Maria Kochetkova (left) and Wei Wei in Le Corsaire. Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco
Maria Kochetkova (left) and Wei Wei in Le Corsaire. Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco

Hong Kong Ballet’s major premiere this season is Le Corsaire (The Pirate). Premiered at the Paris Opera in 1856, this three-act ballet was completely re-choreographed in 1899 by Marius Petipa for the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. It is from this production that present productions are derived. Le Corsaire, however, is not as popular as Petipa’s other more famous classics such as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.

Hong Kong Ballet’s new production is by Anna-Marie Holmes, who first staged this ballet for the Boston Ballet in 1997. Hers is the most well-known Western production, and is in the repertory of a number of companies worldwide, including the American Ballet Theatre and the English National Ballet. This latest version has been shortened slightly to suit Hong Kong Ballet’s resources.

Holmes strives to be as faithful as possible to Petipa’s 1899 choreography, but she has made some minor changes. She has also transferred the Pas de Trois des Odalisques from Act 3 to Act 1. The famous set pieces – the Pas de Deux and the Jardin Animé dream scene – are still intact.

Inspired by Lord Byron’s 1814 poem “The Corsair,” the ballet’s story loosely follows the escapades of a handsome pirate, Conrad, who journeys across the high seas to save his beloved, the slave girl Medora. It is a swashbuckling fantasy tale of captive maidens and cutthroats, love and betrayal. In view of this shortened version, perhaps it is better not to worry too much about the story and just enjoy the feast of dancing offered by this ballet.

So how was the dancing? On the first Saturday night, Hong Kong Ballet’s dancers were on their best form in this production, which is not in their natural style. This ballet really needs the larger-than-life flamboyant style of the top Russian ballet stars and companies to carry it off successfully.

Fortunately, in the first Saturday night cast of the lead role of Medora was Maria Kochetkova, a guest star from the San Francisco Ballet. She had a dazzling technique, and her multiple turns were truly breathtaking. Kochetkova was radiant in the Jardin Animé scene. But she left one slightly cold in terms of expressiveness.

Wei Wei was lackluster as the chief pirate Conrad. Fortunately, Shen Jie had more presence as Birbanto, who rebelled against him. In the second week, Lucas Jerkander was also convincing as Birbanto. And Xia Jun was impressive as the evil slave-trader Lankendem. Li Jiabo, however, was underpowered as the male slave Ali.

In the female roles, Ye Feifei danced sharply as Gulnare. Chen Zhiyao stood out in the trio of odalisques. The short storm scene at the end was vividly and imaginatively presented.

Hugo Millan’s colorful sets and costume designs also enhance this production. The City Chamber Orchestra performed decently under the baton of Judith Yan.

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