Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
Icarus: The Night before the Flight
Tea or Coffee
Narcissus & Echo (world première)
14-18 March 2017
There were three pieces to the evening but the climax that everyone was waiting for was Narcissus & Echo. This is comeback-kid Sergei Polunin’s own world première, choreographed, conceived and starred in by the bad lad himself.
When it came, it was way beyond anything you could have expected in your wildest hallucinogenic, saccharine-sweet dreams. Indeed, the production could well be based on a dream of his, something embarrassingly Jungian, a dream with nightmarish parallels in reality.
With the production’s pantomime sets, camp costumes and clunky video, Polunin’s best intentions didn’t stand a chance. Perhaps he wanted to bring to life the opening scene’s classical tableau vivant in a ballet of searing self-exposure and remorse. Instead what we get is a twinkly Jeff Koons-and-Cicciolina meets the Folies Bergère with, even, a gold-glitter cod-piece.
The myth-as-allegory tells of a blessed boy who is offered everything, even the magnificent Natalia Osipova wearing just a wisp of tinsel to disguise her as nymph Echo. Unfortunately, the boy, who is now about 27, is still not happy and wants none of it. He finds pleasure only in superficial, self-destructive aspects of himself that eventually destroy him. This is more or less the story of Narcissus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, bar the tinsel.
Sound familiar? Of course, yes. This is Polunin’s own extraordinary story. The larger than life tale is all in Steven Cantor’s superb, admirably restrained documentary, Dancer, about the tragedy of the double-bind that finally garrotted Polunin’s continued success as the youngest principal ever appointed by the Royal Ballet.
Let’s bear in mind that in his life’s Act One, he is the lovely boy prodigy whose working class Ukrainian family separate to get jobs to earn money to pay for his dance training. For them, for the family, to justify their financially necessary sacrifice, he drives himself relentlessly to succeed, and succeed he does. There is no one else who can dance like he can dance. Then he learns that his parents, apart for so long, are divorcing. The boy’s motivation to excel no longer exists. Act Two: he rebels in the only way his narrow, White Lodge and Royal Ballet experience has taught him to rebel, with drink, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and tattoos galore. He leaves the Royal Ballet. But – was he pushed or did he fall? (No one knows, including the protagonists.) He is rescued by kind folk from across the seas who coincidentally have a nose for his commercial value. He is refashioned, rehabilitated etc. Act Three: his metamorphosis complete, the rescue team helps him to work in a different circus. We hope not the lion’s den. We fear deeply for him: Cantor’s film reveals him to be a delightful, serious, fragile young man. Newly emerged from the chrysalis of whatever crystals he may have enjoyed previously, he appears yet to be dependent on his collaborators who are responsible for the excruciating design of this would-be dance of expiation.
It is painful to behold Polunin’s display of himself in his raw, almost literal, nakedness. Perhaps his intention is to describe symbolically the narrow narcissism of the ballet world and to confess to his own culpability in his spoilt, self-destructive behaviour. Unfortunately, to pull off this degree of public self-immolation in the theatre while doing justice to his great talent, requires assistance from the highest calibre of professionals. For instance, dare one say it, the staff of the Royal Ballet?
After the brave psychological work that Polunin must have done on himself to return to the stage at all, one can only hope that the reviews he gets for this première don’t drag him back into the depths of the labyrinth. There was a ray of hope when the cast took the curtain calls and he refused the chance to step forward on his own to receive applause. His reticence hints at a reluctance to affiliate himself with the final result, a moment of protest, of constructive rebellion.
Review for London Grip by Primrose MacFay
14 March 2017
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