THE Kirov's ``Le Corsaire'' is a huge compendium of balletic devices and conventions accumulated over the past 130 years. Americans haven't seen the complete ballet here, though its famous pas de deux is often performed as a showpiece. Leningrad's Kirov Ballet chose to open its American tour with this curiosity. ``The Sleeping Beauty'' and three mixed bills are also scheduled during the two-month tour, which includes stops in Washington, San Francisco, and Orange County, Calif., as well as the Metropolitan Opera House.
The complete history of ``Le Corsaire's'' evolution from its thematic origin in a poem by Lord Byron to the present dance spectacular would fill a book, but the Kirov's program supplies only a paragraph of geneology. Its choreographers have included some of the most formidable figures in ballet: Joseph Mazilier, its creator (1856), Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa, Agrippina Vaganova, Pyotr Gusev, and the Kirov's current artistic director, OLeg Vinogradov. We're left to unravel who did what, why the plot was reversed from its original order, and how Adolphe Adam's score got larded with chunks of Delibes, Cesar Pugni, Riccardo Drigo, and Prince Oldenburg.
``Le Corsaire'' as it stands is a patchwork, a pretext for virtuoso dancing and effects. For example, in the middle of a Turkish pasha's harem, a classical corps de ballet in tutus and white wigs appears and dances a formal number with floral hoops and working fountains to music from the ballet ``Sylvia'' (Louis M'erante/L'eo Delibes, 1876). The program synopsis calls this a ``magnificent living garden.'' The theatrical style veers from fantasy setups like this to the ultra-realistic shipwreck that opens the ballet, complete with wind, rain, billowing seas, a sailor hanging onto the pitching mast and another one washed overboard.
Even the characters' basic motives are obscure, so it's next to impossible to understand the story. Perhaps a committed romantic could believe that Medora, a simple Greek maiden, falls in love at first sight with a pirate, who continually has to rescue her from the clutches of various lechers and predators. But how about her friend Gulnara, the original golddigger? She seems to like her cushy life heading up the pasha's harem - after he buys her in a slave market. So why does she give it up at the last minute to go sailing off into a future of peril and crime with the pirates?
If a story ballet doesn't need a credible story, the only reason I can see for full-length extravaganzas like this is regressive: Big- name ballets sell better at the box office. I would rather see great dancers in coherent choreography that doesn't apologize for itself with phony escapism.
Like its story, ``Le Corsaire's'' choreography is a pastiche, admittedly revised and restitched according to fashion. The second act pas de deux here is a trio, with Ali, supposedly the friend of pirate-hero Conrad, sharing the job of partnering Medora, but suddenly Conrad wears the costume and manners of a ballet prince, while Ali, bare-chested and fawning, plays servant. A trio of Odalisques in the third act - sparkling individual variations for each of the women - seems authentic Petipa,, but a muscular chorus of pirates seems inserted simply to provide yet another effect.
Although ``Le Corsaire'' was criticized in the 19th century for having too much mime, one of its main drawbacks now, I think, is that all the acting has been replaced with exaggerated gesture. Whenever the characters have to express anything, they resort to the kind of wrist-to-forehead and melodramatic-outflung-hand emoting that the Soviets borrowed from early 20th-century acting styles. Since the plot has become so contorted, these gestures only multiply the confusion instead of clearing things up.
Still, the Kirov has got scads of wonderful dancers, foremost among them Altynai Asylmuratova, who danced Medora on opening night. She may be the most perfect interpreter of 19th-century classical roles now dancing. But I also liked Tatyana Terekhova on the second night, a smaller, tighter, and more clever heroine. The Gulnaras were Yelena Pankova and Lyubov Kunakova. There are at least three major male dancing roles in ``Le Corsaire.'' Yevgeni Neff and Elgar Aliyev played Conrad; Konstantin Zaklinsky and Vitali Tsvetkov were the slave-trader Lankedem; and Ali, the friend who co-partners Medora, was Farukh Ruzimatov and Kirill Melnikov.
These dancers aren't shy about invoking the audience's appreciation, and the performance frequently comes to a halt while they take bows. Kunakova steps completely out of character to grin after a sad solo. Ruzimatov hurls himself into the air, sticking out his chest with self-satisfaction.
Terekhova lingers - bowing, stepping back, kneeling, savoring her applause - then reluctantly withdraws. In some way I appreciated the three Odalisques more than anything - Veronika Ivanova's quick, precise beats, Irina Chistyakova's big traveling leg gestures, and Zhanna Ayupova's speedy turns that pulled up into motionless poses, then started again with no preparation. They were simply there to show off super dancing, and the audience knew it.