The BLOG: Culture

Reviving Petipa: Boston Ballet stages a legend

Seo Hye Han and Lasha Khozashvili in rehearsal for Ivan Liška's Le Corsaire; photo by Liza Voll, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Seo Hye Han and Lasha Khozashvili in rehearsal for Ivan Liška’s Le Corsaire; photo by Liza Voll, courtesy of Boston Ballet

An empty chair sits next to Ivan Liška as he scribbles choreography onto paper. Staging a ballet once choreographed by the great Marius Petipa, Liška imagines the Petipa sitting right next to him, giving him a kick in the shin when the choreography veers too much from what the master would have done.

Next week, Boston Ballet will give the North American premiere of Liška’s Le Corsaire, a ballet that Petipa staged four times during his lifetime, in 1863, 1868, 1880 and 1899, after its 1856 world premiere in Paris. As with many ballets, multiple versions exist, staged by various choreographers. Liška chose to revisit Petipa’s notation for his version, returning to a very classical style.

“I wanted to find out more about why (certain classical ballets) are so popular,” he said in an interview with the NewBostonPost. “Is it the themes, is it the music, is it the choreography? By trying to find out that, you get deeper into the seriousness of those works, and getting deeper into the matter, we always found new elements which were probably lost. I was interested in finding more about the classical vocabulary,” he said.

Liška, who was the artistic director of the Bayerische Staatsballett between 1998-2016, collaborated with Doug Fullington of Pacific Northwest Ballet to bring this Corsaire back onstage in Munich, in 2007. Fullington had previously reconstructed the famous Corsaire scene, “Le jardin animé,” for Pacific Northwest Ballet School in 2004.

Choreographer Ivan Liška; photo by Liza Voll, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Choreographer Ivan Liška; photo by Liza Voll, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Fullington consulted the Harvard College Library’s Theatre Collection, renowned for its ballet manuscripts. It houses 19th-century notations of Petipa’s 1899 Corsaire, which was essentially a culmination of all his years of work on the ballet. Fullington spent five weeks in Munich restoring the Stepanov-style notation, which described it as a patchwork with many layers. Each time Petipa staged the ballet, Fullington says, “he added music to the ballet, sometimes leaving out things that were part of the Paris production, and replacing them with new dances.”

The remaining question, Fullington said, was “which layer do you want to use; how much do you want to scrape off?”

In order to stage Le Corsaire for modern audiences, Liška and Fullington could not imitate Petipa’s choreography step-for-step. Over its centuries of existence, ballet has evolved—today the art form looks very different than it did even 50 years ago. Petipa’s original choreography would look antique to audiences today, with more limited movements, limbs posed in lower positions and less exaggerated or athletic.

“Sometimes we would keep those exact same steps, and sometimes it was thought better to modernize the steps or perform them the way a dancer would perform them today,” Fullington said. “(This staging) pays tribute to Petipa through a modern lens.”

Altogether, Liška’s Le Corsaire features reconstruction in Medora’s Act I entrance, the “Pas d’esclave,” Medora’s Act I variation, the “Danse des corsaires,” the “Scène dansante” with Medora and Conrad, the “Danse des forbans,” Gulnare’s polka variation, the “Pas de trois des odalisques” and “Le jardin animé.”

Even more than retuning to Petipa, Liška sought a return to the original music by Adolphe Adam. According to Fullington, Petipa added more music to each production of Le Corsaire. That trend continued, and now, hardly two versions of Le Corsaire have the exact same score. For example, the English National Ballet’s 2014 production lists nine composers.

For Corsaire, returning to Adam means that the music has a distinctively French sound: “I think educated Boston audiences will enjoy that French flair of the music,” Liška said.

In addition to updating the choreography, Liška realized that modern audiences also needed a revised plot for the ballet based on Lord Byron’s 1814 poem, The Corsair. The poem is sad and melancholy, he says, but Adam’s music for the ballet suggests otherwise. The ballet is more lighthearted, while still dramatic and romantic. The task of updating antiquated choreography and literary plotlines that are not transferrable to the stage was not too difficult for Liška, who discovered the many levels of Petipa’s musical creativity and dramatic inventiveness.

“He invented steps which would express the feelings of the protagonists,” Liška said. “It’s about people, those people have feelings, the feelings make them move, and the movements and the feelings make us move.”

The dancers of Boston Ballet lend themselves well to this task, Liška says. He describes it as a “sympathetic” company, philosophically and physically: “They’re very open, they’re happy to discover what they can do.”

When he first encountered Boston Ballet at a festival in Helsinki, Liška says he was struck by the company’s proficiency in contemporary ballet. For that reason and based on his observations in rehearsal, he says that he is looking forward to their performance of a ballet that pulls all the classical stops—big lifts, dramatic poses and lots of turns.

“Now I see it’s a company which has four casts ready after three weeks, who progressively got better,” he said. “I must say, I can’t wait to be back to see how they do this.