Sadler’s Wells, London
By Sarah Kirkup
It sounded promising: three works representing Sergei Polunin’s ‘past, present and future’. In reality, this was a programme that saw ballet regress by half a century.
Polunin’s career has been well documented: after quitting as Royal Ballet Principal in 2012 amid rumours of bust-ups and drug-taking, he escaped to the Stanislavsky Ballet and was on the verge of giving up altogether when his David LaChapelle-directed ‘Take Me To The Church’ video went viral. He’s now starred in two films as well as the biopic Dancer, which revealed his desire to ‘give something back’. Step forward Project Polunin, founded in 2015 to support dancers and choreographers. This triple-bill is its first incarnation and showcases Polunin’s ongoing partnership with Royal Ballet Principal Natalia Osipova.
Icarus, The night before Flight, is a gloriously over-the-top pas de deux from the 1971 ballet by Vladimir Vasiliev. Like Vasiliev in his heyday, Polunin has the athleticism and bravura necessary for this heroic role, and can execute soaring leaps and dizzying spins with ease. As Aeloa, betrothed to Icarus and desperate for him to abandon his flight, Osipova is a match for Polunin technically (except in the height of her jumps). The backdrop projects graphics that alternate between ‘Dante’s Inferno’ flames and images you’d find on a weather channel. The music, by Sergei Slonimsky, is angular, dramatic, string-heavy and, with its vocal incantations, reminiscent of Carmina Burana. (It’s not played live, and there’s an audible stereo ‘buzz’.)
Tea or Coffee, for four dancers, a cup and saucer and a spoon by Andrey Kaydanovskiy, is performed convincingly by soloists of the Stanislavsky Ballet, for whom it was created last year. In this ‘black-comedy family drama’, to quirky arrangements of Bach and Villa-Lobos alongside electronica, we witness tragedy every time the tea cup smashes. But what could have become an intriguing ‘whodunnit’ leads nowhere.
Receiving its world premiere, Narcissus and Echo is mainly choreographed by Polunin, with music by Ilan Eshkeri (performed live but over-amplified). Eshkeri’s programme note suggests an edgy interpretation of Ovid’s story, in which self-obsession is filtered through a social-media lens. Alas, the result makes Icarus look positively avant-garde: a flimsy set propagated by planets, including an unstable Jupiter which Narcissus slumbers against; two cardboard-cut-out ‘pools’ playing grainy footage of Polunin; a hole in the ground, smoke billowing out; and costumes that wouldn’t look out of place at a beauty pageant. For all its filmic Romanticism, the music is unoriginal (are The Planets references necessary?), and the choreography generic. Polunin and Osipova dance beautifully, but for much of the time Osipova flits around Jupiter, shedding tassels from her bejewelled bodysuit, and Polunin struts across the stage, flashing his gold-sequinned codpiece.
I love watching Polunin dance, and admire his aim to create works that ‘reflect the times we live in’. But I can’t see how he achieves that here. Narcissus’s fate is to shun true love in pursuit of the perfect image. In the same way, it seems, Polunin has sacrificed artistic integrity for the sake of personal ambition.