The many lives of the Corsaire pas de deux

The pas de deux in Le Corsaire is one of the most famous moments in the classical ballet repertoire, yet it’s confusingly mysterious in its origins and many interpretations.

From 1962, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn entranced audiences when they danced the showcase pas de deux, with Nureyev as Ali, the bare chested, panther-like slave, and Fonteyn as Medora, his beloved. The final pose, with Nureyev reclining on the floor, gazing at Fonteyn in adoration, said it all about their May-December partnership on stage, and possibly off stage.

The male variation that forms part of the pas de deux is only a minute long, yet, with its multiple pirouettes, tucked-leg jumps and machismo poses it remains one of the most impressive and commonly performed solos at ballet competitions worldwide.

The pas de deux – danced in the second scene of Act One – was a latecomer to Le Corsaire. The ballet was first choreographed by Joseph Mazilier in 1856 in Paris, and adapted by Jules Perrot two years later in Russia. But dance historians believe that the pas de deux made its first appearance in 1899 when Marius Petipa staged the final version of his many productions of the ballet in St Petersburg.

More recent research suggests that the pas de deux was first danced in 1915, when the ballet master, Samuil Andrianov, staged a production at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg.

Just to add more confusion, this interpolated dance was really a ‘pas de deux à trois’ for Medora, Conrad, the pirate, and a second suitor, who had danced in the Pas d’Esclave (Slave Dance) in the first scene of Act I.

However, the slave was unnamed until the Soviet era. The cast list for a production staged in Russia by Agrippina Vaganova in 1936 shows him as “Rhab”.

In 1955, for a new version of the ballet for the Maly Theatre Ballet in St Petersburg, the slave became “Ali”.

Over time, only Ali danced the pas de deux with Medora and it was this version that Nureyev brought to the West after he defected from the Soviet Union in 1961.

For his revival of Le Corsaire for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2007 Alexei Ratmansky has gone back to Petipa’s 1899 production but there is no Ali. The pas de deux is danced by Medora and Conrad in the setting of a grotto, the den of the pirates.

No matter how it is staged, the pas de deux always retains its wow factor as one of the major highlights of Le Corsaire.

The Bolshoi Ballet season of Le Corsaire at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane opens on 30 May, with the final performance on 5 June.

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Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, Bolshoi production of Don Quixote, London 2010, photo courtesy John Ross

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, Bolshoi production of Don Quixote, London 2010, photo courtesy John Ross