London Coliseum, London, UK; March 19, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Denis Matvienko in 'Remanso'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Denis Matvienko in ‘Remanso’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

I don’t know about kings of the dance, there are possibly some emperors in the making in this line up that gives us Roberto Bolle, Marcelo Gomes, Denis Matvienko, Leonid Sarafanov and Ivan Vasiliev – not forgetting the token woman – Svetlana Lunkina (lucky her!) all in one package.

This could easily be a gala programme that concentrates on fast and furious fireworks, but in fact turned out to be a thoughtful evening with a wide range of works that showcased subtle as well as powerful talents.

It gets off to a rather insipid start, however, with Nacho Duato’s “Remanso”, a ballet that is not helped by being accompanied by the fluffy, neo-Schumanesque music of Enrique Granados. There are many witty moments but overall, it is an underwhelming piece. Costumes are unflattering: crop-sleeved black shirts and the shortest of black shorts. The set comprises a single, square, open book flat, lit in alternating primary colours. The men stretch round it, climb over it and walk past ignoring it. They make interesting shapes and shadows but fifteen minutes is quite enough, although rather short for an entire ‘act’.

Ivan Vasiliev in 'Le Jeune Homme et la mort. Photo © Damir Yusupov

Ivan Vasiliev in ‘Le Jeune Homme et la mort. Photo © Damir Yusupov

“Le Jeune Homme et la mort” was danced by Ivan Vasiliev and Svetlana Lunkina. Like Tamara Rojo before her, Lunkina plays her role rather kittenishly. She is a cruel child rather than the icy femme fatale that Zizi Jeanmaire created. This production loses much of the starkness that the 1966 Nureyev/Jeanmaire film provided. Jeanmaire wore a cropped, red tunic and added a suggestive plié in second on her entrance that seems to have been discarded. At some point, the girl was given a yellow dress which is more reminiscent of Flemming Flindt’s “The Lesson” and adds an odd air of innocence to the work. Of course, the age difference between Nureyev and Jeanmaire gave the work even more frisson and it ended with the suicide. The set opening out to reveal a tacky representation of the Paris skyline as the girl returns as death embodied has never worked for me, however well performed.

All that aside, Vasiliev gives an astonishingly mature performance which is every bit as lithe as Nureyev and Barishnikov. He leaps onto and over furniture as softly and silently as the brush of a moth’s wings and exudes agonised adolescence as his inevitable fate draws nearer and nearer.

Massimiliano Volpini’s “Prototype” took the evening into a higher gear altogether. Clever use of video takes the audience through the body, first graphically (rather too slowly) and then in tandem with Roberto Bolle describing geometric figures in front of the linear representation to illustrate basic ballet steps. He then gallops through bite-sized ballets, including fighting his own sword-wielding image in “Romeo and Juliet”. The work ends with a rather whimsical representation of wisps and lines that extend into swirls and arcs and follow the line of Bolle’s limbs in a sort of screensaver image. “Prototype” is a great little piece that would make a fabulous introduction to ballet for reluctant teenagers. Nothing lasts long enough to stale but there is plenty of opportunity to admire Bolle’s prodigious technique.

Denis Matvienko (top) and Marcelo Gomes in 'Morel et Saint-Loup' from Roland Petit's 'Proust'.  Photo © Valentin Baranovsky

Denis Matvienko (top) and Marcelo Gomes in ‘Morel et Saint-Loup’ from Roland Petit’s ‘Proust’.
Photo © Valentin Baranovsky

The ‘Morel et Saint-Loup’ excerpt from Roland Petit’s “Proust” danced by the marvellous Denis Matvienko and Marcelo Gomes is an unforgiving piece that brooks no flaws. Wearing just flesh coloured briefs, every muscle is exposed and every minute move can be scrutinised. Some of the adage was a little wobbly in places at first but the duo soon got into their stride in this intriguing work. Weight shifted from man to man as they supported then repelled each other, now in canon, now independent and Fauré’s lovely score rolled around them. It is difficult to believe that this work is forty years old. Here, it looked as fresh as a daisy.

Leonid Sarafanov was a perfectly mannered and slightly mad Vestris with enough gravitas to belie his lack of years. He is all curlicues and wrists and explosive jumps, but with everything controlled and precise. He lands in perfect, neat positions working through his feet and creating the correct upper body lean to suggest the period. Vestris was perhaps the original king of the dance (after Noverre) and it is fitting that this most-travelled of dancers should be honoured in this international cast.

Ivan Vasiliev proved that he has amazing stamina as he propelled himself into his solo, “Labyrinth of Solitude”, with maximum energy. Winding himself up to ridiculously fast manège, he never sacrifices intent and meaning for bravura showiness. He understands the need for concentrated intensity and seems very grounded for one so young.

Ivan Vasiliev and Marcelo Gomes in Gomes' 'KO'd'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Ivan Vasiliev and Marcelo Gomes in Gomes’ ‘KO’d’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

The five men then united for the finale, “KO’d” – a most apposite title. Gomes’ choreography is reminiscent of Harald Lander’s “Études”, it builds in layers to bigger and bigger moves. There is barely time to draw breath as solo gives way to ensemble which then turns into a duo or trio. Opening with a solo piano, the evening ended with a solo piano, although such was the potency of the performance, it felt like a full orchestra.

Kings of the Dance is an evening to treasure that showcases not only great male dancing, but also choreography and design. If nothing else, it gives lie Balanchine’s oft-quoted comment that “ballet is woman.”

Kings of the Dance continues at the Coliseum to March 22.