Once famous only within the confines of the ballet world, Sergei Polunin had a breakout hit in Hozier’s music video Take Me to Church, since when his dancerly fame has been eclipsed first by his personal life – a film biography, Dancer, illuminated his inner demons – and then by his public persona, through which he has both offended swathes of people and remained in the spotlight in doing so. Meanwhile, critical response to his dance productions has ranged from scalding to tepid.
All this makes for a “story”, and even though no one (promoters, artists, the media) comes out of it very well, Polunin’s current season seems wilfully to play to its terms, casting him as an outsider-artist, bedevilled without and within. Opening the first programme, Ross Freddie Ray’s Fraudulent Smile purports to explore the question: why does a good man do bad things? It answers in the form of a gaggle of white-faced, bare-chested men, one of them (Johan Kobborg) a psychopathic strangler against whom Polunin struggles. Two women in camiknickers and suspenders are no more than intermediary ciphers; indeed one is throttled and disposed of behind Polunin’s back, leaving him to emote wistfully to the pineapple that he has inexplicably brought home for her. Polunin’s front, meanwhile, constantly beams the Vladimir Putin tattoo on his chest, rather overpowering the choreography, a mish-mash of influences from Bob Fosse, Giselle, musical theatre and mime, with some big ballet sequences thrown in for good measure.
Yuka Oishi’s Paradox and Sacré share a circular set of dry leaves, and centre on the tormented figure of Nijinsky. Switching between Stravinsky and Chopin, Paradox sets Alexey Lyubimov and Dejan Kolarov as wayward flipsides of the Nijinsky coin – though a voiceover about consumerism makes this interpretation harder to countenance. Sacré is more straightforward. Pummelled by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in both two-piano and orchestral versions, Polunin lurches and launches until he heaves coils of rope into the air and collapses. It’s all storm and stress and no substance, but credit to Polunin for keeping it going. Alas, Oishi scuppers even this by bringing back the Paradox duo for a sappy third act that sees all three dancers reconciled, looking towards the stars.
Oishi’s Rasputin, which forms Polunin’s second programme, is stronger. It looks great, with a chessboard set, flushes of colour and chiaroscuro, costumes that swish satisfyingly with every movement. The cast is condensed down to the Tsar and Tsarina (Lyubimov and Elena Ilinykh), their haemophiliac son (spirited teenager Djordje Kalenic), poisonous Prince Yusupov (Kobborg) and Polunin as Rasputin. Choreography largely coheres with story, though it’s hard to know why Yusupov dons red heels and lipstick other than to let Polunin fly into full strongman mode, hysterically bounding and barrel-turning in outrage at Yusupov’s feminised ambivalence.
The gap between Kobborg’s layered performance and Polunin’s one-note emoting widens until Polunin conquers all in his death scene, pitching across the set only to rise again, arms outstretched and fingers clawed. With Kirill Richter’s music throwing the works at him – cymbals, organ, strings, drums – he finally dies with his head dangling right off the edge of the stage, eyes rolled back into their sockets. A world away from the norms of British ballet, the B-movie, scenery-chomping style is rollickingly enjoyable, though perhaps more as failed seriousness than intended effect.
Of course, such a view remains wholly compatible with a story of Polunin as misunderstood misfit. Time, then, to change the story? We might all come out of it better.