Those Mighty Men in Tights
Author: ROBERT GRESKOVIC
Date: March 2, 2010
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal
While, thanks to television, millions of people around the world watched an elite group of artful and athletic figure-skating men compete in the Vancouver Olympics in Canada, a far more modest number of ticket buyers in the U.S. got to see, in person, a similarly elite selection of athletic ballet men take the spotlight.
Ivan Vasiliev as Spartacus. Photo by Marc Haegeman
Washington's Kennedy Center offered a week of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet in a staging of Yuri Grigorovich's 1968 "Spartacus," set to Aram Khachaturian's 1950/1955 score. The three-act ballet is based on what the program calls "motifs from the novel by Raffaello Giovagnoli and events from ancient history, with use of Nikolai Volkov's scenario." The narrative, spelled out in the program, tells the story of the title figure, a rebellious spirit who leads his fellow gladiators against the oppressive army of Imperial Rome.
To open the run, the troupe presented 21-year-old Ivan Vasiliev in the lead. Still a first soloist, which is two ranks below the top category of principal, Mr. Vasiliev is a man of short stature, big muscles, bright eyes, a winning smile, and a mop of curly, brown hair. But for his portrayal of the slave-leader Spartacus, the personable young dancer kept his bright side shaded. Here he became a power-to-the-people hero seemingly plucked from a Soviet-era poster, revealing a demeanor of fiery determination and grave, impassioned force.
Throughout the role's numerous diagonal and circular forays—in which the hero's limbs cut through the space on stage as if they were as sharp as the swords Spartacus sometimes brandishes—Mr. Vasiliev worked with a full-bodied articulation that emanated from the small of his back and radiated like the points of a shooting star. By contrast, as portrayed by Alexander Volchkov, the venomous character of Crassus, the Roman army leader, proved more statuesque than sinister, more posturing than powerful.
Meanwhile, as it turned out, Mr. Vasiliev was also seen, on film alone, in the introductory presentation for "Kings of the Dance," a live eight-dancer program presented by Ardani Artists Management at New York's City Center. Showcasing some of today's top male dancers in various "Kings of the Dance" programs began in 2006, and while touring duties with his home troupe prevented Mr. Vasiliev from coming to New York, he is in the current pool of nine participants.
For all the awful, ignorant and irritating jokes about "men in tights" in today's culture, especially here in the U.S., male dancers have maintained their dignity and have never been more prominent in the ballet world. But just what constitutes these "Kings of the Dance" presentations, in terms of choreography, has been a work in progress since the programs' beginnings. This round, arranged to give each dancer on stage both solo and small-group work in which to appear, amounted to a mixed bag at best. None of the new works showed any substance—or, for that matter, much acknowledgment of what these specially schooled "kings" were groomed to perform.
A case in point was "Small Steps," created for the stellar and compelling Marcelo Gomes by Adam Hougland to the music of Michael Nyman. Distinctive steps and footwork are what ballet dancers practice in their classrooms. This solo, for a bare-chested Mr. Gomes—in leggings that betrayed something of a "fear of tights" prejudice seen elsewhere in the bill—had no steps to speak of, small or otherwise. Rather, this would-be dramatic display to Mr. Nyman's miasmic music looked like a sampler of aimless exercises for Mr. Gomes's upper body.
It was left to the older works, such as Frederick Ashton's 1978 "Dance of the Blessed Spirits," to get to the heart of these men's art. Staged by the great Anthony Dowell, for whom the work was created, the solo was presented here by the similarly gifted David Hallberg. Its limpid beauty conjures the dream world suggested by the flute-focused music from Gluck's 1774 opera "Orphée et Euridice." All that's now missing from the dance with Mr. Hallberg is an inward-drawing, more contemplative dimension, one that might more readily surface if the accompanying music were played live. (All the "Kings" music was on tape.)
Excerpts from Roland Petit's 1974 "Proust ou Les intermittences du Coeur," presented with different casts, offered rewarding dance challenges to both the lissome and impressive Guillaume Côté and the impassioned and intense Mr. Gomes. The choreographer uses selections of Fauré—one underpins a melancholy solo for Mr. Côté as the character Robert de Saint-Loup; the other stirs mirror-images and delicately combative connections for Saint-Loup and Charles Morel (Mr. Gomes) in an evolving, sculptural duet. Dressed in flesh-colored unitards, each dancer looks like a nude, unfired, porcelain figurine. As shown in Mr. Petit's choreographic couplings, they strike poses worthy of Lladró sculptures.
Christopher Wheeldon's "For 4" (to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden") takes shape as a quartet that introduces its dancers by letting each shine individually and in rapport with one another. The performers are dressed (by Jean-Marc Puissant) and lighted (by Elena Kopunova) so that they can be seen as silhouettes and in front light. The measured, somewhat-even-keeled display showcases the ballet's linear finesse as demonstrated by each dancer.
Sergei Danilian, the head of Ardani and the creator of "The Kings of Dance," has plans to tour his brainchild for at least one more year, in programs of mixed bills with the dancers available. Next stop: Warsaw in September. The Bolshoi Ballet will doubtless keep "Spartacus" on the boards as long as it has the man- and muscle-power to render its somewhat ham-fisted choreography as ballet art.
Men in tights or leggings or fitted pants will thus keep making their case for dance as an athletic and expressive art. They will probably never have the exposure given Olympic champions, but call them kings or just plain dancers, the best of their lot constitute a class of artists and artistry that soars.