Review: Project Polunin – Triple bill – Sadler’s Wells

Performance: 14 - 18 March
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Wednesday 15 March 2017

Photo:  David LaChapelle

Performance reviewed: March 14

The tattooed Ukrainian ballet star Sergei Polunin was feted as the Next Big Thing when, aged 19, he was made the youngest ever principal at the Royal Ballet. He demonstrated a breathtaking talent, but then suddenly quit the company in 2012, earning himself a “bad boy” tag with tales of drug-taking. Most of what he has done since, in his search for artistic autonomy, has been erratic. But he has friends in the right places – and the golden girl of ballet, Natalia Osipova, as his girlfriend – and so here we have the first evening of work by Project Polunin, a registered charity supporting dancers and a platform for staging dance that excites Polunin. It may well leave you breathless. Possibly not for the right reasons.

Icarus, The night before the Flight, created in 1971 by Vladimir Vasiliev, is a slice of classic Soviet-era, widescreen, Technicolor kitsch. To extravagant recorded orchestration, Polunin as the young Greek of legend throws himself around the stage with much painted-on emotion; Osipova, as his beloved Aeola, tries to dissuade him from attempting his flight with equal flamboyance. It’s an overblown party piece, not exactly elegant but the structure is sound enough and it’s quite good fun. The curtain call lasts almost as long as the dancing.

One crunching gear shift later and we have Tea or Coffee, a bewildering dance theatre piece first performed in Moscow last year. There is a pulsing current of nervous energy running through Andrey Kaydanovsky’s “black comedy family drama” as the four dancers (not including Polunin) abandon social niceties and succumb one at a time to some unnamed dread, but the twisty, rather clunky choreography doesn’t really give a lot of insight into what’s going on and the whole thing peters out so suddenly no one knew it had actually ended.

And so to the main event – a world premiere for Narcissus and Echo, created by Polunin with the composer Ilan Eshkeri. Appropriately, given the subject matter, it’s a self-indulgent mess. The production is based on a “concept” by the photographer David LaChapelle: scarcely clad Nymphs and Theban Boys frolic – in a woefully rickety, seemingly under-rehearsed way – amid gently glowing planets; Polunin hurtles on stage in little more than a gold Swarovski codpiece. He then spends a significant part of the piece asleep, draped over Jupiter, while Osipova’s Echo, in sparkles and wispy bits that drift off her costume, gazes at him adoringly. She looks lovely, and tries her best with scant material and a limited palette – but even in their big duets, the choreography staggers, with moves that aren’t followed through smoothly.

The programme talks of this being a cautionary tale for the selfie/social media age, but the cavalcade of images of Polunin – smouldering at the camera, snogging his mirror image – that appear on video screens are completely at odds, aesthetically, with what’s happening on stage. Frankly it’s a relief when he’s sucked into the pond. Narcissus and Echo is a salutary lesson indeed – it shows us that “taking back control” can have unexpectedly dire consequences.

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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