Injuries to Principal Dancers Gillian Murphy, Maria Kochetkova, and Veronika Part caused major cast changes in American Ballet Theatre’s Le Corsaire this week. The changes allowed great young talents-Soloists Skylar Brandt and Christine Shevchenko-to smash through the rigid ABT hierarchy, getting their chance to shine in the leading role. The two have taken full advantage, producing performances that rival and sometimes surpass their Principal Dancer counterparts. In the process they have generated much-needed excitement into ABT, similar to the young players excelling in the current New York Yankees season.
ABT tends to select from a limited number of full length ballets in a Met season, with classics Swan Lake, Giselle, Don Quixote, Le Corsaire having heavy representation. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie doesn’t shake things up much in casting-unlike former ABT AD Mikhail Baryshnikov and NYCB AD Peter Martins-leading to homogenous casting from year-to-year. This casting strategy leads to dull predictability for frequent ballet goers and may be a barrier for some ballet fans to see more performances. It’s common for me to see a dancer in a particular role a number of times over the course of several years. One never likes to hear about injuries, but I was excited to see new blood enter the fray, not knowing what to expect.
At the beginning of last week, Skylar and Christine anticipated an uneventful Le Corsaire week not doing much. In reality, they stepped in the female lead Medora role for five performances, carrying ABT on their small shoulders this week. There must have been a lot of scrambling as the two had to learn the role quickly. Skylar danced Monday (replacing Maria Kochetkova) after ABT gave her the news the previous Friday (see Instagram post above). She also danced Wednesday evening. Christine danced the role Tuesday (replacing Veronika Part), Thursday (replacing Maria), and will dance Saturday evening (replacing Veronika).
The Thursday Le Corsaire was ABT at its best, showcasing spectacular and rare bravura technique. Skylar led the cast with a magnificent performance as the lead slave woman Medora, one of the best I have seen in this role. Her technical abilities were clearly demonstrated by her effortless turns and fouettés (singles mixed in with doubles), nice extensions with smooth upper body carriage. Her steady technique allowed her to define the role with great authority and confidence, a great accomplishment given that she just picked up the role. Technical capabilities aside, what made the role successful was her beaming expressions that carried the stage. The slave girl Medora must make everyone, particularly Conrad the pirate, fall in love with her the second her veil comes off. With her radiant smile, she captured the stage and the audience.
Herman Cornejo was Conrad, the pirate love interest of Medora. Herman still has it at age 36, with his trademark big split double cabriole derriére, double assemblés, and high leaps. Nice to see that he is recovered from his calf injury he suffered earlier in the ABT Met season. Skylar and Herman made a nice pair, although Skylar was more expressive. A very effective pas de deux, amazing since they have only been working together for a few days. Their lack of work didn’t seem to matter as Skylar was able to rip off 11 supported turns, 8 in another segment.
If there is a better Lankendem than Daniil Simkin in the world, let me know. He was brilliant Thursday, with his trademark gala-style tricks. Dramatically, he played the slave trader with an exaggerated campy demeanor, in synch with the silly plot. Technical highlights included a jaw dropping six pirouettes with his typical wide arm carriage to a double tour with a takeoff from one leg! I’m not sure how he pulls that off with all of the force needed to generate upward momentum and compete a double tour to the knee.
The Friday performance lacked the pizzaz of Thursday, with several notable performances. Christine was Medora Friday with Alban Lendorf as Conrad. Christine was more subdued than Skylar, a bit lower on the “beaming” scale. Her technique is sound allowing her to sail through the difficult steps. Add Le Corsaire to her list of successful performances this year in addition to Don Quixote and Myrta in Giselle. Alban was fine as the Conrad, although the role is not a natural fit for him. I see him as more of a prince type as in Swan Lake or Giselle. Gabe Stone Shayer lacked technical power and authority as Lankendem. Stella Abrera was lovely as Gulnare, Medora’s friend. This role fits her strengths with her long elegant line, although she struggled on her pirouettes from fifth position diagonal.
Daniil was the highlight as Ali, with a big solo with all of his tricks thrown in. Jeffrey Ciro as Ali Thursday delivered a very good solo filled with many turns. Look for my post tomorrow focusing on the Ali performances from Jeffrey, Daniil, and James Whiteside.
Le Corsaire is a campy, unserious drama put together by Marius Petipa for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1860 after he escaped persecution from Spain after a tryst with a mistress of a diplomat or the daughter of the mistress (for more detail, see Simon Morrison’s wonderful history of the Bolshoi Ballet, Bolshoi Confidential). Le Corsaire gets no respect from critics (it’s so kitsch!), but who cares. It’s a lot of fun when done well.