WHEN ballet was largely about stiff tutus, the bling of tiaras and pearly-pink satin toe shoes, ballerinas decidedly ruled the roost. Granted, such dancers as Nijinsky and Baryshnikov broke out of the "boy" pack, but their reputations were fueled as much by their onstage partnerships as their individual prowess.
The 21st century is shaping up as something else again. With jaw-dropping displays of testosterone-fueled power, grace, speed and agility, males of the species are coming into their own as bona fide ballet superstars.
But don't call them "ballerinos." In fact, the four high-profile men who have united for a series of performances in Southern California and New York this month aim higher: They're billed as "Kings of the Dance," and they'll strut their stuff together for the first time Thursday through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Angel Corella and Ethan Stiefel from American Ballet Theatre, Johan Kobborg of England's Royal Ballet and Nikolay Tsiskaridze of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet have all danced in Costa Mesa in the past but never in a program designed to showcase their talents outside their respective companies. And besides solos made for each of them by choreographers of their choice, the four will premiere a new work by Christopher Wheeldon, resident choreographer of New York City Ballet.
The idea for "Kings" began with Stiefel, the new artistic director of Irvine-based Ballet Pacifica, who in recent years has shared an ABT dressing room with fellow principal dancer Corella. The Pennsylvania-born Stiefel has long thrilled audiences with his elegant line and fierce leaps.
"Angel and I fell into a conversation about this kind of setup," he explains. "I said, 'Hey, have you ever thought about doing a dance show for men based on the "Three Tenors" idea?' He said he'd been thinking about that too. So we put our minds together and thought about how we could get this done."
Stiefel, 32, says the duo approached Serge Danilian, who has presented the Bolshoi and Russia's Kirov Ballet, among others, at OCPAC. Thus was "Kings," a co-production with the center, born.
"In choosing the other two dancers, we went through a process of some people being available and some not being interested," says Stiefel. "Either way, it had to be four world-class dancers that had unique personalities and could bring their own thing to the table."
A range of distinctive talents
RUSHING into a rehearsal room in OCPAC's Founders Hall on a recent afternoon, Stiefel, late, throws down his dance bag and immediately jumps into the fray. Franz Schubert's string quartet "Death and the Maiden" is playing on a sound system, and Wheeldon counts beats as the men execute deep plies in a fugue-like passage that also features intricate arm, shoulder and splayed hand movements.
"OK," says the choreographer, "you should all be comfortable with this now."
Tsiskaridze, 32, his thick black hair held back by a headband, is jet-lagged, having flown in from Moscow less than two days before. Laughing as he repeatedly sinks to the ground in an attempt to master a tricky hand-under-thigh gesture, he jokes through a translator, "But I'm not comfortable."
Wheeldon replies glibly, "The first time the Kings are coming to blows -- I feel it already."
For his part, the Danish-born Kobborg, 33, is quiet and self-effacing, but his talents are immediately on view. Recently nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award in London for his Royal Ballet performance as a tyrannical ballet master in "The Lesson," he is helping the other men learn that role in Flemming Flindt's 1963 ballet, which is also part of the program. (The men's tormented student will be danced by Alina Cojocaru, Kobborg's partner at the Royal as well as in life.)
"It's a unique experience to work with these guys and to have us all in the same studio," Kobborg says. "And the fact that we were able to ask whomever we wanted to work with to create a new piece -- it doesn't happen every day."
As for ego, attitude or divo-like behavior, he points out: "We're just dancers. We're good at what we do, but it's about art. I've always thought the better you are, the less problems there should be. It's often the people who are insecure and incompetent that have to build this thing around them. We respect each other, and that's good."
At 30, the Spanish-born Corella is the youngest member of the group. And with his angelic face and huge brown eyes, he exudes boyish charm and enthusiasm -- especially about performing new work.
"We've been very thirsty for great choreography and choreographers to showcase male dancing," he says. "To attract a younger generation and a different type of audience, we're doing this with the male figure -- who is getting stronger and stronger and who enjoys being a man onstage.
"I feel a desperation for life," he adds, "because you never know when it's going to be the last day. That's what I try to approach in my dancing -- and people should be on the edge of their seats."