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Kings of the Dance

They've got it good

by Cecly Placenti

February 26, 2006 -- New York City Center, New York City

Ballet in the 21st century is shaping up to be something quite different from ages past when ballerinas and their stiff tutus, sparkling tiaras, and pearly-pink toe shoes dominated the art form. With absolutely astonishing displays of masculine power, grace, speed and artistry, males of the ballet world are coming into their own as superstars. And nothing supports that point more than the all male ‘Kings of Dance’ program featuring larger than life danseurs Ethan Stiefel, Johan Kobborg, Angel Corella, and Nikolai Tsiskaridze. Modeled after the extremely successful ‘Three Tenors’ who brought opera to the masses, and its silly glam title notwithstanding, ‘Kings of Dance’ showcased the extreme talents and unique attributes of each of the four men while allowing them to maintain their artistic integrity as well as the integrity of the art form.

With a title like ‘Kings of Dance,’ you would expect to see piece after piece of bravura technique and classical repertory. You would expect these four stars, who can clearly accomplish any choreographic challenge thrown at them, to enter the stage in a brash and glitzy display of leaps, turns, and mesmerizing tricks. But, thank goodness, that was not the case. Don’t get me wrong, these men cannot help but to dazzle audiences with their impeccable technique, and there were enough jumps, turns, and feats of technical wizardry to impress even the most skeptical of spectators. But above and beyond all that was a more refined virtuosity that was incredibly powerful.

Opening the program was a 14-minute film of the dancers in rehearsal. In it we see masters at work, scarves tied around their necks, bandanas on their heads, whipping off quadruple turns. But more than the physical displays in the video, we hear from each dancer about his beginnings in ballet, all the years of hard work he put into his craft, and his desires and reasons for taking part in this project. Steifel hopes to reach a new audience, show the world that dance is not an elitist art form, and serve as a role model for young male dancers. Kobborg relished the opportunity to be a part of something where so many new pieces were being created, as opposed to performing only the ballets his company tells him to dance. As an obvious concession to the show’s aim for mass appeal, the video also served as a “meet the dancers” introduction, showing Kobborg in a bar shooting pool and Corella walking barefoot on the beach. At the end of the video, in a rehearsal for Christopher Wheeldon’s “For 4,” the choreographer instructs the men to do a full run-through. The men line up side by side and suddenly the video goes off, the curtain rises, and the lights come up on the live performance of “For 4.” The magic begins.

Musicality is one of Wheeldon’s gifts and trademarks, and “For 4” delighted with its upward accents, intricate arm movements, and breathy sweeps and poses that nearly levitated the dancers to the heavens. The piece had a reverential tone and perfectly highlighted the soaring harmonies of Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” Repeated deep plies were take-offs for soaring turns, and slides to the floor were followed by vertical leg splits that pulled the dancers up and into the next phrase of movement. The beginning was a physical cannon where one dancer would start a phrase of gestures which would then be picked up by the next dancer in line, and the stops and starts soon built into bigger movement as the dancers moved out onto the stage. Wheeldon seems to understand what each of these dancers does best, yet at the same time choreographs movement that reflects each man’s dynamics and that cuts against his type.

Throughout the entire evening, I thrilled at the sight of modern movements blended seamlessly with ballet vocabulary. The way these men fuse styles together is a hallmark to their greatness. Presumably this unique process of creating so many new dances was hardest on Tsiskaridze, who, because he is with the Bolshoi Ballet, has had fewer experiences with contemporary choreographers. He is also the only one of the four who does not speak English. However, with his pliant, fluid physicality, extreme charisma and enigmatic charm, judged by the thunderous applause of the crowd, he won the hearts of this American audience! He possesses the purity of Russian dance training and the regality and mystery of royalty. His extremely long legs move with masculine power, yet also with feminine grace. His arms can at one moment be strong and forceful, and at the next soft and elegant. His feet are well arched for a man and his beats are pristine.

As The Teacher in Flemming Flindt’s “The Lesson,” Tsiskaridze went from a mousy troubled man to a terrifying psychopath with ease. As a product of the Russian ballet school, which emphasizes dramatic expression hand in hand with technique from a very early stage in training, Tsiskaridze is an effortless actor with the ability to mesmerize the audience. Like a true king, he responded with touching gratefulness and humbleness to the deafening applause he received.

Also unique to this program, each dancer was given the opportunity to work with a choreographer of his choice that would choreograph a new dance for him. Ethan Stiefel sought out the avant-garde Dutch choreographer Nils Christe, who created “Wavemaker” to music by John Adams. Steifel, with his exuberance and masculinity, possess a raw and uniquely American energy. He’s the boy next door with passion and excitement to spare. “Wavemaker” employs not only Stiefel’s physical prowess but his mental sensibilities as well. The choreography is a blend of ballet and contemporary dance, with subtle isolations and pirouettes emerging from unseen preparations. In an attempt to be progressive and dance from beyond a comfortable place, Steifel succeeded in showing audiences his range and talent as an artist.

Johan Kobborg danced a new version of “Afternoon of a Faun” choreographed by Tim Rushton. Though deceptively minimalist, “Faun” was an impressive solo of continuous rippling gestures well suited to Kobborg’s fluidity. Watching him, bare-chested on the stage, one could see the impetus of the movement originate somewhere in his center, and ripple through his torso, over his shoulder, down his arms, and finally off his fingertips like waves in a lake. His movement clarity was stunning and I couldn’t help thinking he would be breathtaking in Matthew Bourne’s all-male “Swan Lake.”

Nikolai Tsiskaridze danced a new “Carmen” created by the legendary Roland Petit who choreographed a full-length “Carmen” in 1949. In this version, Tsiskaridze is required to dance three roles, which are all well met by his acting expertise. The piece shows off his dramatic, regal, sexy side as equally as it shows off his playfulness, humor, and femininity.

Explosive and charming, Angel Corella’s solo was perhaps the most surprising of the evening. Set to music by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, “We Got it Good” was a fun and physically grounded solo in the style of soft-shoe and jazz. It was reminiscent of America in the hey-day of big bands and flappers, and Corella, with his ease of movement and obvious joy of dancing, reminded us all how fun it is to dance. Tiny intricate rhythmic steps preceded whipping turns—a trademark of Corella’s prowess. I have never before seen a dancer who, while in the middle of multiple pirouettes, can actually and impossibly increase his speed! It took a moment for me to accept the factthat this was not a trick of the theatre or an ice skater spinning on ice, but just a master at his craft.

Each of these men has technical capabilities of the highest caliber, an innate ability to digest music and then transform it into movement, and the sensitivity and sensibility to be true artists using their talents to further their art form. Hopefully this program will help to make dance accessible to people who may think it is an esoteric or elitist art form. The visibility and respect for male dancing in particular in this country most certainly needs to be better, and along with Stiefel, Corella, Kobborg, and Tsiskaridze, I hope this program will be a step in that direction. For all of us touched by the magic of four men in their prime bringing the joy and expression of dance to the City Center stage, we certainly do “got it good.”

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