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This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on February 24, 2006.

Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) — If ever a ballet event had an agenda, it’s “Kings of the Dance,” on view at the New York City Center through Feb. 26. A showcase for a quartet of stellar male dancers, it actually has several conflicting missions.

The gentlemen in question are Angel Corella of American Ballet Theatre, who trained in Spain; his fellow ABT star, Ethan Stiefel, an all-American product; the Danish-bred Johan Kobborg, now with England’s Royal Ballet; and the Georgian Nikolay Tsiskaridze of the Bolshoi Ballet.

They’ve joined forces to push their already considerable fame up a notch, emphasize the fact that it’s now men who dominate the classical dance world, not ballerinas, and show that they’re not simply sensational jocks but sensitive and forward-looking artists. They also want to prove to the ballet-shy public that they’re just regular guys — and make a few bucks in the process. (Tickets range as high as $150.)

The erratically constructed video that opens the show covers several of the points, as the men toss off bits and pieces of their virtuoso work in standard classics. This is the stuff that made them famous in the first place and is regrettably missing in the live show.

The gasp-inducing footage is paired with some quick biographical voice-over and a banal insistence that “luck and hard work” got them to the top.

Playing Pool

They’re also seen in downtime — shooting pool, walking on the beach — a tactic dismally employed in a TV precursor of the “Kings” production, Dance in America’s 2002 “Born to Be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theatre.” That program gave us Stiefel on his motorcycle.

Not a moment too soon, the four kings appear in “For 4,” created for the occasion by today’s fair-haired boy of classical choreography, Christopher Wheeldon.

Set to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” it embeds several of the spectacular leaps and turns for which the dancers are famous. But it’s basically a lyrical affair — sensitive to its score and intelligently constructed.

Its main flaw? With the dancers kept scrupulously equal, there’s no central focus and thus no drama. Yet they don’t cohere as a team, a unified force.

To test their acting prowess, the stars are rotating in the leading role of “The Lesson,” choreographed by Flemming Flindt in 1963. It’s a lurid piece about a ballet teacher who turns out to be a psychotic serial killer of nymphets who come to him for private coaching.

Out of Control

Taking the role on opening night, Corella grew more and more credible as he moved from grotesque repression to uncontrolled, demonic passion.

Gudrun Bojesen, a radiant Danish ballerina who deserves to be better known abroad, plays the just-slightly-provocative victim at all performances.

The final segment of the program furthered the notion of artistic exploration. Each of the men performed a long solo created for him by a choreographer of his own choosing.

Unfortunately, the pieces ranged from the mediocre to outright duds. There are no kings of ballet choreography these days.

Corella chose Stanton Welch, who tried, unsuccessfully, to mate the bravura with the debonair. Choreographer Tim Rushton, provided Kobborg with a pointless — and nymphless — gloss on Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun.”

Power of Sea

Stiefel chose Nils Christe, whose “Wavemaker” was at least a viable nature study, depicting the rising and subsiding force of the sea. Stiefel became, effectively, both wave and surfer.

Tsiskaridze was served by Roland Petit, who delivered a collapsed version of his program-length “Carmen.” The dancer, by turns, takes the three leading roles, including the female one.

Tsiskaridze is certainly not the most technically thrilling of the kings; that honor is divided between Corella and Stiefel.But he is, arguably, the most fascinating.

His dancing is voluptuous; his attitude, ironic and challenging. He’s a potent example of the idea that gender is a fluid business. This is just the sort of thing that supposedly alarms the general public. Yet the audience for “Kings” understood and adored him.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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