Feature: Midnight Express and headline stars part company

Sunday 7 April 2013

Sergei Polunin in promotional shot for 'Midnight Express'

Report: Graham Watts, 7 April 2013

The news that Sergei Polunin would not be performing in Midnight Express at the London Coliseum (9 – 14 April) was released in the briefest of press statements last Thursday morning ( 4 April). It made no mention of the departure of any other cast members, although it has now emerged that Igor Zelensky, (Polunin’s mentor and Director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet) had also left the production and, by Friday was reportedly back in the Russian city of Novosibirsk.

To my knowledge, rumours were circulating about problems with the production, specifically between Polunin, Zelensky and the show’s director, Peter Schaufuss, at least 18 hours before the release of this official statement and a pre-show Meet the Dancers event, planned for 3 April, was cancelled.

Subsequent press commentary has contained quotes attributed to Schaufuss and/or the production team but nothing has been directly attributed to either Polunin or Zelensky. Worryingly, in the absence of any statement from the dancers, news commentaries have focused on this being another “vanishing act”; that Polunin is “depressed”; in “meltdown” and other similar conjecture about his mental state. Yet, on 27 March, three days after arriving in London to rehearse, Polunin gave an interview on camera to Bloomberg’s Farah Nayeri. He appeared tired and opened the interview by saying that he has more work in Moscow than he had in London but he seemed confident and spoke of “enjoying it (ballet) more now”.

Two further comments struck me as germane to subsequent events: he said, “Igor (Zelensky) taught me what’s right and what’s wrong” and later, “I want people to love you for your art and not for crazy things”. In no way does he appear like a young man about to go into meltdown. The tiredness can easily be explained by the fact that Polunin had come to London fresh from garnering rave reviews in the pivotal role of Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, one of the toughest roles for any male dancer. This followed a successful return to The Royal Ballet, a month earlier, to partner Tamara Rojo in her farewell shows, dancing in Marguerite and Armand.

Polunin’s work in recent months appeared to complete his rehabilitation following last year’s shock departure from The Royal Opera House and showed a supreme dancer at the very top of his form; hardly preparation for another ‘vanishing act’. In any event, such an explanation does not fit with the fact that on this occasion two performers have simultaneously withdrawn their services. To lose one dancer mysteriously might perhaps be explained by his mental state but to lose two?

More to the point is the fact that Zelensky is not just another performer. He is Polunin’s boss and one who is revered by the younger man to the extent that he has Zelensky’s name tattooed on his shoulder. One issue that has not been considered in any of the commentaries on this matter to date is the hierarchical aspect of the arrangement for Zelensky and Polunin to appear. Zelensky is the artistic director, Polunin the dancer under contract to his company; which of the two is more likely to have led the arrangement for them both to appear in Midnight Express? And which, of the two, is more likely to have prompted their joint withdrawal?

I’ve tried to piece together what may have happened to cause this recent rift. It’s not easy to be sure that the jigsaw is anywhere near correct but I have little doubt from conversations with sources close to Polunin that the sole reason for his departure (and perhaps that of Zelensky, too) lies in artistic differences. One source told me that both had left because they felt that the choreography was poor and they believed their credibility would suffer by being in the show; another put it more starkly, saying simply that Sergei “felt the choreography sucked”, which may be a pertinent choice of words.

Anyone familiar with Billy Hayes’ book, written in 1977, and Alan Parker’s award-winning film that came a year later, even if not with Peter Schaufuss’ ballet (which he made in 2000), will be aware of the scenes of graphic violence, including one of attempted homosexual rape. The character of Hayes (originally to be played by Polunin) is forced into performing simulated oral sex on the character to have been portrayed by Zelensky. I can imagine the difficulty that such a scene might cause for any typically macho Ukrainian or Russian male, but Zelensky (soon to turn 44) is more than just Polunin’s boss (and how many of us can say we have the name of our boss as a tattoo?). As many interviews have shown in recent months (not least the excellent in-depth feature by Julie Kavanagh in Intelligent Life, September/October 2012) Zelensky has come to be a mentor and father figure to his 23 year-old protege. I cannot imagine any circumstances in which the pair would be comfortable with such a scene.

But, the Schaufuss production is 13 years old: surely they knew what they were letting themselves in for? This is where accounts vary. On the one hand, I have been told that they knew and had asked for changes to be made, which were not forthcoming. I doubt this interpretation and would have sympathy with the choreographer if he were asked to make changes to an established ballet. Instead, I believe the account that they just didn’t know. Busy dancers , not least one who is also director of two ballet companies, work from project to project. They had both just performed as Prince Rudolf in Mayerling and I suspect that they knew very little about the detail of this project until they arrived to begin rehearsing on 25 March. They would have thought, as dancers all over the world think, that 15 days was more than enough time to find out about and learn the piece. I don’t condone this – but it’s the way dance is.

There must clearly be contractual issues that will have to be resolved and I suspect that when everything is clear, no-one will emerge from this fiasco with any credit. In her interview with Polunin, Bloomberg’s Farah Nayeri asks him if it is true that any publicity is good publicity and suggests that the controversy that followed his walk-out from The Royal Ballet turned him into a global superstar. Although this is where Polunin said that he wanted to be remembered for his art and not the “crazy things”, he didn’t disagree. An interview with Polunin in the Sunday Times published on 7 April claims that he now earns ten times what he did when under contract to The Royal Ballet. Whether intended or not, controversy is clearly good business.

Two things are certain. Firstly, that two relatively unknown performers, 20 year-old Johan Christensen and Johan Kink Silverhult have to step into the roles vacated by Polunin and Zelensky and none of this is their fault. I hope that the public is kind to them, at least. And the second is that the real victims in all of this are the public, many of whom have laid out good money for expensive tickets, sold on marketing that placed the star well above the production. As my friend Bill Boyd told the Daily Telegraph on 5 April: “I would not have bought a ticket to see Midnight Express with any other dancer.” Bill has now received his refund. Unfortunately, there will probably be many others in that particular queue.

Midnight Express is at the London Coliseum, 9 – 14 April 2013

Graham Watts writes for londondance.com, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On