Dance / King wears the wrong clothes

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the ultimate in perverse casting. They hired the world's greatest ballet dancer, and didn't let him dance. On Tuesday, Irek Mukhamedov, ex-Bolshoi star and the Royal Ballet's greatest prize made his singing- acting debut in The King and I. If they'd asked Pavarotti to dance we would have known it was meant to be comic. As it was, we were unsure. Mukhamedov can't sing and he can't deliver lines, so why, oh why, did he do it?

Despite the hammy legacy of Yul Brynner in the 1956 film, the part of the boorish, vain, misogynous King of Siam has attracted several serious artists. The actor Ben Kingsley turned in a fine recording with Julie Andrews, and Rudolf Nureyev, to the dismay of those who remembered his dancing prime, spent most of 1989 touring America in the role. It was one of his last.

For the Nureyev memorial gala at the Coliseum last year, Irek Mukhamedov was persuaded to perform one scene from the show: the scene, naturally enough, that includes the song "Shall We Dance?" and offers the sole opportunity for the male lead to put his best foot forward. On that occasion the dance, originally a simple polka, was extended and elaborated into something not entirely unworthy of a dancer's talents.

In this week's full-length show for the Covent Garden Festival in London's Freemason's Hall, restrictions of staging (a T-shaped catwalk affair) meant that scope for movement was reduced. The glee of seeing the great Mukhamedov learning basic steps from a singing actress ("Just watch me. One, two, three and . . .") was tempered by his subsequent three-minute cavorting with "Mrs Anna" (Liz Robertson) in cramped circles for fear of falling off the stage. It was nevertheless a relief to see him in his element at last.

"You are vurry difficult wooooman." This was one line that came over loud and clear. At other times the audience might have been listening to short-wave radio tuned to the Russian service on a stormy night. Whereas Nureyev's accent was tempered by 30 years in the West, Mukhamedov's is fresh-minted, and although Oscar Hammerstein clearly intended humour in the King's pidgin dialogue, he certainly meant it to be comprehensible.

And yet the show was not a disaster, nor has Mukhamedov forfeited his credibility. For shining through the sillyness of it all were the same qualities that - oddly enough - also make him a great dancer: a stage presence of heroic proportions, utter commitment to a role, and virility softened by such quantities of boyish charm that when the King goes berserk with a sword and attempts to behead an errant wifelet, we love him all the more.

The audience consisted not of dance fans, but of people who could hum the tunes. "I think it's that ballet chap, Irek McSomething," said one.Perhaps, in the end, the dancer's motivation was the most basic of all: fame. Oh to be a household name that people can pronounce with confidence.

The flamenco guitarist Paco Pena made a London appearance this week, but shunned personal limelight in the interests of performance tradition. The explosion of interest in danced flamenco in the last five years has often rendered it slicker and stagier than purists would like. Pena's show Flamenco Fire, devised with five dancers, two singers and four guitarists, tries to rediscover the everydayness of the art, while recognising that "the real thing" is no longer the preserve of illiterate gypsies stamping out their oppression around the camp fire. So the set was a scruffy rehearsal room, with two long mirrors and benches to sit on, the musicians drummed on old boxes and bottles, and the dancers wore any old thing - a sweatshirt, a bandana, a scarf around snaky hips. Yet for all the contrived informality, the spark failed to ignite until a sustained and complex display of heel- drumming by one of the male dancers, using a walking-stick as a kind of third leg, swept all reserve aside. We were his. And we were never even told who he was.