Peter Schaufuss’ ‘The King’ is billed as ‘a dansical spectacular to the music of Elvis Presley’, by Sadlers Wells. Sadlers seem careful here not to raise expectations that this is a ‘ballet’, but seem to be angling to attract the Adventures in Motion Pictures audience. The production has come in for its share of publicity already, with the Presley estate, who own copyright on some songs and took the depiction of the hero somewhat amiss, succeeding in preventing the scheduled performances in Edinburgh taking place. In order to mounting the work in London, it has been reworked heavily in the last few weeks, and some different Presley songs substituted. So can it live up to all the expectations engendered ?
Well, not really. It is by no means a spectacular - if by that one expects three acts of lavish costumes, scenery, and large cast. It’s a short work, of under ninety minutes, with one interval. The staging is minimalist: the cast is around 20 or so, but we don’t actually get to see that much of the corps - the work mainly concentrates on the central Elvis figure and his relationships with others: there aren’t many big group numbers. It’s more a minimalist musical, without the live music.
Curiously enough, given the nature of the subject material, the life as Elvis comes over on stage as peculiarly undramatic. It’s very uninvolving production. Schaufuss has changed his storyline, as given in the programme, to state that this isn’t in fact an attempt to show the life of Elvis, but in fact tells the story of Johnny, an Elvis impersonator, and how his like starts to mirror that of his hero. There’s all sorts of narrative detail in the programme about how Johnny ‘throws himself into his career and has great success during the holiday season in Blackpool’. I can only presume Schaufuss was feeling somewhat playful in these notes, since very little of any of this seems to be actually reflected on the stage.
What you get is some lovely Elvis shapes and poses from Juan Rodriguez, periodically echoed by some of the other male dancers: and a number of interactions between Johnny / Elvis and his wife and two entirely mysterious women (described as ‘guardians’ in the cast list, but otherwise unexplained). In no sense is there a narrative to follow, or any real characters to grasp, beyond the sketch of Presley. And this is just a sketch of the externals - there’s no hint of any interior emotions: all that is left to the music. You don’t come away with any great insights into the price of fame.
It’s a pity, when there is a duet for Elvis and his wife to Suspicious Minds, that there is absolutely no sense of the jealousy or insecurity that the programme tells us that Elvis / Johnny is feeling evident either in the choreography or in the performance. Rodriguez and Lisa Probert are both very strong, fluid, flexible dancers with considerable technical facility, but the emotional temperature seldom rises above tepid.
Much of the dance action is concentrated on one small square section of the stage, which gives the production a contained, constricted quality. The choreography for each section tends to take one idea - a sequence of steps, a lift or a pose - and repeat it fairly remorselessly. The repetition is all the more striking, given that most of the songs are only a couple of minutes long. I don’t think this can really be described as ballet - there’s not much left of any recognisable ballet steps in there, even if the girls do wear pointe shoes: but the person I sat next to was quite sure it wasn’t ‘dance’ either - not enough real movement, in his view. The ending seemed particularly weak (to Wagner’s Liebestod and clouds of pink smoke...) .
UK audience are accustomed to dance theatre being, well, theatrical - in the AMP and Northern Ballet Theatre mould. This work is much more distant, and not at all flamboyant (again odd, when you consider the subject). It’s a much cooler and more detached approach: it will be interesting to see how UK audiences react over the duration of this run. Despite the rather thin house, the dancers got a rousing reception on the first night. The talented Rodriguez brought terrific energy and commitment to the role, which looks a very taxing one. He looks convincingly enough like a young Elvis to get away with it, and is by far the best thing about this production.