Story ballets can make or break a ballet company. But for American Ballet Theater, they are the heart and soul of the spring season each year at the Metropolitan Opera House. For the first week of the lengthy run of classics, "Le Corsaire" was chosen.
It is the story of pirates and slave girls, far from the dainty princess tales of other ballets. Love befits Conrad and Medora, who is purchased for her beauty by the pasha. With elaborate seaside sets and lavish costumes, the plot is told through glorious variations, multiple mime scenes, and beautiful music composed by Adolph Adam, Leo Delibes, and others.
ABT's current production was staged by Anna Marie Holmes, former artistic director of Boston Ballet. Her company was the first non-Russian one to perform "Le Corsaire" in 1997, according to program notes, and ABT premiered it a year later. It is odd to think that such a ballet whose music and choreography is embedded in pre-professional training has only been in American repertoire for a decade.
Friday evening's cast appeared as seasoned as ever. David Hallberg as Conrad was exquisite. His technical ease throughout was only matched by Michelle Wiles as Medora. Her skillful turns in her Act II variation were effortless. Together, the couple has such facility for grace.
Jose Manuel Carenjo as Ali, the slave, gave a technically brilliant performance, and Sascha Radetsky as Lankendem made a fine impression. Misty Copeland danced the Gulnare variation with precision and finesse.
As always, the corps de ballet were well synchronized and lovely. It can be hard to distinguish one peasant/pirate/village people corps dance from another in these story ballets, but those parts had an extra oomph to them Friday.
Maintaining superb technique is not the only admirable quality of this company. Presence and acting ability are essential for the Met season where the story must read to an audience seemingly half a block away at the top of the sky-high balcony. Craig Salstein (as Birbanto on Friday) has a particular gift for this. His movement intentions can be seen loud and clear in his complex character moments. Like him, Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee as the Pasha was cleverly humorous in his role. It is these aspects that set ABT apart from other companies in storytelling.