In 1845, the theatre impresario Benjamin Lumley made history by inviting the four greatest ballerinas of the day to appeartogether on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. It is fitting, therefore, that next week, 169 years later, Sergei Danilian’s internationally acclaimed project Kings of the Dance should reach the London Coliseum. After all, the project, which had its world première in 2006, is a modern adaptation of an old idea, even though it is an all-male event this time round, and more than just an exploitation of trite balletomania, which is probably what Lumley went for.
Echoes of the old balletomania can be found in the title itself, which evokes the days before the Romantic rise of the ballerina to supremacy, when male dancers dominated the scene as either ‘kings’ or ‘gods’ of their art. But can one be a ‘king of the dance’ in 2014? And, if so, what is he like?
For Ivan Vasiliev, the Russian star who dazzles audiences with his breathtaking bravura and powerful dramatic gifts, ‘titles such as “king” or “idol” are not just accolades, they are also incentives to constantly perfect one’s art and to find new ways to refine what it is that we give to the public. This is, in the end, all that matters, as this is — or should be — every dance artist’s mission.’
Responsibility is also central to wearing the crown for Roberto Bolle, the quintessential modern-day incarnation of the ideal danseur noble. ‘Being referred to as a “king” is somewhat intriguing and amusing. It makes you ponder on your achievements and, at the same time, it makes you wonder what you can do factually to contribute to the advancement of the art, its popularity, its future. In that sense, it is a role laden with duties and obligations.’
Things have certainly changed since the golden era of male dancing, when the sole obligations for the various ‘gods’ or ‘kings’ were to set new fashion trends, fill theatres and create new steps. ‘The interaction with contexts other than the ballet world is vital for the art itself,’ states Bolle. ‘It is not just a matter of enhancing one own’s popularity for selfish reasons...it is through the same popularity that the well-known, historically rooted élitist barriers that engulf our art can be demolished. The “king”, in other words, can and must be a “pop” figure, for ballet’s sake.’
Like modern royalty, both male stars have been ambassadors for their art, appearing at events that are not always ballet-related and being involved with international charities and causes — Bolle is a world ambassador for Unicef. It is not a coincidence that they both danced in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics held in their respective countries: Bolle in Turin in 2006 and Vasiliev in Sochi.
‘To be invited to Sochi was a unique experience. What really made it special was to feel the support of my people, of my country, as a whole, while performing for a worldwide audience. I felt exhilarated and honoured to be the chosen representative of my art and to be able to make it accessible to many.’
Indeed accessibility is central to their mission to keep ballet alive. ‘I do not believe ballet is dying. Quite the opposite,’ says Vasiliev. ‘There is a constant renewal of audiences, and more people approaching ballet with no biases. Some condemn the globalisation that ballet is subjected to. Personally, I think that a continuous exchange of traditions offers unique possibilities to the artists and is central to the welfare of the art. This is not to say that centuries-old schools, artistic principles and stylistic tenets should disappear or be put at risk. They must be kept alive, but should not remain exclusive to a select grouping — whether it be geographical or cultural.’
For Bolle, too, globalisation is good, although within limits. ‘Artists benefit from being able to tackle new repertoires, new choreographic forms. Consequently, ballet thrives on what those same artists might bring to diverse dance cultures. And that is what constantly injects new blood into an art form that is undoubtedly alive.’
Yet, not everything is perfect, as Vasiliev observes. ‘If anything is dying in the ballet world today it is narrative/dramatic dance-making. This is obviously my point of view, namely the point of view of a dancer who likes to be challenged in how he interprets roles as well as technically. It would appear that big, powerfully theatrical ballets — such as the ones created by the likes of Yuri Grigorovich and Kenneth MacMillan — belong to a past that is becoming more and more distant. And that, in my view, is one of the problems of today’s ballet culture. I have nothing against plotless ballets, of course. But as an artist I find myself fully realised when dealing with a choreographic text that allows me to tackle a character’s psychology and that stimulates my dramatic abilities.’
Bolle agrees. ‘We must not forget that ballet is a form of theatre, which relies on the perfect combination of different skills, not just on technique alone.’
Vasiliev’s remarks make one wonder, though. Will he take up choreography at some point in the future? The answer is an intriguingly non-committal ‘I would like to’, whereas Bolle does not see himself as a future dance-maker — not, at least, for the time being.
In London the Italian and Russian superstars will alternate in dancing one of the masterworks of 20th-century ballet, Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. The 1946 creation remains one of the most powerful examples of modern dramatic choreography, and for Vasiliev represents the kind of ‘choreography I would like to have more of’, while for Bolle it is ‘one of the best ballets ever composed for a male artist’. They will partner the Bolshoi star Svetlana Lunkina, the sole woman to make a cameo appearance in the London Kings of the Dance programme. They will also dance other contemporary works with three other ‘kings’, namely the American Ballet Theatre’s Marcelo Gomes, Mikhailovsky Ballet’s Leonid Sarafanov and Mariinsky Ballet’s Denis Matvienko. A ‘royal’ feast of ballet indeed.