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Kings of the Dance

by Catherine Pawlick

November 2, 2007 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

Despite the Mariinsky’s strong heritage, its male roster is in a rather thinned out state following the recent departures of two leading premiere danseurs – Faruk Ruzimatov to direct the local Maly-Mussorgsky Theatre and Igor Zelensky to direct the Novosibirsk Ballet Theatre. With the company’s strengths founded, in recent years, mainly on the female reserves – and this being true for the last decade, at least – it came as no surprise that a visiting all-male cast sporting four or five of ballet’s top international stars would garner significant attention inside the Mariinsky Theatre.  So it was on Friday night when “Kings of the Dance”, which was performed in February 2006 in New York and will next travel to Perm for more performances, opened its two-night run here in Russia’s northern capital. Not only was the house full, but deafening applause signaled an immense appreciation for these visiting artists and acknowledgement of their unique gifts.

After widespread laughter at the sight of “Sergei Danilian presents” on the screen that then displayed rehearsal clips and short interviews with each dancer, the audience shifted to quiet entrancement as they sampled the talents of these polished dancers. Angel Corella and Ethan Steifel from American Ballet Theatre, Dmitry Gudanov and Nikolai Tsiskaridze from the Bolshoi, and the Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobberg comprised the high- caliber cast.

All but Kobberg appeared in the first piece by Christopher Wheeldon, “For 4”, where the choreographer’s complex step sequences created an initial atmosphere of somber respect. Clothed not in the original unitards but in dark pants with sheer black tops, the four dancers followed Wheeldon’s contemporary steps seamlessly. An initial theme – the elbow hooked underneath the knee in a deep plié in second – began the ballet and ended it. Later, as Franz Schubert’s music shifted in tone, so too did the dance, with rolling hands and necks leading to a more playful mood. Here each dancer was given a solo, but the group also danced in duets and cannons, and this is where we were offered short glimpses of greatness. The audience broke into roaring applause at Corella’s split jetés, or a quick display of wild abandon by Steifel, but these interludes were over almost before they’d begun. Despite sincere admiration for Wheeldon’s talents, I salivated for something longer or purely classical – the variation from Don Quixote, for example – as only then would the locals, most of whom have never seen these dancers on stage before, have been able to fully absorb the range of these artists’ talents.

The second ballet detracted from what could have been another opportunity to display specific talents. Fleming Flindt’s “The Lesson” is a dark story of passion inside the ballet studio, where the male ballet teacher’s attraction for his over-enthusiastic teenage female student leads to trouble and finally to her murder. While unique in its angular movement, the piece did little to promote Tsiskaridze’s strengths, aside from giving him yet another character to portray. The Student, danced by Nina Kaptsova from the Bolshoi, was by far the highlight of the piece, her sinewy limbs flexible and smooth but never overdone, her upper body pliant in its expressions of joy.

The final act of the evening featured every dancer but Goudanov in a short ballet of his own choosing. Johan Kobberg appeared in Tim Rushton’s new version of “Afternoon of a Faun”, a movement exploration in and around the three pools of light that flooded the stage.  Devoid of the signature scarf, this piece drew applause for its historical trappings and Kobberg’s agile shifts from animal-like curiosity to intricate undulations.

Angel Corella appeared post soirée in a tuxedo vest, his tie hanging loose from under his collar, hands in his pockets for a jazzy interlude to the tunes of Duke Ellington and Billy Sreyhorn called “We Got It Good”. Corella’s casual American attitude garnered seemingly endless appreciation – the audience went crazy for his lightening speed chainé turns and split jetés en manège. His sheer velocity is unbelievable and his winning smile doesn’t hurt either.

Tsiskaridze danced Roland Petit’s “Carmen Solo” replete with red fan and shiny red jazz pants. The piece was made for this local favorite, both literally and figuratively. He seemed to play off the audience’s enthusiasm, absorbing their energy and warmth. Tsiskaridze seemed the only serious competition for the great welcome given Corella in terms of sheer applause.

Finally, Eithan Steifel danced “Percussion IV” from Bob Fosse’s musical, “Dancing”. His casual foray into modern movement had only short bursts of airborne moves, but each one of them drew more cheers.

As each dancer finished his solo, one had the sense that the audience’s appetite had merely been whetted by this brief extravaganza. These “kings” left Petersburg on a high note; they’ll no doubt find a warm reception here in the future as well.

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