Seasoned dance-goers may roll their eyes over the hyped-up title “Kings of the Dance,” but the idea behind the program dreamed up by American Ballet Theatre colleagues Ethan Stiefel and Angel Corella and produced by Sergei Danilian is a laudible one. Four male dancers at the top of their form (Corella, Stiefel, Johann Kobborg, and Nikolay Tsiskaridze) are showcased—not in the flashy gems of the classical repertory, but in new or unfamiliar works that challenge them both physically and expressively. The more typical applause-machine solos are performed in practice clothes in the film that begins the evening, intercut with interviews, rehearsal footage, and informal sequences shot around California’s Orange County Performing Arts Center, where the program was put together and premiered.
The four are, indeed, superb dancers, individual in terms of personal style and background (Corella is Spanish-born, Kobborg is Danish, Stiefel is American, and Tsiskaridze, a star of the Bolshoi Ballet, is Georgian). The program that displays their talents is quirky, in ways both interesting and questionable. It consists of the film, Christopher Wheeldon’s new quartet For 4, Flemming Flindt’s 1963 melodrama The Lesson, and commissioned solos for each dancer by the choreographer of his choice. What the evening doesn’t have, and needs, is a finale. I’m not talking about terpsichorean fireworks here. After Corella finishes Stanton Welch’s We Got It Good, all we’d need would be for the other three to stroll on—dressed like Corella in black trousers, white shirt, and undone bow tie—and join him in a brief bit of offhand virtuosity, noodling around and winning our hearts.
I was surprisingly moved by Wheeldon’s modest ballet. It displays the men as handsome, accomplished artists, but it also burnishes zeal, equality, adventurousness, and the clarity and logic of ballet. Wheeldon’s choice of music, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, deepens the tone of the choreography. Wearing variously colored pants and sleeveless tops, the men merge into unison and break out of it in canons. There’s no partnering to undermine the image of collegial strength. Each man has a solo, but others pass through or join him or take over. The movement patterns—classical with a contemporary edge, both athletic and lyrical—sweep and flow over the stage.
Ironically, The Lesson really is about death and a maiden (Flindt’s first ballet, staged for television when the choreographer was only 27, replaced Roland Petit’s 1946 Le Jeune Homme et la Mort on the “Kings” program because of problems with the latter’s set). The men (all but Stiefel, who’s nursing knee problems) alternate in the role of a creepily insane ballet teacher who becomes homicidal at the sight of a pointe shoe and dances girl pupils to death at a such a rate that you’d expect the Paris gendarmerie to have caught on long ago. The Lesson, based on Ionesco’s play of the same title, is an adroitly nasty piece of work in which Flindt plays on our voyeuristic attraction to violence and the proud little traces of masochism that beset dancers. Certain grotesque elements evoke silent-movie horror. The teacher’s accomplice, guardian, and pianist stalks about the shabby studio in a Groucho Marx walk, and she and the teacher carry the latest victim’s body out in a goose-step. I saw Kobborg, who recently performed the work for Britain’s Royal Ballet, in the lead; he is brilliant at delineating physical distortions, alarming tics, and rapid but subtle changes of mood. The Royal Danish Ballet’s lovely Gudrun Bojesen plays the spunky but oddly helpless student with skill, and Deirdre Chapman is a horrid marvel as the accompanist.
The solos tell us something about how the various choreographers see “their” dancer and how that dancer wants to see himself. In Wavemaker, Dutch choreographer Nils Christie takes Stiefel from a recumbent position on the floor, fingers wiggling to the shimmer of strings in John Adams’s music, through a journey of wary discovery and struggles that ends with him again floored and twitching. British Tim Rushton of the Danish Dance Theatre brings out Kobborg’s inner shagginess in a re-visualizion of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. Kobborg, the elegant Bournonville dancer shown in the opening film, spends much of this work in a crouch, rippling his arms and torso as if bathing in the beams of light and clouds of dry-ice smoke that hint at spiritual illumination.
Roland Petit’s peculiar if stylish Carmen casts Tsiskaridze as most of the principal characters in Bizet’s opera, with a stern sidekick who brings chairs and props and costume changes. Whether taunting an imaginary bull, wielding a fan to flirt with the audience, or stabbing himself with the folded fan, Tsiskaridze dances with calculated dramatic flair. He has wonderful long, limber legs and a flexible body, but his dancing is more about cleanly struck positions than flow—a style that Petit’s tendency to Mickey-Mouse the music exploits to the max. Stanton Welch’s We Got It Good, to music by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, casts Corella in the kind of role Twyla Tharp tailored so superbly for Mikhail Baryshnikov—a nimble, easygoing guy who can purl his way though little steps and toss off startling spins and leaps with nonchalant charm.
Whatever the choreographic merits of the solos, the men perform them with a wholehearted power and earnestness that suggest not complacent kings, but princes still seeking adventure and self-knowledge.