A Score Is Born for Pennsylvania Ballet’s Le Corsaire

Feb 28, 2017

Bountiful leaps across the stage. Defying gravity in unison. An extravaganza of principal dancers. All this is part of the ballet Le Corsaire. But first comes the music.

Pianist Martha Koeneman

Last year, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Artistic Director Angel Corella sat down with the company’s Music Director Beatrice Affron, and solo pianist Martha Koeneman to review all the music ever composed for Le Corsaire.

How do you whittle down over three hours of music into a ballet that’s unified and tells a story? The whimsical tale featuring pirates, enslaved maidens, traders and Turkish pashas is loosely based on a poem by Lord Byron and premiered in 1856, a time much different from now.

How do you whittle down over three hours of music into a ballet that's unified and tells a story?

Over the course of his career, Corella has danced many of the male leads in this full-length story ballet. He knew what he wanted, but says the collaboration with Affron and Koeneman was essential.

They fashioned a score that started with a massive book of music by a large variety of composers beginning with score originator Adolphe Adam, and then expanding to include his student Leo Delibes, Italian composer Cesare Pugni, Ludwig Minkus, who was a fixture in Russia’s Imperial Ballet. There's Riccardo Drigo, Prince von Oldenburg and many more.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for Le Corsaire.
Credit Vikki Sloviter

It’s a playful ballet, but like any story has moments of drama and tension that move the action forward. The three worked on the music between other projects. Corella rejected the usual “goofy” music accompanying the sale of an enslaved maiden for something darker, more appropriate to the danger involved. Transitions between scenes posed musical challenges for Affron and Koeneman to consider. It seems clear, the music comes first in time, as the piano, the orchestra, and dancers create the beautiful language of ballet.

Radio Script: Part 1

Meridee Duddleston: In the ballet Le Corsaire, dancers illuminate the tale of a shipwrecked pirate intent on rescuing his love, an enslaved maiden. French composer Adolphe Adam originated the score for this playful story, first performed for Parisians in the mid 1850s.

Soon after, it attracted attention in the epicenter of ballet, Russia. At least ten more composers jumped in and added to Adam’s music. Pennsylvania Ballet pianist Martha Koeneman lists some familiar, Leo Delibes; some not, like Zibin and Zabel!

[MUSIC: from Le Corsaire]

Martha Koeneman: Some of them worked in St. Petersburg for the Imperial Ballet. They just wrote opera and ballet.

PA Ballet Artistic Director Angel Corella
Credit Alexander Iziliaev

MD: Why so many? As Pennsylvania Ballet prepares for its own version, Artistic Director Angel Corella jokes it’s a puzzle.

Angel Corella: We’re trying to figure out if it was because it was so bad that everyone sort of tried to help him, or if it was because it was so good that everyone wanted to be part of it.

MD: He and Music Director Beatrice Affron reviewed all the music as Koenemann played it on the piano. Corella slashed repetition, moved parts around, and incorporated little-used passages, dancing familiar roles in his mind.

AC: There used to be like this sort of goofy music that almost every production has. And I found this music that is almost dark. It’s very Arabian: “Pahh, Dah-dee-Dah deh."

MD: Zibin made the cut (but not Zabel), and the resulting Corsaire is a unique, unified, reduced whole, based a lot on Adam, a lot on Delibes and some on others.

[MUSIC: from Le Corsaire]

Pennsylvania Ballet presents Le Corsaire at the Academy of Music from March 9th to 19th.

Radio Script: Part 2

This week, Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of Le Corsaire hits the stage at the Academy of Music after months of preparation. As part of that process, WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston meets a pianist who wants to sound like an orchestra. Martha Koeneman studied piano and received a degree in music performance from Temple University. She's played for the dancers at Pennsylvania Ballet since 1973, starting as an accompanist for warm-ups.  She's been the solo pianist for the repertory company for over over four decades.

Meridee Duddleston: When a ballet takes shape, music precedes choreography.  And as dancers rehearse their steps, a piano comes before a full orchestra.   Pennsylvania Ballet Pianist Martha Koeneman plays music for a pas de deux from the ballet Le Corsaire, keeping this pirates’ story in mind.

Martha Koeneman: I’m reading a reduction of the orchestration, written on two staves or sometimes three, sometimes more, but not often, that combines all the parts into something that can be handled with two hands.  

MD: Talent notwithstanding, what’s the key to doing this well?

MK: I have to be able to dance it in my mind. I’m not a dancer in any way, but I have to feel like this is how I imagine it to be ideally danced, and play that.

MD: As the opening night arrives, the full orchestra arrives as well, for a single dress rehearsal. Before then, it’s the pianist who careens from tempo to tempo, step to step. Artistic Director Angel Corella acknowledges the demands.

Angel Corella: Martha is putting together the whole orchestra. So also for the dancers, they understand when we go to the theater, the music is going to sound like this.  

MK: You have to provide support for the movement so that the dancers feel that they are never sitting on the floor; that they're never floor bound. There’s never a down force of energy.   

MD: Instead, when the combustion of orchestra and dance produces its powerful effect for the first time, nothing is lost in translation.