Boston Ballet returns from its record-breaking 2015-2016 season—which saw the highest attendance in more than a decade on top of the biggest box-office revenue in its 53-year history—with Le Corsaire, loosely based on Lord Byron’s epic inspired by French-American privateer Jean Laffite. The ballet follows the young and beautiful Medora, sold by her father to a wealthy Turkish pasha and rescued not once but twice by her love interest Conrad—but even those familiar with the swashbuckling tale may be unaware of how it led to a real-life treasure hunt a decade ago. With the help of dance historian and musicologist Doug Fullington, Czech choreographer Ivan Liska dug into the Harvard Theatre Collection, which houses a trove of documents preserving the 19th-century works of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet. Their goal: to recreate Le Corsaire as audiences would have seen it in Marius Petipa’s 1899 staging.
During the course of nine months, the pair scoured museums, studied photographs and deciphered handwritten notations, uncovering two long-lost character dances and filling in missing variations. “I imagined Mr. Petipa sitting there,” Liska says of the empty chair he left beside him while choreographing. “I tried to feel his intentions.” Liska’s Le Corsaire premiered with the Bavarian State Opera Ballet in 2007, and it’ll make its North American debut on Oct. 27-Nov. 6 at the Boston Opera House, with 113 performers showing off some moves modern audiences might not be used to seeing.
“Many of the steps, which were written down in the old score, we have forgotten. We don’t do them anymore,” Liska says, noting some were originally performed on demi pointe and even featured a different carrying of the arms and neck, more akin to what one might expect to see in an Edgar Degas painting. Still, “His steps were not dry,” Liska insists. “They were dramaturgically, musically, absolutely 100 percent not only necessary, but they fit the situation.” He spent 15 days with Boston Ballet to help the dancers master those steps—not to mention the tricky matter of integrating the plot’s pantomime with the music. “Ivan was teaching me how to act for the audience,” explains principal dancer Seo Hye Han, who stars as Medora. “He said, ‘Don’t make anything fake.’ ”
While the moves may be a touch unfamiliar, Liska expects the story to resonate, no matter how far off the world of kidnapping buccaneers may seem. “It’s a romantic style of living, not always being responsible for what you do,” he says of the appeal. “Take what you love, whether it’s money or a woman. It’s the perfume of adventure.”
THE IMPROPER’S 2016 FALL ARTS PREVIEW: VISUAL ARTS | THEATER | MUSIC | COMEDY