Project Polunin: Icarus, Tea or Coffee, Narcissus and Echo

Posted: March 23rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Project Polunin: Icarus, Tea or Coffee, Narcissus and Echo

Project Polunin: Icarus, Tea or Coffee, Narcissus and Echo, Sadler’s Wells, March 14 

Sergei Polunin, Alejandro Virelles, Daniele Silingardi, Alexander Nuttall and Shevelle Dynott in Narcissus and Echo (photo: Alastair Muir)

Sergei Polunin has long been interested in mythology. It could be said that his early life up to his departure from the Royal Ballet has elements of the myth of Icarus, and his more recent re-emergence in the light of Take Me To Church with the myth of Narcissus. It is perhaps no coincidence that Project Polunin should bookend its triple bill with works that reference both, though in terms of Polunin’s life there’s an important hiatus between the two.

With the recent release of Steven Cantor’s film The Dancer about Polunin’s life, it would be easy to imagine that Project Polunin follows on seamlessly where the film leaves off. But The Dancer took five years to film and another year to edit, so the film’s concluding performance of Take Me To Church — which at the time Polunin conceived  as the final act of his ballet career — happened six years ago. A lot has happened in Polunin’s life in the intervening years; most importantly he has rediscovered his desire to dance and has gathered around him a group of creative people who have given him the confidence and stability to develop new projects. He is also, as evidenced in his Q&A following the launch of the film, questioning current norms in the ballet world with the proselytizing zeal of a reformer.

This premier production of Project Polunin consists of three works. As he explains in an interview with Sarah Crompton, “It shows what my thinking is influenced by…There’s an old Soviet ballet, a hint of dance theatre and…the kind of dance theatre I would like to explore.”

Expectations run high for an event like this, especially with the media attention from The Dancer. Will Project Polunin fly or won’t it? When Polunin discovered a video of Vladimir Vasiliev’s duet, Icarus, the night before the flight — created for himself and his wife Ekaterina Maximova in 1971 — it must have struck him as auspicious. Vasiliev had inspired the young Polunin with his powerful, passionate style of dance, and here was choreography with a mythical subject close to his own heart. Polunin extended an invitation to Vasiliev (Maximova died in 2009) to come to London to mount the duet on a younger pair of lovers, Polunin and Natalia Osipova. The choreography for both male and female equates powerful technique with powerful emotions, heroic form with mythological mettle. Polunin revels in the bravura steps, displaying the elevation and flight for which he is renowned and, as his betrothed Aeola, Osipova has so integrated her prodigious technique into her body that she can express every nuance of her devotion to Icarus as well as the depth of her despair suggested in Vasiliev’s choreography. Just to see these two together giving full rein to their Russian heritage is a privilege.

After only a brief pause we jump 45 years ahead to Tea or Coffee, served Russian style with dark and surreal humour. Choreographed by Andrey Kaydanovsky for four soloists from the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet (Alexey Lyubimov, Valeria Mukhanova, Asastasia Pershenkova and Evgeny Poklitar), the ballet could well share the lineage of Nikolai Gogol with last year’s Royal Opera production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, except that instead of the nose it is a cup of tea (or coffee) that seems to have a life and influence of its own. The work consists of four rounds of a game in which whoever starts by stirring the cup of tea (or coffee) is initially eliminated from the next one. Within this ludic format the two couples interchange and squabble over an unspecified but evidently banal issue which gives rise to is a delightfully absurd set of convoluted solos, duets, double duets and trios that borrow their wit and rhythm from the eclectic score.

The relevance of Narcissus and Echo as a contemporary myth is fully developed in the program by Ilan Eshkeri, where he quips, ‘Narcissus’ reflection in the pool is arguably the first selfie.’ Eshkeri also wrote the score (played live by members of the London Metropolitan Orchestra under the baton of Andy Brown) and his concept for Narcissus and Echo is credited as the starting point of the work. In a Polunin work about the power of the image it is not surprising to find the visual influence of photographer David LaChapelle, who conceived the video Take Me To Church. It is evident in the opening tableau of Narcissus (Polunin) and his four Theban mates (Shevelle Dynott, Alexander Nuttall, Daniele Silingardi and Alejandro Virelles), in the overall colour palette and in the surreal pond with its haze of light and outstretched arms appearing from below the dark water. It is less easy to discover the choreographic form of Narcissus and Echo. There are four choreographers listed: Polunin and his assistant choreographer, Valentino Zucchetti, Osipova (for her solo), and Jade Hale-Christofi (also of Take Me To Church fame) for Polunin’s solo. In such a sharing of choreographic initiative it is perhaps inevitable the story of Narcissus and Echo as Eshkeri conceived it is sublimated for a show of dancing inspired by its two protagonists with, in the case of Hale-Christofi’s contribution, ‘selfie’ quotes from Take Me To Church. Polunin, however, inspires his mates to excellence, especially Silingardi and Virelles (both on loan from English National Ballet), while the five nymphs (Alexandra Cameron-Martin, Maria Sascha Khan, Adriana Lizardi, Callie Roberts and Hannah Sofo) seem to operate in the shade of Osipova’s orbit. It is perhaps the first time seeing Osipova working out choreography on her own body, from subtle insinuation to blindingly powerful despair, and the result is sublime.

The similarity between The Dancer and Project Polunin is that they are both in the image of Polunin himself; Icarus has recovered but Narcissus is always going to be susceptible. As Eshkeri points out eloquently in his program note, ‘What is fascinating is how quickly the human condition allows us to become intoxicated with ourselves. And once engulfed by it how do we avoid the beguiling fate of our lamentable protagonists.’ Polunin is clearly trying to distance himself from his own image by paying his respects to his past, but he will need to find a new myth to define his next stage of development.


English National Ballet, Modern Masters

Posted: March 21st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

English National Ballet, Modern Masters, Sadler’s Wells, March 11

Max Westwell and Tamara Rojo in Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (photo © ASH)

Max Westwell and Tamara Rojo in Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (photo © ASH)

 

The three modern masters represented in English National Ballet (ENB)’s triple bill at Sadler’s Wells — Jiří Kylián, John Neumeier and William Forsythe — are all related in that they learned their trade in John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet before forging their own distinctive styles of classical dance in their respective companies: Kylián in The Hague, Neumeier in Hamburg and Forsythe in Frankfurt. The three works performed this evening are like cousins, having their beginnings in a rich artistic period in Europe within two years of the fall of the Berlin Wall and have since been staged by companies around the world.

Kylián’s Petite Mort (1991) is already in the ENB stable since its acquisition in 2013 but its wit and elegance is worth seeing again. Well, it would be if the wit and elegance were in evidence, but on Wednesday night the elegance is hijacked by a display of overly muscular male torsos swishing fencing foils and the witty eroticism sidelined by their narcissistic posing. The six women, looking decidedly out of scale, don’t stand a chance, not even Tamara Rojo who is positively engulfed in Max Westwell’s physique. Not all the men suffer from this muscular overdevelopment — Junor Souza balances strength with lithe form and he is well suited in his duet with Laurretta Summerscales — but with six of them in nothing but high-waisted trunks the impression of bulk is overwhelming. One of the subtleties of Petite Mort is in Kylian’s use of the parallel qualities of the supple steel foil and the male body; petite mort is, after all, the French euphemism for orgasm and the analogy of death from the thrust of a foil with the little death of the final thrust in love is central to the imagery of the work. The foils haven’t changed since 1991 but the male bodies have; if these studs don’t rein in their weight training their future work with foils will be like watching Arnold Schwarzenegger sewing. Which makes me think of the poor costume department…

What a welcome relief to see Alejandro Virelles and Cesar Corrales in the first act of Neumeier’s Spring and Fall, choreographed to the five movements of Antonin Dvořák’s Serenade in E major. Here are two male dancers whose physique appears to be formed by classical training alone; they both move effortlessly and quietly from the inside, which is a totally different approach from the gym-enhanced school. With its pastel colours and white costumes (Neumeier’s own conception) the setting of Spring and Fall suggests a happy, youthful memory in which an ardent Virelles and a flirtatious but spirited Alina Cojocaru express their burgeoning love against a chorus of friends. Virelles and Cojocaru are beautifully matched in their ease of technique and lack of pretence that comes from the mastery of their art. The choreography is abstract but it is not hard to read. As Neumeier says, ‘As soon as there are two people there is some kind of relationship. And those human relationships are what interest me as a choreographer.’ Apart from the three principals, the supporting cast prove a little ragged, but Anjuli Hudson stands out with her uninhibited enthusiasm.

Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was first choreographed on the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1987 when Rudolph Nureyev was artistic director. Forsythe remembers ‘the whole atmosphere there was electric.’ The first cast included a young Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire, Isabelle Guérin and Manuel Legris. Imagine those long legs arriving at the height of a percussive climax in Thom Willems’ electronic score and what Forsythe’s elongated, dynamic, off-balance shapes must have looked like. There is also a chic cool in the way the dancers wander in and start their variations, something the French do so well. It is still a thrilling dance to watch with its spatial dynamics and visceral physicality, though Wednesday’s cast is less tall, less elongated than its ideal execution demands: the dynamics of the steps don’t quite match the dynamics of the score. In terms of coolness, Tiffany Hedman seems to have the measure of the work but the same can’t be said about James Streeter, fresh from fencing, who mistakes open-mouthed, brazen posing for cool assurance. It’s that bodybuilding thing again.