Sometimes single events define an era. In 1845, for instance, an enterprising London theater manager, Benjamin Lumley, persuaded four of the day's leading ballerinas to perform together for the first time. The result, "Pas de quatre," choreographed by Jules Perrot, made dance history and set the seal on women's dominance in ballet for more than a century.
Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, another adventurous producer, Sergei Danilian, assembled a quartet of leading male dancers to show that in our time the center of gravity in the dance world has shifted to the other sex.
Unlike Lumley, however -- who faced contentious ego problems that he ingeniously solved by suggesting that the other ballerinas defer to the eldest -- Danilian had only four regular guys to deal with for his program, "Kings of the Dance."
At least, that's what the short video screened at the start of the evening suggested. Angel Corella and Ethan Stiefel, both of American Ballet Theatre; Johan Kobborg of England's Royal Ballet; and Nikolay Tsiskaridze of Russia's Bolshoi were portrayed rehearsing, talking about their lives, shopping and even walking on the beach.
None of them, they said onscreen, thinks of himself as a "king." Which is just as well, because the ensuing program, which included five premieres -- four solos and a new pas de quatre -- didn't break much new ground.
That's not to say that there wasn't a lot of high-powered action and some spectacular moments that regularly drove the audience to wild applause. But the choreography offered only technical challenges, avoiding expressive meaning like the plague.
Take Christopher Wheeldon's "For Four," the opening work, which featured the quartet dexterously dancing to the slow movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet in Mahler's orchestration. (All the music was recorded.)
Wheeldon, 31, resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, gave each dancer a chance to show off his specialty: Corella's high-flying multiple turns, Stiefel's lyricism, Tsiskaridze's superb line and Kobborg's sense of drama.
But despite the varying tempos and moods of the music, the choreography looked almost relentlessly pushed and superficial.
The sequence of individual solos for the "kings," which closed the program, began with Adam Christie's "Wavemaker" (music by John Adams), made for Stiefel. The work is a technical exercise in controlled fluidity, which Stiefel managed expertly, although it ended inconclusively with him lying in a golden spotlight like Fokine's dead swan.
Also dependent on the spotlight was Tim Rushton's darkly lighted "Afternoon of a Faun" (to Debussy), created for a bare-chested Kobborg. But at least this work provided three of the more arresting moments of the show, as Kobborg appeared to grab hold of light itself to pull himself into the air. Otherwise, it had a lot of brainless and repetitive preening.
Roland Petit's seemingly endless "Carmen" solo for Tsiskaridze (to Bizet) included some gender-bending moments as the elegant firebrand coyly took on the title role as well as the roles of Don Jose and Escamillo, managing to kill him/herself at the end in a less than poignant moment.
Stanton Welch's solo for Corella, "We Got It Good" (to Ellington and Stayhorn), looked heavily modeled on Twyla Tharp's "Sinatra Suite" for Baryshnikov. It gave Corella any number of spectacular turns linked by would-be insouciant, but basically empty, walk-about connective tissue.
Placed at the center of the program was Flemming Flindt's 1963 expressionistic noir comedy, "The Lesson," based on a play by Eugene Ionesco in which a psychopathic teacher kills his student. As the teacher, Kobborg managed the transition from repressed nerd to crazed sadist with persuasive detail. Alina Cojocaru, Kobborg's partner at the Royal, danced the clueless pupil with eloquent refinement and expressive vulnerability.
Zenaida Yanowsky, also of the Royal, was the stiff-backed, enabler pianist, who has clearly gone through this story any number of times. The piece ends with another student ringing the doorbell for a lesson. Flindt joined the dancers onstage to take bows.
The original "Kings" plan had been for each of the men to dance opposite Cojocaru in successive performances of "The Lesson." But according to an OCPAC spokesperson, Stiefel dropped out of the sequence because of knee problems, and Kobborg was scheduled to dance Friday in his place.
After the solos, the guys did an encore consisting of overlapping virtuoso excerpts from familiar ballets. Out of context, the snippets looked like circus tricks, which is probably what a lot of people were there to see anyway.
"Kings of the Dance" is set to go to the New York City Center next week. But it's not likely to go into the history books.
'Kings of the Dance'
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday
Price: $20 to $75
Contact: (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org