Abigail Oliveiro comes full circle with ‘Le Corsaire’

Abigail Oliveiro comes full circle with ‘Le Corsaire’

Ballet Manila principal dancer Abigail Oliveiro has come full circle now that she’s making her debut as Medora, the female lead in the pirate epic Le Corsaire. As a newcomer to the company in 2013, the Australian import recalls that she was considered to play Gulnara, Medora’s best friend. But then she was considered still too raw. Instead, she was cast in the role of the lead Bedouin.

That first encounter with Le Corsaire turned out to be quite memorable for Abi, in more ways than one. Aside from learning the steps to a ballet she had never seen before, it ended up being a lesson in language for her too.

Principal dancer Abigail Oliveiro makes her debut in the full-length production of Le Corsaire as damsel-in-distress Medora, opposite real-life partner Mark Sumaylo as the pirate Conrad who falls for her. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

“I was ridiculously nervous,” admits the ballerina who was then partnered with former BM danseur Arnulfo Andrade. “I remember dancing on stage with gusto and Arnulfo yelled ‘Atras! Atras!’ (‘Step back! Step back!’) at one point and I panicked because I think the only Tagalog I knew at the time was ‘sabay-sabay’ (simultaneously).

“It was like in the heat of the moment! We travelled too far forward and he has really long legs too so I must have been thinking the same thing because we both moved really far back. But I also remember yelling back, ‘What?!’ I had to ask what “atras” meant after! And I was like, oh yeah, well I did that so, alright then! Insert ‘atras’ to Tagalog vocabulary,” Abi chuckles.

She also realized then that being a quick study and being adaptable were traits that would take her far in Ballet Manila. Tapped as a last-minute replacement for an injured dancer, Abi also played the lead Algerian princess in the same production. But on the whole, despite a few nerve-wracking moments, the newbie says she enjoyed her initial Le Corsaire experience.

“It was such a fun ballet! I loved the pirate dance! Everybody knew the pirate dance!” Abi enthuses. Judging by all the exclamation points, one just has to believe her.

To portray Medora, a character so unlike her in real life, Abigail Oliveiro says it helps to be light-hearted before entering the stage. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Fast-forward to 2018, and she is now dancing as Medora in BM’s latest restaging of the full-length classic. Medora is often described as ballet’s ultimate damsel in distress. And littler wonder, since in the story, she gets kidnapped and sold off by slave traders not just once.

“I don't think I've yet performed a role like Medora,” Abi muses. “She’s definitely not real. She is naive, gullible and in desperate need of saving – twice! Although unlike women today, she is quite fun to portray. It is a challenge though as I am big fan of story ballets with dramatic plots. As the plot for Le Corsaire is rather thin, it's been tricky to be her without going overboard and turning it into something heavier than what it is.”

In tackling the role, Abi finds that it helps her to be relaxed and light-hearted before she enters the stage. “As always, be present and go with the flow with being Medora. Definitely no to overthinking this one – which I have a tendency to do. I also haven't really performed a role with so many jumps! It is blissful flying through the air although difficult for me at times.”

As a newcomer to Ballet Manila in 2013, Abi is cast in a supporting role in Le Corsaire opposite Francis Cascaño. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Though Abi doesn’t really identify with Medora in any way, the hurdle is in finding a connection to her anyway. “But that's the beauty of ballet. There’s just an array of characters out there and it makes our ‘job’ exciting and challenging to be able to put ourselves in so many different shoes,” she insists.

“I actually feel there's a tiny bit of a comical aspect to her naiveté so that makes her enjoyable as well. I really don't think too much about her, otherwise I turn it into some tragic moment – because I really would not want to be sold as a slave! – and just enjoy the moment of being a damsel in distress or being with my best friend Gulnara.”

Abi finds Le Corsaire a bit odd as it tackles serious themes in a light manner. “To be kidnapped and to be sold – and yet it's still not tragic. And when she sees her best friend in Act 3 after being kidnapped, it’s like all is right in the world. Strange girls!”

Still, there’s no arguing with the success of Le Corsaire. Since its premiere in 1856 by the Theatre Imperial de l’Opera in France, the three-act ballet has become a popular one in classical fare. Abi believes the key really is in the dancing which more than makes up for the questionable plot.

Abi counts Act 3 of Le Corsaire, featuring the living garden, as her favorite. “It’s so beautiful!” she points out. Photo by Jojo Mamangun

“I think this ballet really highlights our men,” says Abi, pointing out the male roles – the lead pirate Conrad, his trusted slave Ali and the slave trader Lankadem. “And the pirates! They really enjoy it! Of course, the beauty of the women as well. The main pas de trois is such an iconic piece that is usually performed as a pas de deux if done separately.”

Abi contends that Le Corsaire is a little different for her as she relishes the ballet more as it progresses instead of having one favorite standout part. “Not that I am looking forward to it ending! But I enjoy Act 2 more than Act 1. And Act 3 a little more than 2. So it is quite lovely to be able to feel that way and look forward to the ballet moving along.”

She continues, “I adore the main pas de trois. Again, it's such an iconic piece. The music is beautiful; it's exciting! I also do enjoy the scene where we’re escaping from the pirates. And of course – all of Act 3! The adagio in the living garden… oh, it's so beautiful. It makes me feel beautiful. I think the music of Act 3 is my favorite from the full length. The music is really gorgeous too!”

Her linear enjoyment of the story apparently also parallels with what she needs to do as a dancer. “I guess it could also be that as the ballet goes along, it appeals more to my forte of adagios and ‘happy dancing’,” notes Abi, who has even more reason to smile as she will dance again opposite her real-life partner Mark Sumaylo.

Indeed, for this Le Corsaire, Abi doesn’t need to be told “Atras!” at all. Because it’s forward all the way!

The characters of ‘Le Corsaire’: The evil Lankadem

The characters of ‘Le Corsaire’: The evil Lankadem

The characters of ‘Le Corsaire’: The selfless Gulnara

The characters of ‘Le Corsaire’: The selfless Gulnara