Three much-anticipated projects marked the first quarter of 2017, and though they could scarcely be more contrasting you could still group them all beneath a single tagline: the Royal Ballet and its outliers. First was Les Enfants Terribles, a dance-opera choreographed and directed by Javier De Frutos, and produced by the Royal Ballet as part of the Barbican Theatre’s celebration of the 80th birthday of composer Philip Glass. De Frutos, whose background is in contemporary dance, has worked with the Royal before but never on this scale. Furthermore, despite notable successes – including some splendid pieces for the Royal New Zealand Ballet – he has never been the choreographer of choice for the more risk-averse: his work has often brewed a mixture of sex, death, violence and religion, and he is more fascinated by transgression than he is fearful of offence. Yet he also has an instinct for psychodrama and considerably more compositional skill than he is generally given credit for. All in all, then, he seemed a promising choice to direct this musical adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s pent-up story of perversion and cruelty.
In the event, the promise was not fulfilled – not so much because of the choreography but because the piece as a whole is overproduced. With a striking but busy set (by Jean-Marc Puissant) of moveable walls, beds, bathtubs and staircases – the walls sometimes acting as a screen for Tal Rosner’s digital video projections – plus distant surtitles and a time-spanning story that is difficult to follow, the stage feels crowded even without the performers on it.
A shame, because the choreography, though underdeveloped, has much to recommend it. The opera’s four young singers are simultaneously embodied by up to four dancers at a time. The dancers are an A-list ensemble: Zenaida Yanowsky and Edward Watson, two of the Royal’s most distinctive principals, and Jonathan Goddard and Clemmie Sveaas, two of the country’s best contemporary dancers, are closely matched by Royal soloists Thomas Whitehead and Kristen McNally, and contemporary dancers Thomasin Gülgeç and Gemma Nixon. Frustratingly, they never have quite enough to do: the demands of storytelling keep cutting their set-pieces short.
Yet while it’s there, the choreography is eminently engaging. The opening bathtub scene, for the dancers only, is a polymorphously perverse playtime of disrobings, taunts and humiliations, all bristling with bare-legged, blatantly tumescent développés and arabesques – and it shows what the story does not tell: that the dark secret of the siblings’ dysfunction is incest. There’s a marvellous frolic with the dancers tumbling headlong over a couch, and a mesmerising sleepwalking scene, the men drifting along over stairs and through windows like multiple shadows cast by the same figure.
In fact, the work’s most striking achievement is to make perfect sense of having multiple performers playing the same character. The device deepens rather than confuses their identities: we see the layered, sometimes contradictory and often unconscious impulses embodied within a single character – psychological harmonics, like counterparts to the broken chords endlessly modulated and refracted through Glass’s spiky piano score.
Les Enfants Terribles may not achieve its own ambitions, but you can see its potential to do so. Not so with Sergei Polunin’s strikingly misjudged triple bill at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The subject of Steve Cantor’s recent feature-length documentary Dancer, Polunin was just 21 and already a principal when he walked out of the Royal Ballet in 2012. He wandered between several dance projects before making what was intended as his swansong: David LaChapelle’s 2015 pop video to Hozier’s burning protest song Take Me to Church. The video went viral, and suddenly Polunin had a fanbase far beyond the confines of the dance world. He returned to dancing (though not to the Royal), becoming both on- and offstage partner to the Royal’s star ballerina Natalia Osipova; and Project Polunin, funded off the back of his newfound fame, was formed to showcase a new artistic direction.
Alas, it had everything else – backers, fans, star names (Osipova was dancing too) – but artistic direction was precisely what it lacked. The programme opener was Vladimir Vasiliev’s 1971 Icarus, the Night Before the Flight. Polunin and Osipova have the chops to power through this relentlessly overwrought duet – all chest-baring bounds and declamatory, monolithic gestures – but artistically it’s pure hokum.
Next up was Andrey Kaydanovskiy’s 2016 quartet Tea or Coffee, danced by members of the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, for whom it was created. A piecemeal montage of non-sequiturs linked by the sound of smashing crockery, this has the sense of an artist genuinely exploring thematic ideas – and being genuinely flummoxed by the results.
Whatever Polunin (assisted by the Royal Ballet’s Valentino Zucchetti) was trying to explore in his own piece Narcissus and Echo is a mystery – even, I suspect, unto himself. Sporting nothing but lilac bootees, gold wristbands and a gem-encrusted codpiece, he cavorts with four springy Theban youths in translucent gauze, and a diaphanous female contingent of nymphs, led by a tasselled Osipova. Oddly, he passes most of the middle section slumbering inertly atop a giant gym ball painted like the planet Jupiter. Did I mention that all this happens in outer space? Well, there’s a backdrop of Mars and Venus and some starry galaxies – two of which light up in the final section to show colourised video clips of Polunin looking moody and enigmatic, while the onstage Polunin gazes perilously into a smoking crater that has opened up on the planet’s crust. A left-field artist with a taste for the outré (I thought of Canadian film-maker Guy Maddin) might just about make something of this melange of comic-strip mythology, arch erotics, cod psychology and outrageous symbolism (a smoking orifice, for goodness’ sake!); but this Narcissus, ironically, betrays not one iota of self-awareness.
More than any number of fans or funders, Polunin might benefit most from a trustworthy guiding hand at this stage of his career. Crystal Pite on the other hand – an opposite in so many ways – has grown into a position where she can confidently command a free rein. Flight Pattern, a response to the mass movements of refugees that mark our age and Pite’s first commission for the Royal Ballet, draws power from its own deceptive simplicity. Set to the insistent adagio of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Flight Pattern is essentially an ensemble work with cameos for two soloists. The opening sees the grey-coated cast of 36 shuffling in slow-moving queues that meander melancholically towards an encampment in which they bed down upon their own clothes. Kristen McNally cradles her empty coat until we read into it not only a child that she has lost, but a sense of all that she has loved and left behind. The cast rise again into the work’s longest and most beautiful sequence, the dancers no longer in lines but rather in shifting formations that pool and plume, straggle and separate as restlessly as the currents of the open ocean. Their arms arc, their bodies hunch and tilt. All is angled and unsettled, and yet moves as constantly and continuously as Gorecki’s slow score. If McNally and Marcelino Sambé close the piece with a focus on the personal, it’s the mass of unidentified dancers we remember most, disappearing beneath snowfall and behind a closing curtain with no end to their passage. Flight Pattern is deeply unclassical not just in its movement but in its mindset – and the Royal is all the better for outliers like this.