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