PA Ballet’s Le Corsaire: Predictable Excellence

by Gary L. Day for The Dance Journal | photo credit Alexander Iziliaev

All too often in the realm of arts and entertainment, audiences swarm to an utterly predictable presentation. A lot of audiences prefer the familiar, which helps explain the perpetual popularity of Marvel movies, of Bach and Beethoven at the concert halls, theatrical chestnuts at the Walnut Theatre Main Stage, and Law & Order on television. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because predictability does not in any way preclude excellence.

As a matter of fact, the bar for excellence is frequently significantly higher because the danger of boredom setting in with the familiar is very real. This is an issue to consider with the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of Le Corsaire (The Pirate) currently being presented at the Academy of Music.

Le Corsaire is a full-length ballet with all the earmarks of a theatrical chestnut. The plot is as familiar as a cup of English breakfast tea: Pirate meets slave girl, they fall in love, after some complications they run away together, slave girl is kidnapped, and after further complication, they are reunited. It’s not exactly Tolstoy, but it’s a common enough formula, an easy enough story to tell in classical ballet terms. The only thing keeping the story from being painfully boring would be a high level of artistic craftsmanship.

But, this is the Pennsylvania Ballet we’re talking about. PB has a reputation as a world-class company, a reputation that is well-earned. They know what is expected by fans of traditional light classical ballet, and—as is to be expected—they deliver the goods.

Le Corsaire has a history that dates back to its premier at the Paris Opera in  the mid-19th century. It was restaged in 1899 by Marius Pipa, with the current choreography adapted and updated by PB Artistic Director Angel Corella. Corella has pulled out all the stops, providing choreography that displays the full range of the demands of classical ballet in terms of precision and grace. One feature of Le Corsaire that is relatively unusual is its demands on the company’s male dancers. In most classical ballets, the show’s focus is primarily on the prima ballerina; Lillian DiPiazza is certainly capable of holding that focus. But this show requires at least three strong male dancers. No problem here. On opening night, the men were lead by the terrific Arian Molina Soca.

But with classical ballet in the grand manner, the design elements also have to be top-notch, and course they were. The costume design (uncredited) was lovely, though far from authentic. While the story is set in the middle-eastern, Persian Gulf region, the design motif is strictly early Hollywood midwestern imaginary Arabic.

The set designs by Eldar Aliev were actually far superior, showing scale and imagination. The first act set, depicting the cityscape and pirate bazaar, the buildings’ walls were constructed of Persian rugs, which gave the setting a colorful, authentic appeal. The second act set, depicting the pirate’s hideout, was astonishingly beautiful. It looked like cross between a dark cave and a forest of silver and light.

Le Corsaire is as hoary a chestnut as can be found in the world of classical ballet, but it contains all the elements sought after by fans of the form, executed with the finesse and exquisite skill one expects from the PA Ballet. Predictable, yes, but very well done.

The Pennsylvania Ballets production of Le Corsaire (The Pirate) runs through March 19 at the Academy of Music, Broad & Locust Streets. For ticket information, call 215-893-1999 or visit

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