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Kings of the Dance

Kings of the Dance: ‘For Four’, ‘The Lesson’, ‘Wavemaker’, ‘Solos from Carmen’, ‘Afternoon of a Faun’, ‘We Got It Good’

February 2006
Costa Mesa, Orange County Performing Arts Center

by Anjuli Bai

© Louis Greenfield

'For Four' reviews

'The Lesson' reviews

'Afternoon of a Faun' reviews

Tsiskaridz in reviews

Stiefel in reviews

Kings of the Dance reviews

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Angel Corella,
Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theatre
Johan Kobborg,
Principal Dancer, Royal Ballet
Ethan Stiefel,
Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theatre
Nikolay Tsiskaridze,
Principal Dancer, Bolshoi Ballet

This was not an evening for comparisons but an opportunity to savor four equally delectable entrees. Each dancer is the culmination of a lifetime of commitment and at the height of his artistic accomplishment as well as still basking in the glory of his youth. A veritable buffet of artistic and virtuosic delights: technically, lyrically and dramatically. Five of the works presented are world premieres.

All too often the roles for male dancers in the classical ballet showcase the bravura staples: variations of spectacular jumps and turns. As one of the dancers described it in a past interview: his "tricks of the trade." Solo adage,lyricism and solo dramatic work are much too seldom seen but an evening such this gave ample opportunity to discover, taste and devour a fuller scope of male dance.

As the house lights dimmed on a capacity audience, a screen descended in front of the curtain and we were treated to a fifteen-minute documentary presenting the dancers in rehearsal, with short biographies, commentary on their view of themselves, their art in general and this program in particular. They were shown working with choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Flemming Flindt. Wheeldon mentioned "what a pleasure it is to work with four of the greatest male dancers on the planet." That just about sums up the evening, too.

The film ends with a scene of the four dancers lined up across the rehearsal stage announcing they are ready to "go through it one more time." At that point the screen darkens, the curtain rises and we see the four dancers lined up across the live theater stage and ready to begin. It was a beautiful segues into the evening's program.

Act I: "Four 4"

Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon; Music: Franz Schubert "Death of a Maiden"
Dancers: Angel Corella, Johan Kobborg, Ethan Stiefel, Nikolay Tsiskaridze

Using as a template the famous classical "Pas de Quatre" created for four legendary ballerinas, the dancers appear together in complementary segments, and then alone, ending once again together in a classical tableau. The choreography itself is a work of art worthy of a long life and I hope it will enter the classical repertoire. The dancers were clothed simply in tank tops with slightly bloused trousers, muted colors, in front of a plain black and gray backdrop on a bare stage.

The four kings: Angel Corella, Ethan Stiefel, Nikolay Tsiskaridze and Johan Kobborg
© Louis Greenfield

At one point each dancer sequentially crossed the stage in grand jetés and it was a study in how beautifully, but at the same time how differently, each dancer shaped the trajectory, the flight, of the jump. The entire piece was a rare chance to see differences between four superb classically trained bodies representing four major stylistic schools of the ballet. I can't think of another opportunity quite as unique as this to see how each body is individually organized and transmits energy. There was the joyous speed of Corella and the smooth easy cantilena of Tsiskaridze. Different emphasis in the port de bras: the softer wrists and Russian sweetness in the arms next to the more emphatic arms of Stiefel. Kobborg's flashing beats below and quiet center above.

Though this ballet deserves to enter the classic repertoire permanently, of course it needs four such stellar protagonists to bring it to fruition.

Act II: "The Lesson"

Choreography, Décor, Costumes: Flemming Flindt; Music: George Delerue
Dancers cast for February 17th: Johan Kobborg, Alina Cojocaru, Zenaida Yanowsky
Dancers cast for February 18th: Angel Corella, Alina Cojocaru, Zenaida Yanowsky

The set is a dingy ballet studio replete with distorted mirrors, old upright piano, barre and several battered chairs. It exudes the musk of age and of being a complete world all its own: insulated and isolated from the outside world, as many ballet studios come to be. From the first, Yanowsky, as the pianist, gives off a perfume of the not quite normal, an edge of cold paranoia; she sets the temperature of the work. Yanowsky was chilling. Whatever will happen, she's seen it before and is in fact an abettor in the drama.

At times the music and choreography seem to announce either a twisted parody or even a comedy on ballet lessons and it is only slowly that one realizes that "The Lesson" is a psychodrama of deviant obsession. Kobborg, as the teacher, takes us on a journey that begins when he enters the studio as a nerdy emotionally stunted man to a compulsive teacher, to a tyrant, and finally, a killer. Kobborg makes an art out of unbuttoning his shirt cuffs and rolling up his sleeves - his "real" work about to begin.

Cojocaru's expressive face is an asset as she acts out her delight in taking a ballet lesson and then her puzzlement as she is teased with the denial of pointe shoes. When she complains that her feet are in pain, she is instructed to continue dancing, pain is something to be sought or at the very most to be ignored. Unfortunately, so far this is sometimes all too true of the real world of ballet. Finally as she is physically abused her surprise prevents adequate resistance, but resistance would be useless in any case. When Kobborg locks the studio door, one's heart thumps a bit faster for the girl who came for a ballet lesson. Her vulnerability seems to excite his rage. There is no rescue from the goose-stepping pianist who helps the teacher remove the strangled body.

The February 18th performance with Corella was a treat. Watching this buoyant dancer change himself into a maniacally charged obsessive compulsive killer was a tutorial in emotional intensity. He clearly brought across the sexual component in the murder.

There was a slight change in choreography between the two performances. On February 17th at the end of the ballet the pianist "cleaned up" the studio by very deliberately up righting and carefully placing the two scattered chairs that the teacher had thrown about as his rage escalated. Sheet music had been flung on the floor, which she also gathered up. But in the performance on the 18th this was abbreviated to only straightening up one chair and the sheet music was left where it had been thrown. Why this change occurred is not obvious but the more thorough "cleaning up" had a profounder effect. It added to the horror as the next student rang the bell seeking admittance.

Part of the drama of this ballet is listening to the audience respond. It goes from laughter at some of the earlier action to silence as people slowly realize as the ballet progresses - this is no comedy.

This piece was a good choice to exhibit the dramatic range of the four male stars as they alternate in performing in this ballet. One regrets not attending all four performances for this reason alone.

Act Three:

Ethan Stiefel: "Wavemaker": Adams/Christe
Nikolay Tsiskaridze: "Solos from Carmen": Bizet/Petit
Johan Kobborg "Afternoon of a Faun"; Debussy/Rushton
Angel Corella: "We Got It Good"; Ellington, Strahorn/Welch

Each dancer chose a solo he wished to present and it was a window on what each enjoys doing. This was an opportunity for the dancer to step outside of a program structured by management and do what he loves to do and how he wishes to be seen.

Stiefel's choice was a modern work that was choreographed within the music. I didn't feel much contact with it as an observer but was nonetheless interested to see how a wonderful dancer moves in that context. The choreography spent much of the time facing away from the audience and for me this had an impact on the lack of connection.

Nikolay Tsiskaridze
© Louis Greenfield

Tsiskaridze's "Solos from Carmen" was beautifully danced, classically correct and with the arrogant elegance that befits a Spanish motif. From a bright red fan to simple costume change done on stage, we were taken from humor to pathos with aplomb. This is a dancer it is impossible to watch without admiring both his large sweep as he devours the stage while still giving his attention to the smallest detail. I always find myself smiling as I watch him.

Kobborg's "Faun" was a creature who filtered in from a steamy primordial botanical world to dance between and finally inside cones of errant sunlight. He tests and plays with the cones of light and they tempt and test him. This was a mesmerizing ballet done by a dancer with a depth of both technical and dramatic ability. He brought the faun to fleeting life from an intense dramatic core. His faun is a nether alien creature and yet somehow sympathetic - it was a superb example of the dancer's art. I was entirely captivated.

Angel Corella is built for speed. His turns from chainés to pirouettes were done as blindingly fast as a skater on ice. He brings energy and flair tossing off impossibilities with verve and zest. A fine finish to the toothsome foursome.

Finally, the dancers took their bows lined up across the stage as they had begun. As the audience caused the curtain to be opened again and again and then rose to its collective feet the house lights dimmed and the curtain opened yet again but this time to an empty stage. Music thundered on and each dancer flashed onto and across the stage giving us a final treat of the "tricks of the trade." They were even more appreciated because such "tricks" were not the meat of the evening but a delightful post-dessert dessert. The audience was in an uproar.

The program was extremely well thought out. What easily could have been a hodge-podge of endlessly - and therefore mindlessly - performed bag of "tricks" was instead a cogent entirety - a lesson in how to plan an evening of dance.

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