The Kings of the Dance program offers audiences a unique experience: a chance to see the top men in ballet letting it all out on one stage. This year, Opus 3 maintained the program’s reputation at New York City Center.

The evening opened with Jazzy Five, featuring all five Kings: Guillaume Côté (National Ballet of Canada), Marcelo Gomes (American Ballet Theater), David Hallberg (American Ballet Theater, Bolshoi Ballet), Denis Matvienko (Mariinsky Ballet), and Ivan Vasiliev (Mikhailovsky Theater). The cast is like a “best of” list of companies and artists, names to follow in the ballet world that would probably never otherwise appear in the same program. The logistics of these men touring together (Opus premiered in Moscow and then moved to St. Petersburg, Riga, Novosibirsk, Kiev, and Orange County) is a feat in itself, made possible by Ardani Artists.

Mauro Bigonzetti’s choreography (to music written by Federico Bigonzetti and performed and recorded by Jazzy Dogs) is a pleasure to watch. Gomes begins the piece alone in silence, building on the crowd’s mounting anticipation. The other dancers join him, one at a time, until all five form a line across the back of the stage and the music begins. The unison choreography, a mix of pedestrian strides and complicated intertwining arms, actually highlights each individual’s personality. This phrase is repeated and transmuted through each solo so that by the last section it is familiar enough to recognize the distinct movement of each dancer, like hearing different people’s accents.

During the solo sections the scene is more casual, as they take their dark jackets off leaving shirt and pants combinations. A bit of acting tells the audience: “Now the real fun can start.” Vasiliev’s performance showcases his dynamic talent, soaring high in the air, to the audience’s gasps, and relaxing into the funky music when on the ground. In contrast, Hallberg’s grace is accentuated, his long lines flowing with the slow guitar music. Matvienko creates an edgy atmosphere, the angular shapes of his body deliberate and unmistakable before he runs his hands through his hair, perhaps shaking it off. Côté’s musicality is first obvious in this section: it seems Bigonzetti challenged him to match nearly every musical note with a corresponding step or change in level. Gomes’ entrance is arresting. Arms wide and bare-chested, it is impossible to miss the slightest twist and change in his body. This costuming decision emphasizes the difference between Gomes’ slow and controlled contortions and explosive bursts of energy.

Jazzy Five feels so cohesive that it’s hard not to think of each character in it while watching the solo pieces which follow, or to think of these pieces as part of another whole. In the first, Kaburias (choreography and costume by Nacho Duato), Hallberg crosses between the smooth, lithe movement one might expect, repeatedly stretching his leg up past his ear, and Graham inspired drama. What starts out as ruffled black pants becomes a long black skirt he throws over and around his body.

Marco Goecke’s choreography for Côté in Tue is full of tension. Côté is rigid for most of the piece, only releasing one joint at a time: wrists, knees, and finally his neck. Gomes followed with Jorma Elo’s Still of King – and, while he may have looked the most regal, in a more traditional ballet costume, Gomes also portrayed aspects of the jester. Grand jetés and arabesques are mixed with gestures to the audience such as thumbs-up and thumbs-down.

Patrick de Bana’s Labyrinth of Solitude gives Vasiliev the greatest opportunity to show off his incredible ability in the air. He jumps, rotating twice before landing, to much audience applause – but Labyrinth is not just about tricks, and Vasiliev imparts a sense of loss and longing as he reaches for someone always just offstage.

In Guilty (choreography by Edward Clug), Matvienko springs from the floor, showing his strength in the most untraditional way. Lying on his side at one point, his whole body creates an arch only anchored by his shoulder and foot. Despite Matvienko’s athleticism, by the end of Guilty he is forlorn, crossing one leg deliberately over the other before slumping over, deflated.

Happily, Opus 3 ends with a treat. KO’d is choreographed by Gomes to music by Côté and performed by all five Kings. The group is beautiful, dancing a leaping and turning combination in unison. What appears to be the most classical choreography of the night takes some surprising turns, especially when Côté runs to a piano upstage and begins to play! The flexibility of Gomes and the others’ choreography to allow for moments like this makes Opus 3 more accessible than many formal ballet performances. It is a pleasure to watch some of the most talented artists in the world take part in it.