Although most dancers never reach pop idol status, Sergei Polunin became recognisable as the prolific ‘Take Me to Church’ ballet dancer in Hozier’s official music video. The former Royal Ballet dancer has been compared to ballet greats, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, and featured in Hollywood blockbuster Red Sparrow. But in 2019, much of the buzz about Polunin was motivated by his social media tirade – and his subsequent interview with Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian. However, his highly anticipated set of performances at The London Palladium in May, a mixed bill including Sacré and the world premiere of evening-length Rasputin, have refocused conversations back to ballet.
Sergei Polunin & Friends: Mixed Bill
The mixed bill is advertised as an evening of ballet by “Sergei Polunin and friends” – and the dance prodigy appears in two of the three modern ballet pieces. Polunin stars in group piece Fraudulent Smile alongside Johan Kobborg. Then he re-emerges in the final piece to perform an exhausting 45-minute solo: Yuka Oishi’s Sacré, based on Vaslav Nijinsky’s story ballet choreography to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (or The Rite of Spring) music; Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company first danced the ground-breaking piece in 1913. The second piece was another by Oishi, called Paradox, but the contemplative duet gets buried in the programme.
Fraudulent Smile, Ross Freddie Ray
The group piece, choreographed by Ross Freddie Ray, sees figures clad in mime-type costumes and white make-up address the question: “Why does a good man do bad things?” A chorus of male dancers perform as if they are puppets on strings, favouring simple movements (think ‘low-tech robot’) over the complex swirls and arcs most often seen in ballets. But Kobborg rises as a unique figure: he’s expressive, whether moving languidly or comically thrusting his pelvis, and he’s got a glint of mischief in his eye.
And if the interesting movement references to swing dancing and the Argentine tango aren’t enough to keep the piece fresh, his chilling murders should hold your attention. As the audience struggles to reconcile his alluring, cheeky personality with his grievous misdeeds, a lopsided duet between the aggressive Kobborg and the distraught Polunin proves more fascinating than a standard male fight scene.
Soon, there are many imitations of Kobborg’s signature movement on stage, as Fraudulent Smile explores how one baddie can contaminate society, transforming enablers into followers into accomplices. In this sense, Fraudulent Smile feels especially relevant today, as cinemas play a movie that simultaneously immortalises and glamorises murderer Ted Bundy (Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile) and fraudsters sit in our highest government offices, feverishly supported for their vain, maverick sort of ‘charisma’.
Paradox, Yuka Oishi
Although based on diary entries and drawings from Nijinsky’s diary during a period when he was mentally unwell, Oishi’s Paradox is not so abstract. While the programme discusses circles, arches and the paranoia of eyes watching him, the duet between Alexey Lyubimov & Dejan Kolarov focuses on two distinct entities – presumably within Nijinsky’s psyche.
Kolarov is hyper-alert, his movement segmented into many shorter start-stop phrases. Lyubimov’s movement is smoothed out, as he presents a sophisticated façade and a much more ridiculous interior. For the most part, only one dancer moves at a time, while the other reposes. From the beginning, it plays out like the Harry Potter quote: “Neither can live while the other survives”.
There are times when the two dancers support each other, but the ending seems obvious from the beginning; so the closing narration feels heavy-handed – even with the bit of British humour at the end.
“You have to choose. You can’t have everything; that’s not allowed.– Paradox, Yuka Oishi
You can only have one happiness. Two is a crowd.”
Yuka Oishi is a Japanese choreographer who studied in Germany.
Sacré, Yuka Oishi
Most of the audience knows how the story goes, but when the curtain lifts for Polunin to dance Oishi’s modern dance theatre piece Sacré, the theatre-goers sit up a little straighter in their seats; whether for the choreography or the chance to watch Polunin perform such a long work, I don’t know. Either way, the piece commands attention.
Without other dancers on stage, Polunin interacts with the set: a large circle of rope, covered by leaves. He begins the ritual by placing leaf offerings around the circle, but the dance only seems to take off when he steps into the ring. He easily ticks off precise jumps with beats, barrel turns and (oddly placed) illusion turns; but he also demonstrates persistence and ferocity in Sacré. Notably, he easily threads movement together, incorporating off-balance turns and leaps into seemingly erratic sequences.
Lighting designer Konstantin Binkin clearly illustrates the scene changes, abruptly switching the background colour to bold hues, interspersed with soft teal shades during more pensive scenes. During a few places, it is hard to understand the character’s motivation to re-enter the circle and continue the ritual, but Polunin crucially switches between a lucid and trancelike performance.
The solo aspect of Sacré makes the work feel especially voyeuristic, as we helplessly watch Polunin’s decline. He becomes restless and his cool measured movement becomes more effortful. He yanks the endless rope, which seems to protrude from his mouth, then his abdomen. He drapes the rope across his shoulders, and it weighs him down… But Polunin’s last-ditch effort to hurl off the burden is particularly spectacular.
Sacré – The Epilogue
‘What epilogue?’ you ask.
Well, although Sacré is listed as a solo in the programme, an epilogue of sorts takes place after the sudden black out, where the piece (and the variations it spawned) normally ends. The lights come up, casting Kolarov as Nijinsky in a glorious golden glow. While the show closes with a nice homage to the original Le Sacre du Printemps choreographer, my mind kept flitting back to Sergei Polunin’s powerful ultimate scene. Oishi’s Sacré could have, and perhaps should have, finished with Stravinsky’s music score.
Some Sergei Polunin fans were thrilled with his performance, while others were not. What did you think of Sergei Polunin in Sacré and Fraudulent Smile? Let us know in the comments below.
Disclosure: Dance Dispatches was invited to write an open and honest dance show review of Sergei Polunin’s triple bill at The London Palladium.