Title: Four Dancers, Four Schools of Training
Author: JOHN ROCKWELL
Date: February 23, 2006
Publisher: The New York Times
"Kings of the Dance," the all-star display of male ballet dancing with Angel Corella and Ethan Stiefel of American Ballet Theater, Johan Kobborg of the Royal Ballet and Nikolay Tsiskaridze of the Bolshoi Ballet, is an intermittently engaging blockbuster with a divided soul. It opened a four-performance run Thursday at City Center.
On the one hand, it seems to be announcing itself as a typically cheesy showcase for virtuoso stunts, on the order of "The Three Tenors." On the other hand, it nobly and often successfully aspires to be high-minded. But on Thursday, at least, the program never jelled, utterly failing to build to the kind of climax that would have released the fans' pent-up enthusiasm.
Part of the problem was that the four and their producer, Sergei Danilian, and their choreographer-advisers, above all Christopher Wheeldon, seemed unsure what to do. Repertory and subsidiary casting kept changing: Flemming Flindt's "Lesson" replaced Roland Petit's "Jeune Homme et la Mort"; Alina Cojocaru dropped out and Gudrun Bojesen of the Royal Danish Ballet dropped in. A planned selection of classic showpiece variations was dropped because of time constraints.
Each of the four principals has his own strengths and national school of training and vivid personality. But one has to wonder if, short of can-you-top-this virtuosity, four male dancers can cohere over a whole program as three bellowing tenors can so easily do.
The program began with a short film showing the four dancers chatting informally. It cleverly segued into Mr. Wheeldon's new "For 4," which made the best use of the four men together. Particularly enjoyable was the way others would pop on and off stage during a solo. But it seemed oddly understated, even wan, given the firepower at hand.
After the first intermission came "The Lesson." This dates from 1963 and was successfully revived with Mr. Kobborg last year in London. An amusing, then scary depiction of a neurasthenic balletmaster (along with his sadomasochistically complicit pianist) who kills his ballerina pupil, it was first meant to be danced by each "king" on successive nights. When Mr. Stiefel dropped out with tender knees from the preliminary performances at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California, Mr. Kobborg did it twice there. Here, Mr. Corella gets two performances.
He was terrific, mostly because we are so unused to seeing him in this kind of creepy, malicious part. The role has a considerable amount of difficult dancing, too; it was easy to see why Mr. Stiefel passed on it. Ms. Bojesen caught the ingénue innocence nicely, and Deirdre Chapman of the Royal Ballet was even better as the vicious pianist.
"Act Three," as listed in the program, consisted of four newish solos. In order: Mr. Stiefel danced in Nils Christe's "Wavemaker," to music by John Adams, a spasmodic, floor-centered exercise more modern dance than academic ballet. Mr. Kobborg offered an interesting take on "Afternoon of a Faun," choreographed by Tim Rushton with nods to Nijinsky: here a solo, in which the overtly animalistic faun seems to aspire to a higher state. (Does the spotlight beaming straight down represent God?)
Mr. Tsiskaridze had a lot of fun with Mr. Petit's reworking of his "Carmen" ballet of 1947, wherein the protagonist takes on bits of not only Don José and the Toreador, but also Carmen herself. It was amusingly campy, full of nice self-parody and abetted by the charming Robert Wilson-like antics of a black-clad assistant (Vladislav Kalinen).
The last solo was Mr. Corella's, channeling Mikhail Baryshnikov in his insouciant American mode in choreography by Stanton Welch to piano-and-bass music by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. He danced deftly, of course, but he should tame his big grin; to make this kind of material work, you have to be cool.
With the four disparate solos, the program ends anticlimatically. Already long, it still needs some kind of grand finale in which all four men can leap about in macho display, and it apparently had something like that in California (along with Ms. Cojocaru). Perhaps Mr. Danilian can sustain the concept into future engagements. But if he does so, he needs to fuss further with the format.