Joe Andreyev reviews Polunin’s Satori at the London Coliseum
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father held rather lofty aspirations for me. “You’ll play cricket for England or be the next Billy Elliot” he said. Yet while England currently flounder Down Under in the Ashes without me, ballet’s precocious prodigy, Ukrainian Sergei Polunin, is sadly not in need of an extra cast member with an undeniably wobbly pirouette. Woops.
Polunin, the former youngest ever Principal of the Royal Ballet, has been incubating his latest project, Satori, for some time. It is a remarkable presentation of three short ballets combined at the London Coliseum, just a stone’s throw from his former digs in Covent Garden. Having quit the unforgiving life of the Royal Ballet at only 22 following numerous highly publicised on and off-stage problems, including admitting to dancing on cocaine, Polunin struggled to find his feet again and announced his intention to quit dancing altogether. Nevertheless, an Oscar-nominated documentary, Dancer, followed his progress as he withdrew from the limelight and sought newer avenues for his artistry, but it seems his bristling talent couldn’t keep him away from the slippers for long. He has also recently taken part in other endeavours, starring in Kenneth Brannagh’s adaption of Murder on the Orient Express and winning GQ’s “Creative Maverick of the Year 2017”. Satori was therefore all set to be the major comeback show everyone was waiting for and oh golly gosh it did not disappoint.
Choreographer Andrey Kaydanovskiy’s First Solo opened the performance, and while an altogether reserved piece, Polunin roamed the stage with gritty determination, flexing muscles and ligaments rarely seen on mere earthbound mortals. Teasing glimmers of the bravado to come, First Solo was unfortunately over almost before it had begun and we swiftly moved into a four-piece rendition of the avant-garde Scriabiniana by Polunin’s company (a psychedelic filming of the Bolshoi’s performance is also well worth a watch on YouTube)Not one of the routines failed to be emotive. While the majority of the cast, including Polunin’s partner Natalia Osipova, remain intimately entwined, a sense of detachment and vulnerability was never far from their superbly synchronised movements. Polunin dips in and out of this section, appearing somewhat reticent and distant, yet his presence is itself simultaneously imbued with a certain unfulfilled tenderness as the first act closes thunderously with the solo of the huntsman, comprised of adeptly staggered leaps and wild aerial thrusts.
Creating your own dance, you have to be very sensitive to life and be aware of everything that is going on. – Sergei Polunin
It would also be hard to speak about Sergei Polunin without mentioning his famous tattoos which, supplemented with a seemingly permanent cheeky smirk and wolfish grin, creates an image that one might associate more with a Russian Mafioso than a professional ballerino. His most striking marking, almost a symbolic trademark, is the multi-legged Kolovrat emblazoned on his lower torso – an ancient pagan Slavic symbol of the sun meant to endow energy and foster eternal life. In the past Polunin has never shied away from speaking frankly about his craft and confessed that he has found elements of his lifestyle dull, repetitive and constrained. Satori is a Buddhist-Japanese term for ‘sudden awakening’ or ‘enlightenment through experience’ and Polunin has described his work in that vein as about awakening, about looking into yourself, about finding your essence, about what it takes, about what you have to go through to find it. With this in mind it is hard not to see an element of the confessional and revelatory embedded in the structure of the show.
The second act opens with a primordial cacophony of horns and woodwind from Lorenz Dangel’s original score. The stage (designed by Take Me to Church collaborator David LaChapelle) is very much set, with a swampy backdrop-mix of trees and an uneasy monochromatic combination of flickering screens and dry ice, for Polunin’s self-choreographed Satori itself.
Murmurs of childish and female voices echo between the auditorium’s speakers, the screens show footage of the young Principal rehearsing, the backlit stage comes into focus and Polunin is finally primed, initially alone on stage, to expound his spiritual journey. The night’s previous pieces had been accompanied by scattered applause and yet during the closing movement you feel scared to even breath, lest you disrupt the poise and balance of the dancers on the floor. His physicality naturally eschews words, but it is possible to see a struggle between a desire for recognition of his powerful, passionate momentum and yet at the same time a desire for a subtler, gentler, more honest form of expression. He is pushed and pulled around by the cast almost to breaking point, seemingly desperate to escape yet remaining under the scrutiny of the lights, not running away, nor deviating from his artistic path. His full commitment to the performance is further highlighted by the fact does not leave the stage once for the entirety of the second half.
Some have criticised Polunin for resting on the laurels of previous success – and perhaps some sections of the performance do somewhat lack the full promise of flair from the main man. Taken as a whole, the fragmented and varied styles of the three different ballets display a slight sense of overbearing or heavy-handed direction, but by the final curtain one would be hard pressed to dispute the Ukrainian’s raw, earthy stage presence and atavistic charm. Polunin exposes himself, strips away any of the preconceptions about him and dances on his own terms. I felt there was little else one could ask of him and was certainly left contented enough to have the energy and enthusiasm to prance about the tube carriage all the way home. He has always been a dancer balanced precariously at the top of his game and Satori shows, much like his hopeful hopping and bopping, that he is still perched there with open arms (and needless to say in mid-jump), waiting for his next flutter of inspiration.
UCL Dance Society run beginner ballet courses every Wednesday from 8-9pm in the Lewis Dance Studio. So it might just be time to lube up your old leotards and head on down for a skip, twirl and a jump to keep you fresh in this year’s wintery frost.
Featured image credit: The Wonder World of Dance Magazine