Men Dancing vs. Male Centrality
Author: ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Date: February 21, 2010
Publisher: The New York Times
Before the 19th century ballet was dominated by men. The British Parliament, not known for balletomanic tendencies, canceled one session so that everyone could watch one such “dieu,” Gaétan Vestris, and his no-less-phenomenal son Auguste, perform in 1780. Who knows? Male dancers could effect another takeover of the art; they may be doing so now. In many ballet performances today the male role is much more fully delivered than the female.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
“Kings of the Dance”: David Hallberg in “Dance of the Blessed Spirits”
at City Center on Friday.
It is fair to hope for evidence of some such change in the art form in “Kings of the Dance,” which ran this weekend at City Center; I saw Friday’s performance. This vehicle for a number of the world’s leading male dancers has visited New York before (though missed by me) and has toured California and Russia. It currently features one solo that does indeed make a man as complex and subtle as a ballerina: the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” from Gluck’s 1774 “Orphée et Euridice,” as choreographed in 1978 by Frederick Ashton for Anthony Dowell, to the famous music for solo flute and strings.
This solo of Elysian grace is now being danced by David Hallberg, the first person to have danced it since Mr. Dowell himself, and surely the finest stylistic heir Mr. Dowell has ever had. Ashton — who in the 1960s and 1970s raided the female ballet vocabulary to enrich Mr. Dowell’s and thereby to extend the world’s idea of masculinity in dance — had choreographed two earlier versions (both now lost) of this Gluck music in the 1950s, for the ballerinas Svetlana Beriosova and Carla Fracci; he made this final setting for an English National Opera gala at the London Coliseum.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
“Kings of the Dance”: Marcelo Gomes in “Small Steps” at City Center.
Here, basic points of style — the slow opening (développé) of the leg backward into arabesque — are given remarkable musical weight, as is the tapping of a backward-extended toe on the floor. Leaps and runs occur, and yet they’re not effects in themselves; they’re always part of longer phrases. Often the close of a musical phrase is marked by the dancer quickly turning one way and then the other (an Ashtonian hallmark). The dance hints that this Blessed Spirit contains the Orpheus who is still seeking Eurydice: he runs from side to side of the stage, apparently in quest. And yet he’s also at peace: in a state of grace. Too bad the music (as throughout the evening) is taped.
With more such dances, male centrality could be achieved in this art right now. Instead, however, the rest of “Kings of the Dance” shows the most tedious aspects of ballet today. Does it help that those aspects here are being performed by some of the finest male dancers we have? No, it makes it more dispiriting. It’s like watching celebrity chefs serve food in a fast-food restaurant, or swine wearing pearls.
The eight dancers are Jose Manuel Carreño, Guillaume Côté, Marcelo Gomes, Mr. Hallberg, Joaquin De Luz, Denis Matvienko, Desmond Richardson, Nikolay Tsiskaridze, culled from a wide range of nationalities and ballet companies. All of them — even Mr. Tsiskaridze, a huge star in Russia but who may well be the most bizarre male dancer before the public today — behave with commendable restraint and good spirit, impeccably anticompetitive to the point of dullness. Such competition as occurs is not for World’s Best Dancer but World’s Worst Choreography, with impressive entries from Boris Eifman, Igal Perry, Roland Petit and Dwight Roden.
Thanks to Mr. Tsiskaridze — who, in the 2009 solo “Fallen Angel,” sports maquillage such as we have not seen since Jorge Donn of the Béjart company and who seems to immolate himself hungrily, ludicrously and repeatedly in various lengths of fabric and portentous stares — Mr. Eifman wins, but it is a near thing. It is never easy to tell the difference between Mr. Eifman’s choreography and Mr. Petit’s. Mr. Côté and Mr. Gomes dance the “Morel et Saint-Loup” duet from Mr. Petit’s ballet “Proust ou les Intermittances du Coeur”; I leave it to others to determine whether this is homosexuality masquerading as existentialism or the reverse, but it is a regrettably boring example of either.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Desmond Richardson in “Lament.”
Mr. Richardson dances Mr. Roden’s “Lament” with terrific hyperextension and isolation of body parts; never was a lament more flashily exhibitionistic. Mr. Carreño, bare chested, brings alarming sincerity to lots of staccato things that Mr. Perry has arranged to poor Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” As danced by Mr. Matvienko, Leonid Jacobson’s “Vestris” is an irksomely cute exercise in various forms of mock-rococo showiness; I assume Auguste Vestris (a less noble dancer than his father) is being represented here, but it scarcely matters.
At several points in the 19th and 20th centuries, individual ballet companies had such gluts of ballerinas that whole constellations of them were assembled in new custom-made vehicles that celebrated their individuality in successive solos. This it was, for example, in Jules Perrot’s “Pas de Quatre” (London, 1845), Marius Petipa’s “Grand Pas Classique” from “Paquita” (as revised in 1896 in St. Petersburg), George Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15” (New York, 1956) and Frederick Ashton’s “Birthday Offering” (London, also 1956). It’s fair to hope that someone will now do the same for the male dancers of today, especially in the context of a show like “Kings of the Dance.”
Maybe it would take a female choreographer to do them justice? The male choreographers who try to combine male dancers here fail. Christopher Wheeldon’s “For 4” (2006), which starts the evening, gives us Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet with no death, and, of course, no maiden. The same few dance motifs get recycled in changing musical contexts. The most clichéd is the multiple spin (grande pirouette) with leg extended sideways (à la seconde). On Friday, Mr. Côté, Mr. De Luz, Mr. Gomes and Mr. Hallberg all had to churn this out, sometimes two at the same time, and poor Mr. De Luz drew the short straw in having to do it to one of Schubert’s most unsensational variations. Some of the simpler motifs here are actually more attractive, but this is thin and underwhelming choreography.
Nacho Duato’s “Remanso” — danced on Friday by Mr. Côté, Mr. Gomes and Mr. Hallberg — uses pretty music by Granados and does everything it knows how to make its dancers look as pretty as possible. None of it is interesting, however, and — since “Kings” is a long evening and this occurs after the second intermission — I began to lose the will to live somewhere around the point Mr. Hallberg solemnly tucked a rose inside his bent knee.
Finally, to Knudaage Riisager’s hideous orchestral arrangement of Czerny for the ballet “Etudes,” we get eight male dancers entering in jumps and finally spinning simultaneously. Ashton apart, the evening celebrates all that is most repellently decadent about ballet.