career, Petipa staged four revivals of Le Corsaire; his first revival was staged especially for his wife Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa, with Petipa himself as Conrad and the ballerina Anna Kosheva as Gulnare. The production was premièred on the 5th February [O.S. 24th January] 1863 with a supplemented and revised score by Cesare Pugni. The most famous of Petipa and Pugni’s new additions for this revival was a new travesti variation for Mme. Petipa 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.
In her memoirs Theatre Street, Tamara Karsavina gives a detailed account of Le Petit Corsaire:
The romantic quality of Medora’s part is set off by a little episode of spontaneous gaiety; Conrad is sombre, and to distract his mind Medora, in boy’s apparel, dances for him. She seems to say by her frolicsome dance: ‘Alas, I have no moustache, but my heart is as valiant as a man’s own.’ A never-failing effect comes at the end; Medora, through a speaking, cries words of nautical command.
The short, pleated skirt, bolero and fez of the costume that Maria Sergeyevna Petipa herself wore had been replaced by the ample trousers and turban of a Turkish boy. (…) The costume led me astray. Precepts of coy grace were forgotten; the trousers wanted me to leap and romp. From there the logical conclusion was not to apologize for the want of moustache, but to pull fiercely at an imaginary one. Encores told me of the success of my spontaneous inspiration. [Pavel] Gerdt, my darling Conrad, in the passionate embrace of the concluding scene, in a ventriloquist whisper, conveyed: ‘Well done, goddaughter.’
Le Petit Corsaire became one of the most celebrated passages of Le Corsaire in Imperial Russia; its first performance delighting the audience, especially Mme. Petipa’s fan base. It later became one of the first pieces in the art of ballet ever to be documented to film. It was Alexander Shiryaev who was responsible for filming his wife Natalia Matveyeva performing the dance in the early 20th century.
Petipa’s subsequent revivals
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, among which was a new pas de six for Grantzow in the grotto scene, which replaced the Grand Pas des Éventails. By the 1870s, the role of 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, alongside his fellow Italian Emma Bessone as Medora. For this performance, Petipa and Riccardo Drigo composed and added a new pas de deux for Cecchetti and Bessone in the grotto scene, again replacing the scene’s grand pas. Petipa’s third revival of Le Corsaire was staged especially for the Russian Prima Ballerina Eugenia Sokolova on the 12th December [O.S. 30th November] 1880 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 Pierina Legnani, who danced Medora alongside Pavel Gerdt as Conrad and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Gulnare.
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.
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. For this revival, Mazilier staged a Pas des fleurs to Delibes’ new music additions, one of which was a waltz that Delibes originally composed for his ballet La Source, which premièred at the Paris Opéra in 1866 with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon. It is known as the Naïla waltz, but in the end, it was never used in La Source and for Mazilier’s revival of Le Corsaire, Delibes inserted it into his new Pas des fleurs as the opening waltz. 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.
Delibes’s new Pas des fleurs was retained by Petipa 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 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 two points, 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. In 1903, Sergei Legat created and added his own pas de deux to the grotto scene. However, it is important to note that neither the Le Corsaire Pas de deux composed by Drigo in 1887 or the 1903 one by Legat are 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.
- 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