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Kings of the Dance brought the current version of its ongoing dance franchise to Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Friday evening in a stripped down program of both old and new works. Making a hard turn away from the last Ardani Artists production, Reflections (which featured a larger cast, full scale concert works, supporting dancers and live music) this Kings, which opened in Moscow earlier this month, presented an evening that looked more like a works in progress concert which at times, seemed to diminish its stars rather than elevate them.

In his genial pre-show talk, American Ballet Theater’s Marcelo Gomes said that we were going to see dance in its raw state. In the end that comment proved true to a fault as the five principal dancers, Denis Matvienko, Guillaume Côté, Ivan Vasiliev, David Hallberg and Gomes, at times wandered on stage in overly long solo works which all too often ran out of ideas. Labyrinth of Solitude, danced by Ivan Vasiliev with choreography by Patrick De Bana struggled to find real meaning but provided the audience with the evening’s most spectacular assortment of in-flight tricks. The work came off as a kind of default improvisation in which Vasiliev was mostly unconvincing in his self-absorbed and melodramatic role as the anguished loner. The recorded music, an orchestrated version of the G Minor Chaccone for violin by Vitali, blared uncomfortably throughout. The unimaginative lighting by Tony Marques was mostly dark with occasional moments of boosted illumination, on again off again down pools of light, and poorly times cues.

Faring better were solo pieces by Côté, Matvienko and Hallberg each of whom made believable statements in quieter works that looked inward rather than outward.  Especially affecting was TUE, with choreography by Marco Goecke and songs by the chanteuse, Barbara.  Here, Mr. Côté, who is from Québec and a principal dancer with The National Ballet of Canada, embraced the lingering melancholy surrounding death and forgotten memories which are the subjects of Barbara’s emotionally charged vocals. The center piece of the choreography was a long section danced in silence which showed Côté as a gifted mime artist. His flexible movement, rolling isolations and physical appeal were easily the highlights of the evening and showed him to be at home, even outside the narrow boundaries of classicism.

Matvienko in GUILTY (choreography by Edward Clug) provided a thoughtful take on an undisclosed personal guilt. It was the least extroverted piece of the evening and also the most poignant. The work concludes with him seated on the floor, dancing having drained away and ultimately replaced with a sense of resignation. The choreography is set to Chopin’s intimate Opus 9/1 NocturneKaburias (1991), danced by David Hallberg and  choreographed by Kings regular, Nacho Duato, was referenced in Gomes’ informal talk as a work drawing on Kabuki, martial arts and flamenco elements. In the end it proved to have a more independent personality where the dancer and costume both assume powerful roles. In this sense the work owes something to the modern dance influences of Graham, especially in the recurring deeply pitched arabesques and extensions.  The flamenco appeal was there, but mostly in the music (Leo Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza) which was filled with Brouwer’s contemporary guitar techniques and rhythmic sections of thrumming, percussive techniques borrowed from the flamenco guitar idiom.  Hallberg danced in a floor length skirt which doubled as billowing pants when tucked into the waistband. In some of the sections he danced with the hem carried in his teeth.

In STILL OF KING (Jorma Elo), set to the first movement of Haydn’s Military Symphony, Gomes made the best of inexpressive and tedious movement which never seemed to ignite or move beyond a comfortable gloss on Haydn’s tuneful music. Dancing in light grey tights and a blousy shirt, his performance came closest to vaguely reprising something classical looking. Gomes has an easy and charming on stage manner which mixed well with the works humorous moments. Clocking in at more than eight minutes it proved a long time to be on stage without much to say.  Yet much of STILL OF KING seemed simply to function as taxiing time for jumps, turns and the inevitable circuiting of the stage en manége.

Bookending the solos were two ensemble pieces, JAZZY FIVE by Mauro Bigonzetti and KO’d by Mr. Gomes. Much of Bigonzetti’s choreography feels overly decorated with his signature manic arm and hand movements. It brought back visions of his Cinque which was performed as part of the Reflections program last season. The complexity proved to be something of a distraction in JAZZY FIVE and clearly elusive in the work’s ragged unison finale. The dancing riffs in predictable ways on standard jazz movement but never moves beyond superficial gesture and standard cool. Structurally the work begins and ends with ensemble sections. Predictably, the middle section features the five men in brief solo sections. You could have hoped for more from the solo sections. Vasiliev looked out of his element while trying to pop and lock against the music’s hip hop vibe while Côté was called on for some kitschy moments of air piano and air guitar in his. The men were costumed in dark suit coats and pants. The lighting by Carlo Cerri leaned mostly toward darkened spaces and horizontal lighting with deep shadows. The work coasted along on a pseudo jazzy, pop inflected score composed Frederico Bigonzetti.

The program closed with KO’d, a mostly light weight diversion set to one of Mr. Côté’s compositions for piano. The music is cast in a kind of popular neo-romantic idiom and suited Gomes’ breezy style which uses the dancers effectively. The action features lots of bounding movement, clever changes of direction and plentiful doses of coming and going. It was easy on the eyes but at the same time under played its hand. It was the one time when the stage, which was artificially downsized for this program looked too small to contain the action.

Yes, the dancers themselves looked terrific all evening long and delivered the kind of brilliance expected of them but it was the choreography and staging this time out that felt disappointing and in need of a royal brush up.

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