Oh, the much-maligned male ballet dancer: Will he always have to defend his manhood? The producers of the "Dance in America" documentary "Born to Be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theatre" seem to think so. The regular-Joe images are thickly applied: There's the rock music reference in the title, a version of the Steppenwolf song on the soundtrack, the shots of dancer Ethan Stiefel cruising on his Harley, blond hair flying, and his assertion, delivered with a self-conscious chuckle, that "the single best thing about being a male ballet dancer is that you're working with women all day."
The effort to portray the four dancers -- Angel Corella, Jose Manuel Carren~o, Vladimir Malakhov and Stiefel -- as macho hot rods is awkward and clunky. But once it gets underway, the hour-long "Great Performances" special, scheduled for tonight at 11 on Channel 26, offers insightful and often poignant profiles of these artists, following each dancer back to his home (Madrid, Havana, Moscow and Madison, Wis., respectively) and focusing on the very different paths the men took to the pinnacle of the ballet world.
What the program doesn't state is that each of these dancers is practically an industry unto himself, heading up popular international tours in the off-season as well as leading performances of the prestigious classical company in its travels around the world. Wild? These guys? Hardly. This is an exceedingly disciplined, driven and elite bunch.
The strength of their dancing makes the producers' point more clearly. Woven throughout the program are scenes of choreographer Mark Morris in the throes of creating a showcase for the four dancers. In this new ballet, and in the footage from various other performances, the grandeur, athleticism and, yes, manliness of these dancers is patently obvious.
As the program rightfully declares, the depth of male talent at ABT right now is unprecedented. Given that the ballet audience is mostly female -- or at least, it's the women who buy the tickets -- a stable of hot young men is a decided marketing advantage. And simply in terms of moving through space, today's ABT men are far more interesting, and whip up more excitement, than the ballerinas. The extremes that drive male dancing today are undeniably impressive -- a fast, tight string of turns or a series of spring-loaded leaps may not always be artistically apt, but they can bring down the house, and that is what the ABT male can be counted on to deliver. Poetry has become secondary to power.
That's not to say that these four dancers are shallow or unsophisticated. Carren~o and Malakhov are among the top dancers in the world because they were both steeped in storied ballet companies -- the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Bolshoi Ballet, respectively -- and they dance with an unmistakable sensitivity to tone and character. Stiefel and Corella are not as consistently artful, though they are improving.
Given that ballet is still an unusual career choice for a man, you can bet these dancers have stories to tell of their beginnings at the barre. Stiefel, the son of a minister turned prison guard, was a standout gymnast by the age of 6, so gifted that his coach wanted him to join a competitive team. His parents didn't like that idea, and took the unusual route of enrolling him, along with his sister, in a little roadside ballet school instead. "We didn't know a plie from a squat," says his mother. When he first walked into the school, Stiefel recalls, "I guess I represented 50 percent of the male dance population in Wisconsin."
Corella, growing up in soccer-mad Madrid, found himself an outcast because he had no talent for the national sport. When the other boys would pick teammates, "they never chose me," he says. "I never had friends in school." Ballet was his passion, but also his burden -- until, as a teenager, he became a jaw-dropping sensation.
Coming from countries with established ballet traditions and training centers, Carren~o and Malakhov took more straightforward routes. Carren~o descends from what he calls a ballet "dynasty" in Cuba; several members of his immediate family danced with the national company. When Malakhov was a young boy, his mother shipped him across the Soviet Union from Ukraine to live at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow; he rarely saw his family after that. His teacher, Sofia Golovkina, recalls him as "a pale, transparent being," who, when he arrived at the school, "looked at us with amazed eyes, as if what we are asking him to do, he cannot live without."
The most engaging part of the special comes when the focus shifts to Morris and his process of dancemaking. Gracefully portly, with a froth of unruly hair and a hyper-alert look in his eyes that is part 5-year-old, part brainiac, Morris is a welcome counterpoint to the dancers, who in their interviews are careful and guarded. He is a riot to watch as he strides around the studio, musical score in hand, using all manner of vivid imagery to extract from the dancers just the right step with just the right emotional shading. The resulting dance, "Non Troppo," set to a Schumann piano quintet, is elegant and playful, embedded with surprise and propelled by a driving force.
Also interviewed are Jacques d'Amboise, the original American male dance phenomenon, and Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT. Surprisingly, McKenzie doesn't take any credit for having sought out and landed Corella, Carren~o, Malakhov and Stiefel, or for the even harder task of retaining them. Soothing egos is a managerial gift that cannot be overestimated.
Yet McKenzie has also fostered a climate of bigger/better/faster dancing, and that is only going to undo ballet -- dilute its expressive power by accentuating the acrobatic tricks -- rather than advance it. A dancer's time in the spotlight is all too short, and it is cut even shorter with the emphasis on physicality. Wildness weakens, but artistry endures.