KINGS OF THE DANCE SHOWS HOW DANCER-RICH BUT CHOREOGRAPHY-IMPOVERISHED BALLET IS IN THE BALANCHINE-INUNDATED U.S.

Photo of Desmond Richardson by Andrea Mohin, taken from NYTimes.

So, “Kings of the Dance” made the New York stop of its international tour this weekend at City Center. I was there Friday night. The last time this show toured here several years ago (it is produced by Russian dance promoter Sergei Danilian) there were only four male dancers — Angel Corella, Ethan Stiefel (both of American Ballet Theater), Johan Kobborg of the Royal Ballet in England, and Nikolay Tsiskaridze of the Bolshoi. This year, there were many more dancers and Tsiskaridze was the only one who returned (and, funny, but I totally didn’t recognize him). The others were: David Hallberg, Marcelo Gomes and Jose Manuel Carreno from ABT, Joaquin De Luz from NYCB, Guillaume Cote from Canada, Denis Matvienko from Ukraine, and Desmond Richardson from NY-based Complexions Contemporary Ballet (So You Think You Can Dance fans may recognize his photo above, since he has guest performed on the show a couple times).

What I liked about this program the last time it toured here was that there were fewer dancers, and that way you kind of “got to know” them better, by seeing them each perform several different pieces. Here, you basically only saw many dancers once, and a few twice. If you weren’t familiar with them (as my two friends who came with me weren’t), you could easily get them confused. They played a short movie at the beginning where each dancer (besides Desmond Richardson; I think he may have been a late addition to the American tour) talked a bit and you saw them dance. Jose’s cute Cuban accent seems to have gotten more pronounced :) — I think he did it on purpose, knowing how many female fans would be in the audience! David’s voice somehow sounded a bit deeper than it does in person. Matvienko (who, for ballroom dancers, looks A LOT like former US champ Andrei Gavriline) and Tsiskaridze spoke in Russian and their words were translated.

What I loved about this program though was that there were so many solos that exposed us to so many different choreographers whose work I’d never seen (and some of whom I’d never even heard of) before. Every company in this country is obsessed with Balanchine, so it’s a wonderful wonderful change when we actually get a taste of something else. But more on that in a moment.

As with every Danilian production, there were lots and lots of Russians in the audience, and I think Desmond Richardson and Joaquin De Luz in particular grew a new fan base. Poor Joaquin — well, maybe: after the performance and during intermission I kept hearing, “That little guy was great!”, “That little guy was just incredible,” “Where can I see that little guy dance?” So, Joaquin is the great “little guy” whom everyone is seeking out now. And everyone went wild after Richardson’s solo, Lament, choreographed of course by Dwight Rhoden, an absolute master at presenting his friend’s spellbinding combination of gracefulness and masculinity. My friends were floored, along with the rest of the audience judging by the exclamations.

After the movie, they opened with Christopher Wheeldon’s For 4, for four dancers, which is a carry-over from the last performance. On the night I went it was performed by Matvienko, Carreno, De Luz, and Cote (but the cast varied each night). It’s an adagio lyrical piece, as with the vast majority of Wheeldon’s work, and I wished there would have been some more allegro parts with bravura solos. But that’s just not Wheeldon’s thing.

Then, after intermission, we saw a solo performed by each man, ending with a drop dead gorgeous duet danced by Cote and Gomes choreographed by French choreographer Roland Petit, from his Proust ou les Intermittances du Coeur. The men were dressed in skin-toned unitards, which almost made them look naked, and the duet to me seemed to be about a man obsessed with his reflection, or another side of himself, as each’s movement was mainly a reaction to the other’s. But at some points there was some really beautiful partnering, some really beautiful lifts and it seemed like a man dancing with his soul. Breathtaking!

Anyway, other highlights of the solo section were: a really beautiful solo for Marcelo choreographed by Adam Hougland, called Small Steps, which was like lyrical iron-pumping — a series of beautiful poses showing off his musculature interspersed with flowing lyrical movement; a beautiful, lyrical piece danced by David Hallberg from Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits; a fast, fun, more virtuosity-heavy solo by David Fernandez for Joaquin De Luz called Five Variations on a Theme; Jose Carreno dancing a gorgeous adagio to Ave Maria — a modern version — by Igal Perry (which I’d seen before and fell in love with it all over again); and Rhoden’s Lament for Richardson, which, like Marcelo’s solo, reminded me of lyrical iron-pumping (which I mean in a good way of course) highlighting as it did that seemingly incongruous combination of male elegance and virility.

The only ones that didn’t really work for me well were Boris Eifman’s Fallen Angel danced by Tsiskaridze, which I think just didn’t have enough context, and Vestris by Leonid Jakobson danced by Matvienko, which was by turns a comical and bravura piece first danced by Baryshnikov in 1969. I thought Matvienko was a lovely dancer with really beautiful lines who could really deliver on the jumps and especially turns, but I just think it needed to be better acted because there were some places where it almost seemed like he made a mistake, and then you realized it wasn’t a mistake by the dancer; it was supposed to be the character who humorously screwed up. I heard Baryshnikov was excellent and I wish I could see a video of that.

Then, we saw Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato’s Remanso, which I’d never seen live before, but saw in a video performed by ABT. It involves a wall with three dancers interacting with each other around it, climbing over it, looking around it. It’s sweet, flirtatious in places, and loving and romantic. The night I saw it it was danced by Gomes, Cote, and Hallberg, though this cast alternated each night as well.

The program ended with a bravura “Grand Finale” with each dancer coming out and doing jumps and turns, and all the big fancy “male things” of classical ballet.

But the thing I kept thinking throughout was, wow, that’s really cool choreography, who’s that choreographer? Oh,  I’ve never heard of him, or, oh I’ve heard of him, how cool that I finally got to see something by him! I mean: Roland Petit, Igal Perry, David Fernandez, Adam Hougland, Nacho Duato, Leonid Jakobson. We NEVER get to see choreography by these people here. Petit is a major choreographer. As is Duato (we really see his choreography only when his own company tours here, infrequently), ditto for Eifman, and the others I’ve never even heard of. Why don’t we see more variety here? Why don’t we see more Mats Ek and Pina Bausch and John Cranko? Why do we have to drown in Balanchine over and over and over again? Why do dance companies think that we want to see Balanchine? Why do they think Americans are into this man? As far as I’m concerned, his only truly great work is Jewels. The rest, okay, his footwork is more intricate and there are certain subtle little embellishments in the variations, but really, what was so great about his ballets in their entirety? What was so great that we have to be so completely inundated with him here in the US? I mean, it makes sense that NYCB does his work because they were founded by him but every other major company in the US is likewise obsessed – San Francisco Ballet, Miami City, Boston, Pennsylvania, even the Kirov and POB when they tour here they think we want more of this crap. And whenever ABT doesn’t do classical, there seems to be an overload of Balanchine. Does anyone consider that maybe, just maybe, we might get bored? That he doesn’t speak to younger generations of Americans AT ALL? Did someone tell POB and Kirov that Americans only understand Balanchine so you have to do Balanchine when you come here? I think ballet is dying in this country because of every artistic director’s completely inscrutable obsession with this boring boring man.

Anyway, I greatly thank Mr. Danilian for allowing Americans to see something else for a change.

For a completely different perspective, see Macaulay’s review.

6 Comments

  1. I wouldn't call Balanchine boring by any means, but I agree with you that it's a mistake for companies visiting NYC to bring too much of Mr. B to Gotham, It's like bringing coals to Newcastle. We have plenty of Balanchine here between ABT & NYCB and though it is fashionable to swoon over any Balanchine performances NOT given by NYCB I personally have not seen any performance of Mr. B's work by a visiting company that I felt surpassed those presented at NYCB and, except for Tereshkina's TPC2 with the Kirov, nothing that I couldn't have lived without.

    New choreography is essential if ballet is to stay alive and meaningful but the core audience at NYCB still wants a Balanchine-based repertoire, just as ABT's patrons prefer the classics. There is always much hand-wringing when the percentage of Balanchine works in a given NYCB season falls below a certain level.

    I love new choreography, new music, new ideas but many people of my generation or older don't, and they are the ones who have money to donate and to subscribe. I guess the question is: are there people among the younger generations who have the interest and wherewithal to keep ballet going financially so that a broader repertoire becomes viable?

  2. BernardProfitendieu

    There's a reason Americans are “obsessed” with Balanchine – he is, quite simply, one of our national treasures. A choreographer on par with Balanchine doesn't come once per generation, he/she comes only once per 500 years and we were lucky to live in his time. If he doesn't speak to a younger generation (for the time being) – tough! — you'll grow out of it! Lots of magnificent things don't speak to the young, while the inane and trite leave them transfixed.

    For me, I would rather see any Balanchine done well by NYCB or Miami City Ballet or ABT 100 times before seeing another fresh but empty Peter Martins ballet (feel free to substitute the name Peter Martins for any of the names you went gaga for at City Center this week – he's just a personal thorn in my side because he tries to elevate himself to the level of the masters through his NYCB programming).

    On the other hand, there is a lot of great new choreography happening, it just isn't necessary to slam Balanchine in order to recognize it – it comes across as more than a little childish on your part.

    I think that if you read your blog entry in 20 years, you will blush!

  3. Bravo, bravo. It will do well to replace all of Martins' mediocre dances by almost any less known contemporary choreographers. A thorn in my side, too, indeed, a lot of thorns, in fact, especially because he plants his works all over the seasons' programs. Trying to clear his dances in making reservations is like walking a mine field. We can see good new choreographers in venues outside NYCB and ABT, who should actively bring them into their fold.

  4. WOW! You should consider hiring a bodyguard the next time you go to the Koch Theatre.(LOL)

  5. I'm not so sure that it's a generational issue. The audiences at classical narrative ballets are filled with young people who are just getting a taste of ballet and find the classics most accessible. Age is not definitely correlated to wealth, and the unfortunate reality is that there is very little art without money. If there is a choice for a house to offer Romeo & Juliet and sell tickets vs. The Kings of the Dance and have seats unsold, economics drives the artistic decision. It has to, otherwise houses close for lack of funds. Today is not a day and age where most people, young or older, have the kind of money and/or security to spend the liquid assets that they do have on multiple luxury items.

    That being said… I saw both Los Angeles performances and they were wonderful… my neighbors kept talking about “the little guy” as well, poor Joaquin, well, at least they thought he was pretty awesome! It was fantastic to see some of those guys get a new fan base (like Joaquin and Desmond) and clearly Los Angeles loves the ABT boys, particuarly Jose and Marcelo (my personal favorite). Small steps was positively mesmerizing… I'm hoping for some video to show up eventually.

  6. I would recommend if you haven't already got a copy, buy a copy of the Paris Opera Ballet dancing Roland Petit's Proust, it is fab one of my favourite DVD. I was fortunate enough to see it live in Paris last year, just wow.

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