Kings of the Dance

Big Names, Good Looks and Nude Body Stockings
Date: March 21, 2014
Publisher: New York Times

Kings of the Dance
Denis Matvienko, top, and Marcelo Gomes in Roland Petit’s ‘‘Morel et Saint-Loup.’’
© Valentin Baranovsky

LONDON — Bare chests. Testosterone. Love (the one that dares not speak its name). Death. Bonding. With five of the world’s best male ballet dancers on stage in a program dedicated to their talents alone, what could possibly go wrong?

“Kings of the Dance,” which opened at the London Coliseum on Wednesday night, is ballet’s attempt at a “Three Tenors”-like popularization of a usually rarified art form. The format is simple: big names, small pieces, nothing remotely challenging. Depressingly, this seems a successful recipe.

In its various incarnations — the first “Kings” was in 2006, and there have been several franchises since — the show has toured widely and drawn large crowds. On Wednesday, the 2,359 -seat Coliseum was filled with an enthusiastic, relatively young audience, primed to cheer at the slightest hint of a technical feat.

The latest set of monarchs is Roberto Bolle (Italian), Marcelo Gomes (Brazilian), Ivan Vasiliev (Russian), Denis Matvienko and Leonid Sarafanov (both Ukranian), and they are a fine quintet, who, in this show, tell us very little about themselves as artists or ballet as an art form.

Watching them perform was a bit like having Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych all hitting a tennis ball around, separately and together, occasionally displaying a great shot, but never actually playing a match.

The only time a game seemed actually to be in progress was during the second piece on the program. It was Roland Petit’s “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” danced by the former Bolshoi star, Mr. Vasiliev, whose force of personality, dramatic intensity and explosive dancing were entirely thrilling. Physically, Mr. Vasiliev is not unlike the short and stocky Jean Babilée, for whom the role was created, and he brought a coiled-up energy and rawness to the role that Mr. Babilée, who died last month, was famous for.

“Le Jeune Homme,” adapted from a libretto by Cocteau, and set to Bach’s “Passacaglia in C Minor,” is not a great ballet, but le jeune homme is a great role. From the first moments in which Mr. Vasiliev lies upside down, bare-chested, on the iron bed in his Paris garret, smoking and brooding, he is in total possession of the existential drama — to choose life or death — that his character embodies. When he finally rises, first moving with small, clipped steps, then launching himself into extraordinary sideways jumps in which his body appears to hover parallel to the ground, Mr. Vasiliev is heartbreakingly vital and vulnerable, ready prey for the beautiful girl who arrives to lead him to his death.

The girl is, of course, death itself, and the Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina brought a welcome ferocity and eroticism to the role, her feet needle-sharp, her body taut and electric, as she and Mr. Vasiliev sparred and tussled. In their fraught encounter and in Mr. Vasiliev’s dreamlike walk to his inevitable death, the dancers brought a dramatic suspense, a hovering menace and an indefinable evocation of a particular era that made the ballet feel newly relevant.

You couldn’t say the same for any of the other works on the program, which opened with Nacho Duato’s annoyingly winsome trio, “Remanso,” to music by Enrique Granados and danced by Mr. Sarafanov, Mr. Matvienko, and Mr. Gomes. The piece opens with a rose held out from behind a screen, and this coy prelude seems to be an invitation to the men to arrange themselves decoratively around the stage. It goes without saying that they are all nice to look at; that seems to be the central point of the work.

But “Remanso” looks positively deep next to the succession of short pieces that make up the final section of the program. With the exception of Mr. Gomes’s innocuous ensemble finale, “KO’d,” these are all exceptionally awful.

Leading the pack in egregiousness, however, is “Prototype,” in which the famously good-looking Mr. Bolle made his first appearance. It’s the sort of piece that doesn’t just credit a choreographer, but also a “concept”; both of these are by the Italian choreographer Massimiliano Volpini. Mr. Bolle’s image is multiplied on a stagewide screen behind him while the dancer, in nude body stocking (naturally) performs bits and pieces from famous ballets. He then moons around existentially in jeans. The choreography is nonexistent.

There is choreography in “Morel et Saint-Loup” a duet taken from Petit’s full-length “Proust, ou les Intermittences du Coeur,” but it entirely wastes the talents of Mr. Gomes and Mr. Matvienko, possibly showing us some sort of incredibly tasteful homosexual attraction — or possibly not — in more nude body stockings. Let us simply draw a veil over Mr. Sarafanov’s tepid solo, “Vestris,” by Leonid Jacobson, and Mr. Vasiliev’s valiant attempt to make something of Patrick de Bana’s “Labyrinth of Solitude.”

The odd thing about “Kings of the Dance” is that in the guise of celebrating great dancers, it mostly reduces our sense of their individual talents. You get a glimpse of Mr. Gomes’s artistry and integrity here, and Mr. Vasiliev manages to impose himself as a star. But neither Mr. Bolle, who has had a major career, nor Mr. Matvienko or Mr. Sarafanov, emerge with any individuality at all.

Must popularism and mediocrity always be happy bedfellows? “Kings of the Dance” doesn’t prove otherwise.