Part of me feels for Sergei Polunin and his sincere wish to do ballet his way and to pursue artistic freedom beyond its confines. But in truth his latest show at the London Coliseum, although it has its moments, isn’t such a great advertisement for him as a dancer or as a creative mixer of the ballet pot.
There are three works on the bill but the opening First Solo is only 7 minutes long, by the young Russian choreographer Andrey Kaydanovskiy. It’s really an amuse-bouche to the evening and a solo about “…the quest of a man who seeks freedom from the dance that enslaves him…” For a bare-chested Polunin, it shows him at first in contemporary earthbound gyrations, almost fighting himself, before it all becomes more expansive and allows him to do bravura ballet jumps and turns. He certainly has an exciting, feral look and sometimes, just sometimes, the jumps are pushed to the point of raggedness – a flash of the dancing danger that marked him out much earlier – before he walked out on a conventional ballet career. But you are aware that the reality is that his amazing talent isn’t really delivering the thrilling dance it should be – he needs testing in choreography of consequence and to be dancing very regularly.
The evening ends with another piece about Polunin and the headline number of the night – Satori. Unusually it’s also choreographed by Polunin and has a director (Gabriel Marcel Del Vecchio), with designs by David LaChapelle (who shot the famous Take Me To Church video) and features a commissioned score (Lorenz Dangel). Much thought and money has clearly gone into it, but overall it feels very confused with 3 acts and much stage action in its 40 minutes. There are complex rambling programme notes, a tree of life, a boy, a mother, a woman/girlfriend (“the spirit of his purest essence”) and the troubled seeker at the centre of it all. And they are all accompanied by much smoke, sexy lighting and many, many, moodily wafty interludes. You feel it’s all very heartfelt and well meaning but it doesn’t really grab you as compulsive drama and definitely not as choreography, with too much standing or pacing around and gesticulating. But again there are glimmers of better dance, some beefy solo movement for Polunin and some duets with Natalia Osipova that feel almost like a love letter to her.
The best piece of the evening is Scriabiniana, by pukka Russian ballet choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky. He created it in 1962 when he was 70, but his choreographic experiments in younger life are said to have influenced Balanchine and Grigorovich among others and it would be nice to know more about him. A 1962 Bolshoi video of part of Scriabiniana looks very chic in its all-in-one costumes, if the full work itself doesn’t perhaps show the groundbreaking movement that seemed to have established his younger reputation. But it’s a work that really delivers the goods with muscular ballet pas de deux and undertows of drama – love, sex, argument, joy. Much of the movement palette is often now associated with Grigorovich, but I think more subtle than perhaps bombastic. It also features Osipova who dances the most carefree and heartening of solos. And Polunin gets his own big solo that for once feels unencumbered by personal meaning – hurrah. But, even better, Polunin got some other terrific dancers on stage, most notably, from Stuttgart, Jason Reilly and Elisa Badenes and, from Hamburg, Alexandre Riabko and Silvia Azzoni. These and all the dancers came impeccably drilled, elevating the work still further. Interesting movement, beautifully executed – we need more of this please.
It seems that Polunin isn’t satisfied by just ballet anymore, but ballet’s greatest dancers are driven by a single-minded passion for the art and all the hard work that stems from that. Polunin isn’t single-minded in that way and sadly that shows on stage to a lot of us. He dances well enough – but so do many, many other dancers. Although he has personal magnetism and can still shoot a moody look like few others can, his is a talent that should achieve so much more. If Project Polunin is to go further then I at least hope it drops the attempts to show his journey and state of mind (no matter how sincerely they are conceived) and gets back to showing us testing and interesting choreography.