London: Dramatic Departure from The Royal Ballet
I usually look forward to a performance of Frederick Ashton’s The Dream. David Walker’s lush setting graced by the prettiest of fairies in pastel tutus, transparent wings and dainty pointes, dancing to Mendelssohn’s tunes is an über-Romantic treat.
But this was the performance billed as Sergei Polunin’s debut in the role of Oberon and as the thoroughbred had fled the stable, the performance went somewhat pear-shaped.
Sergei Polunin in The Sleeping Beauty. Photographer Johan Persson ROH
Polunin’s unexpected and unexplained departure caused a whirlwind of speculation. The BBC evening television news even showed a brief ballet clip, an event that hasn’t happened since the heady days of Rudolph Nureyev. Polunin, still only 22 years old and one of the brightest stars in the Royal Ballet firmament, became the youngest principal at 19. I remember his performance at the 2006 Prix de Lausanne. He walked on stage and the wrong music came through the speakers. With an ironic bow he departed elegantly – probably thinking far from elegant thoughts – and returned minutes later quite unperturbed to dance his Sleeping Beauty solo and win Gold. The week following his departure he was billed to make a guest appearance at Sadler’s Wells in the Men in Motion programme produced by fellow Ukrainian and ex-Royal Ballet principal, Ivan Putrov. He was down to dance Narcisse by Ivan Putrov, but as his working visa was cancelled on his departure from the Royal, some high power ministry friends had to be called on to ensure the star was not unceremoniously deported and was able to perform, to predictably full houses, for the three performances, performing the solo Narcissus in choreography by Kasian Goleizovsky.
While the Royal Ballet is one of the world’s most prestigious companies the repertoire is essentially traditional. Polunin’s schedule for the spring included premieres in The Dream, Romeo, and more of Alice in Wonderland while across the channel Dutch National Ballet are presenting two evenings of nine new choreographies including works by Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and David Dawson and in Dresden, Semperoper has just premiered four new pas de deux by William Forsythe. It’s a big exciting ballet world out there for a young man with wings.
Valentino Zucchetti and Steven McRae in The Dream. Photographer Johan Persson ROH
In The Dream, Steven McRae replacing Polunin made a promising start looking persuasively and ambiguously gendered but as he moved into the dance, his superb technical skills dominated and the characterisation moved into second place. Even Alina Cojocaru’s radiance was a little dimmed and their final pas de deux seemed more rough and ready than ecstatic. However the evening was salvaged by a memorable debut from Valentino Zuchetti in the role of Puck. He embodied the impish spirit bubbling with so much mischief he could barely contain it. So fast and accurate were his turns and so high his jumps that you could believe he too had drunk of a magic potion!
Tamara Rojo, Carlos Acosta and Rupert Pennefather in Song of the Earth. Photographer Johan Persson ROH
The double bill was completed with Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth. Set to Malher’s spiritually uplifting music, it was written for Stuttgart ballet in 1964 and taken into the Royal Ballet repertoire the following year where it remains as potent and contemporary as ever.
The female casting of Tamara Rojo in the lead, and Sarah Lamb, in the third song was absolutely satisfying. Rojo as cool and contained as a marble statue seemed to drive her emotions deeper and deeper only releasing them in the final scene, while Lamb was faultless, embodying all the freshness and spontaneity of youth. Carlos Acosta, as the Messenger of Death, and Rupert Pennefather were both well matched and well contrasted in their dance technique and looks: Pennefather, elegant and restrained, Acosta powerful and passionate.
Dickson Mbi in The Rodin Project. Photographer Charlotte MacMillan
At Sadler’s Wells, Russell Maliphant’s, The Rodin Project, was presented as part of the British Dance Edition 2012. This showcase of contemporary British talent was a little thin on the ground this year and Rodin, a co-production with international theatres like the Joyce Theatre in NY and Théâtre de Chaillot in Paris was also a little thin coming from a choreographer who has produced sterling work in the past. Maliphant has assembled an interesting mix of dancers including Thomasin Gülgeç from the Rambert Dance Company, Tommy Franzén most recently seen in Some Like it Hip-Hop and a talented newcomer Dickson Mbi whom I am sure we will be seeing more of.
It was unclear if the entire first act was meant to represent the neoclassicism that Rodin has rejected, but the whimsical set of flowing draperies and women posed like Grecian nymphs seemed a lifetime away from the power and passion of Rodin’s work. The choreography too was sucked into the sentimentality offering only brief moments of significance. In the second half, built round a monochrome metallic set, the choreography absorbed the sharp angularity giving the dancers more scope for their talents but their divergent styles were not successfully harnessed to a find a common theme and the link to Rodin remained sadly tenuous.
March 5 2012