Sergei Polunin has become not so much a dancer in search of a role as a cautionary tale for our times. Precociously gifted, he became a principal for the Royal Ballet at the age of 20, walked out at 21 and unwittingly found something new: attention not as a dancer within the cloistered world of ballet, but as a person in the public eye. Offensive comments on social media, provocative suggestions of drug use, a tattoo of Vladimir Putin on his chest – all this and more served both to hamper his career and to enhance it, garnering him yet more attention and fuelling a public narrative of a misunderstood outsider artist.
The story sells; it also distracts attention from the art itself, which has become technically diminished and never has been choreographically distinguished. Polunin’s two recent programs at the Palladium Theatre in London’s West End comprise the latest chapter in the same plot. Opening the first program, Ross Freddie Ray’s Fraudulent Smile purports to ask: why does a good man do bad things? Its answer is a gaggle of white-faced, bare-chested men, one of them (Johan Kobborg) a psychopathic strangler against whom Polunin struggles. Two women in corsets and stockings are at best incidental; indeed, one is throttled behind Polunin’s back, leaving him to emote wistfully to the pineapple that he has inexplicably brought home for her. The choreography is a mishmash of Bob Fosse, Giselle, musical theatre and mime, with some bounding ballet sequences thrown in for good measure.
Yuka Oishi’s Paradox and Sacré form a diptych on the tormented figure of Nijinsky. Paradoxsets Alexey Lyubimov and Dejan Kolarov as the dark and light flipsides of the Nijinsky coin, while Sacré sees Polunin heaving fulsomely about the stage until he collapses beneath the work’s own portentousness. It’s all storm and stress with no substance – and Oishi scuppers even this with a long and sappy coda, the three dancers gazing towards heaven. My eyes rolled in the same direction.
Oishi’s Rasputin forms the second program, and is stronger. It looks great, with a chessboard set, flushes of colour and chiaroscuro, costumes with satisfying swish. The cast is condensed down to the Tsar and Tsarina (Lyubimov and Elena Ilinykh), their haemophiliac son (teenager Djordje Kalenic), poisonous Prince Yusupov (Kobborg) and Polunin as Rasputin. The choreography is coherent but middling fare, saved by Kobborg’s layered performance and Kalenic’s freshness. Polunin’s one-note emoting comes into its own when the work plunges into full-blown melodrama: he pitches across the stage in his death scene, only to rise again, arms outstretched and fingers clawed, buffeted by everything that Kirill Richter’s score can throw at him – cymbals, organs, strings, drums. It’s as rollickingly enjoyable as the finale of a Vincent Price B-movie, though I don’t imagine this was the intention. Polunin, together with his entourage of producers and promoters, might do well not just to rethink the next chapter, but to change the story altogether.
The story of the indomitable Yorke Dance Project deserves to be better known. Turning 20 this year, the company has from the outset behaved more like a 40-year-old, with its interesting re-stagings, judicious commissions from reputable but rarely fashionable choreographers and its roster of classy, well-established dancers. What it lacks in youthful splash it makes up for in mature substance.
The centrepiece of its anniversary program at the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio is Communion by Robert Cohan, former Martha Graham dancer, founder of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, knighted this year for lifelong services to dance – and still creating work at the age of 94. It’s a peach of a piece, slow to get going but whose unhurried stride carries you through simple walks, quiet pauses, quickening clusters and introspective solos to a place of numinous presence, as saturated with overtones (struggle, assertion, surrender) as the echoing sounds of its low-key but insistent score by Niels Frahm. As soon as it’s over, you feel you could watch it again, to get more.
Communion works elementally, through motion, sound, light and space, while a restaging of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1979 chamber ballet Playground (one of several MacMillan rarities revived by Yorke Dance Project) is all about character and psychodrama. Foreshadowing MacMillan’s last work The Judas Tree, Playground plunges into themes of mob violence, scapegoating, perversion, hypocrisy and religion, here set in the childhood world of the school playground. It’s a bitter, biting work (when it hits its target, you wince), yet overly busy, too; spirited performances couldn’t quite keep a grip on the piece.
Also on the program was Between and Within by Los Angeles-based choreographer Sophia Stoller, a portrait of intra- and interpersonal currents among four characters; undoubtedly sensitive, but sometimes slight. The evening closed with artistic director Yolande Yorke-Edgell creating a choreographic pièce d’occasion in tribute to the three figures who influenced her most as a dancer: Robert Cohan, Bella Lewitsky and Richard Alston. It’s a skilful pastiche and a lovely birthday present, Yorke-Edgell characteristically giving credit to others rather than taking it herself.