Kings of the Dance

Kings of the Dance - London Coliseum
Author: Graham Watts
Date: March 22, 2014
Publisher: London Dance

Kings of the DanceIvan Vasiliev in Le Jeune Homme et la Mort.
© Dave Morgan

A mighty handful should pack a powerful punch and there were certainly moments in this mixed programme when these five kings of the dance delivered the kind of impact that one should expect from a selection of the world’s most sought-after dancers. Their finale even had a title that emphasised their collective heavyweight power with KO’D also doubling up as a subtle pun on the acronym for Kings of the Dance.

This was, however, hardly a fulsome royal feast of dance fit for kings. The evening provided a welcome opportunity to reprise one great performance of the recent past (Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme Et La Mort ), but another quickly returning piece was as dull as lukewarm dishwater (Leonid Jacobson’s Vestris ) and the choreography of the divertissements that filled the final act was generally unremarkable, if not downright dreadful.

The Kings of Dance is an occasional touring company that might loosely equate to the Traveling Wilburys, in the sense of it being an itinerant group of elite artists who have been brought together for one-off seasons since the concept’s launch in 2006. All of that original group are now running their own dance companies or institutions (although some still perform from time-to-time). Unlike the Wilburys, however, the Kings of Dance have regenerated and their successors are now rotated from a larger squad, no doubt according to the vagaries of their availability. This particular group includes four of the ensemble carrying on from the last gig – Marcelo Gomes, Denis Matvienko, Leonid Sarafanov and Ivan Vasiliev – with Roberto Bolle metaphorically coming off the bench to replace both David Hallberg (no doubt unbreakably immersed in leading Marco Spada at the Bolshoi) and Guillaume Côté.

Great performances need a setting in which to shine and this very mixed bag of works lacked cohesion other than in the connection of being danced by blokes. The programme would have perhaps seemed less random if a third of the works hadn’t also appeared in the similar Men in Motion shows, curated by Ivan Putrov, including the old soviet warhorse Vestris , which was performed on this stage only six weeks ago by Valentino Zucchetti. It seemed little more than a filler here and a waste of Sarafanov’s considerable talent. Incidentally, the Putrov show may not have had the star names but it certainly had much greater content and variety in covering a similar theme.

The stunning highlight of the whole evening was Ivan Vasiliev’s towering account of the young man’s journey towards death in Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme Et La Mort where for once it was not the athletic prowess of his virtuoso dancing that had the impact but a finely nuanced, sensitive portrayal of self-destructive angst. Vasilev scored a notable triumph in a one-off guest stint for English National Ballet in this role – back in 2011 – performing then as a very personal tribute to Petit (who had just died). His return to appear on the same stage within the same extraordinary set (kindly loaned by ENB for this production) was every bit as highly-charged, searing with emotion and resonating with the experience of having been one of the last men to have learned the ballet direct from the great French choreographer. By an odd quirk of fate, Vasiliev, having danced the role on this stage just a fortnight after the death of the choreographer, now danced it again just six weeks after the death of Jean Babilée, the dancer on whom the role was created, which perhaps heightened the emotional charge to an even greater degree.

There is rarely any such thing as a “men-only” dance show and just as Oxana Panchenko adorned the BalletBoyz and Elena Glurdjidze assists the Men in Motion, the Kings of Dance required a queen, with Svetlana Lunkina dancing the role of La Mort. I’m not sure how much time the pair had to work together but my only issue with an otherwise outstanding performance was the stuttering early interaction between them. From there onwards, however, Lunkina was the perfect fatal seductress, luring the young man first to the noose and then up into the Parisian skyline, so superbly captured in the reveal of Georges Wakhevitch’s set.

The programme had opened with a sweet rendition of Nacho Duato’s Remanzo, a trio originally made for American Ballet Theatre (back in 1997), danced here by Gomes, Matvienko and Sarafanov, which is another piece previously used in the Men in Motion franchise. It is not a work that fills me with thrills but it is lyrical, gymnastic and occasionally humorous as the three guys dance around and over a wall that takes on different colours. It lasts just fifteen minutes, which frankly is far too short a time to take between the curtain rising and the first interval. Le Jeune Homme Et La Mort occupied the second act (and this set is so complex that it must begin and end with an interval) but all this meant that when sitting down for the third act, we had thus far enjoyed around 40 minutes’ of dancing and an hour of interval, which are proportions somewhat reversed from the norm.

KO’D, choreographed by Gomes (to music credited to Côté) closed the show as the only piece in which the whole quintet performed, dressed identically in black tops tucked into white shorts. As a pas de cinq it reminded me of the famous Pas de Quatre, the legendary dance for four great ballerinas of the early nineteenth century, which disguised their intense rivalries. However, it is hard to suspect any similar undertone here as these guys hug and grin with the genuine warmth clearly borne of a strong mutual respect for each other’s capabilities.

It is just a pity that the four preceding works of the final act were not much of a match for those abilities: Vasilev tours through Patrick De Bana’s Labyrinth of Solitude well enough but he probably could have made something up in freestyle centre work that would have pleased the audience just as well. Matvienko and Gomes strolled through another extract of Petit ( Morel et Saint-Loup from the ballet Proust) without leaving much of a mark and the less said, the better for a woefully mistaken piece of virtual reality entitled Prototype, in which Roberto Bolle performed a series of dances (including a Tybalt/Mercutio duel from Romeo and Juliet) with his own screen image. It was an interaction with digital technology that has been done so much better and is now rather old hat. Let’s hope it stays as a one-off prototype that doesn’t go into full-scale manufacture.

Vasilev’s performance in Le Jeune Homme et la Mort was unquestionably the crown jewel for these kings and well worth the whole evening, which in all other respects felt in need of better material.