Few ballet dancers become household names beyond the rarefied world of dance; fewer still become notorious ones. But from the very outset of his career, Sergei Polunin has been making headlines. In 2012, the Ukrainian – the Royal Ballet’s youngest-ever principal – walked out on the company amid reports of hard partying and drug use; in the years since, stories about no-show performances, homophobic rants on social media – not to mention that Putin chest tattoo – have seen goodwill towards the 32-year-old dwindle in all but his most loyal admirers.
Recently, Polunin’s attempts to exonerate himself have come chiefly through a series of special mixed bills commissioned by his production company, Polunin Ink. They haven’t always gone down well. In 2019, a run of custom-made work at the London Palladium was mauled by critics. (The Telegraph, somewhat devastatingly, called the venture the “soul-crushing spectacle of 21st-century dance’s longest career-suicide note continuing to write itself”.) Many, though, simply rued the fact that such a powerful performer was now apparently in the wilderness.
This time, Polunin has got savvy. Gone are the half-conceived projects and self-indulgent spectacles and in their place box-office gold: a new Romeo & Juliet, getting its one-night-only UK premiere, created and choreographed by former Royal Ballet star Johan Kobborg and starring Polunin as Romeo, his London debut in the role.
Condensed into a quick-fire 80 minutes (MacMillan’s seminal version will set you back a good three hours, including intervals), it is something of a greatest hits tragedy, tearing through the various ensemble scenes to linger on the two lovers and their main plot points. Some characters, such as Mercutio, have been fleshed out, while others fade into the background (Paris) and many are omitted altogether (the Nurse, and most of the Montague family). Prokofiev’s (recorded) score is in places refashioned, while the sculptural set by artist David Umemoto – a beautifully lit slab of Escher-like staircases and archways that form the basis for everything from a rowdy marketplace to a Verona balcony – expertly makes a dent in the cavernous Albert Hall.
If not a return to form for Polunin – the extraordinary technique of his early days, which saw him touted as the next Nureyev, is long gone – then at least this show marks a stabilising of it. He’s still a good actor, if not always a subtle one, and has a nice chemistry with partners in crime Mercutio (Daichi Ikarashi) and Benvolio (Barnaby Bishop). Opposite him is the exquisite Alina Cojocaru, delicate and waif-like, who – despite now being a 40-year-old mother of two – is wholly convincing as the headstrong teenage Juliet. Though the couple’s initial meeting lacks some of the choreographic intensity of the Cranko or MacMillan versions, their balcony scene is notably passionate.
Dare we hope: has Polunin finally found material to make us fall in love with him all over again? Or at the very least – make us not regret buying a ticket.
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