Title: 4 Ballet Kings From 4 Countries
Author: GIA KOURLAS
Date: February 23, 2006
Publisher: The New York Times
Let's get the obvious out of the way. The title of "Kings of the Dance" — a new ballet showcase for four marvelous male dancers, Angel Corella, Johan Kobborg, Ethan Stiefel and Nikolai Tsiskaridze — is unfortunate at best, and a bit humiliating at worst. Of course, it's all about marketing. And "Lord" was already taken.
"I'm not so sure the title would work in Europe," said Mr. Kobborg, the Danish-born principal of Britain's Royal Ballet, choking on his laughter. At first, Mr. Kobborg said, he thought "oh, no." "But the program is top quality," he added. "You can really call it anything you want."
For Mr. Stiefel, who along with Mr. Corella is a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, the grandiose title may not be the worst thing in the world. One intention of the project is to open the public's eyes to the range of men's dancing.
"Part of the problem with dance is that it's seen as an elitist art form that freaks people out," he said. " 'Kings of the Dance' isn't the best title, but maybe in a way it is, because we're trying to reach another audience."
"Kings of the Dance," which opens tonight at City Center after a run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California, is not your typical star-splattered showcase. Produced by Sergei Danilian, the program is modeled after the Three Tenors, which brought opera to the masses, and inspired by "Pas de Quatre," Jules Perrot's 1845 ballet that united four rival ballerinas.
The showcase has had its share of backstage drama, though none can be blamed on temperamental dancers. The culprit is program changes, the most drastic being the recent substitution of "The Lesson," Flemming Flindt's 1963 ballet about a violent teacher who kills his pupil, for Roland Petit's 1946 ballet "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort." Mr. Danilian said Mr. Petit didn't approve of using a smaller set that would have fit into City Center's wing space and, after months of negotiation, withdrew permission.
"Both are very tragic pieces, but at least our hero survives in 'The Lesson,' " Mr. Danilian said with a sigh. "In 'Jeune Homme,' the dancer has to hang himself onstage. I hate to have dancers in such a show. It is a bad sign, I think."
Yet another change relates to Mr. Stiefel, who, plagued by knee injuries, has withdrawn from "The Lesson." Instead, Mr. Corella is scheduled to perform the role tonight and Saturday; Mr. Kobborg, who has been nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for dancing it in London, performs tomorrow night, and Mr. Tsiskaridze, a member of the Bolshoi Ballet, appears on Sunday. Two female dancers complete the cast of Mr. Flindt's ballet: Gudrun Bojesen of the Royal Danish Ballet is the pupil, and Deirdre Chapman of the Royal Ballet portrays the pianist.
Finally, instead of solo variations from classical ballets, the program includes a 14-minute film of the dancers in rehearsal. It is a necessary strength-saver. (Even this dream team is only human.) But the artistic thrust of the program focuses on several new works, notably "For 4," a quartet by Christopher Wheeldon, as well as a new solo for each "king," choreographed by Mr. Petit, Nils Christe, Tim Rushton and Stanton Welch.
The chaos concerning the program cannot be blamed entirely upon Mr. Danilian, who also works with Diana Vishneva and the Kirov Ballet. (He is developing a solo program for Ms. Vishneva, which will include an all-female corps de ballet.) Clearly the program is a way to capitalize on the current dominance of men's dancing, but there is artistic integrity to his "Kings." When Mr. Stiefel initially approached Mr. Danilian in 2004 with the idea of creating an all-male program, he refused to turn it into a gala showcase.
"I think there should be some ideas," Mr. Danilian said. "The uniqueness of this project is that it is open door. We will always be able to invite male dancers from different countries to participate. I feel like the dancers are really looking for some freedom to create something. If the project is successful, it can also be a commercial tool."
Just as in "Born to Be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theater," a 2002 Dance in America presentation on PBS that focused on four dancers, the gimmick in "Kings" is that each dancer represents a different country of training: Spain (Mr. Corella), Denmark (Mr. Kobborg), the United States (Mr. Stiefel) and Georgia (Mr. Tsiskaridze). While "Born to Be Wild" was an uneven attempt to elevate male dancers to teen-heartthrob status, "Kings" is banking on the assumption that their dancing has surpassed that of their ballerina counterparts. Whether or not that is true, there has been an impressive outpouring of male talent, especially in the last 10 years.
The most unusual aspect of "Kings" is that each dancer was given the opportunity to work one on one with a choreographer of his choice. For Mr. Kobborg, who performs Mr. Rushton's "Afternoon of a Faun," that was the driving incentive. "It's a lifetime opportunity to be part of something where so many new pieces are being created," he said. "That is so unusual for a ballet dancer. If you're in a company, normally you just do the ballets that you're told to do."
The other solos feature Mr. Corella in Mr. Welch's "We Got It Good," Mr. Stiefel in Mr. Christe's "Wavemaker" and Mr. Tsiskaridze in Mr. Petit's "Carmen." (Strange as it sounds, Mr. Tsiskaridze will perform a selection of solos, including those of Don José and Carmen.) And Mr. Wheeldon's "For 4," set to the second movement of Franz Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," serves as a fluid introduction to the dancers' styles.
"The ballet is virtuosic in a refined way, as opposed to being all-out fireworks, which is perhaps what everyone expects," Mr. Wheeldon said. "I wanted to make something that was peaceful and tasteful. But as far as the personalities are concerned, it's a little bit like playing tennis with balls that all bounce in different directions."
Mr. Corella, indisputably one of the finest dancers in the world for both his incredible technique and dramatic range, has been involved in "Kings" from its initial planning stages, along with Mr. Stiefel and Mr. Wheeldon, who turned down the position of artistic director for the show but has remained an adviser. For Mr. Corella, the allure was simple. "It's been a way to do very interesting things that for one reason or another we can't do in our companies," he said. "Also, audiences are getting more and more selective. I'm not saying that dance should be like basketball, but there are a lot more people who could fill the theaters every single night."
As the only American dancer in the group, Mr. Stiefel approaches the program with a different agenda. His intent has more to do with serving as a role model for young male dancers, like the ones he is trying to encourage and cultivate in his role as the artistic director of Ballet Pacifica in Orange County. "Ballet is a selfish art, but now I've come to a certain place where I can, hopefully, be generous giving back," he said. "I'm not trying to wax 'Kings of the Dance' poetic, because it is what it is — a blockbuster show, and I hope Sergei does well from it."
Mr. Stiefel laughed. "But the visibility and excitement around men in dance has just got to be better," he continued. "There are little guys out in Ballet Pacifica Academy who will take class, but they won't be in 'The Nutcracker' because they're afraid that kids from their school will see them. That frustrates and angers me. I'm in a position where I can do something about it, even if it's just changing a couple of people's outlook."
Mr. Stiefel, who starred in the Columbia Pictures film "Center Stage" (2000), is perhaps the most recognizable dancer in the group. " 'Center Stage' came to me, and I took that on in a way to function as a representative of the art form," he said. "There's something bubbling under the surface right now, with the success of 'Movin' Out,' and with the dancing shows on television. What will be the thing to break it wide open? Maybe 'Kings of the Dance.' Whether it happens or not, you have to think big."