Midnight Express, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, London Coliseum | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Midnight Express, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, London Coliseum
Easy to see why Sergei Polunin and Igor Zelensky wanted out
Yok is a fine Turkish word meaning “there isn’t any”. You use it for “no”, as in, say - is Midnight Express any good? Yok.
The hot news surrounding this production was all in the scarpering of its two stars a week before opening, both exceptional Russian artists with stellar reputations to lose. While Britain was agog at the latest fleeing from responsibilities of the wayward tyro Sergei Polunin - slated to play Billy Hayes - probably the more indicative evacuee was the senior Igor Zelensky, Polunin’s mentor and boss at the Stanislavsky Ballet, but better remembered over here as a king of fabulousness in ballet, the Apollo of Apollos, Darcey Bussell’s noblest partner, and the glory of post-Communist Kirov Ballet manhood.
So what made the Russian let another company down at the 11th hour?
So I asked myself as I skipped over to the Coliseum to see the latest offering from onetime English National Ballet chief Peter Schaufuss (now re-embedded in home turf in Denmark): what made Igor let another company down?
Reader, I understand now. You have to put it into context. When Polunin and Zelensky signed up to Schaufuss last November, they had not yet unveiled Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling to Moscow, and last month’s triumphs for both of them in that great ballet lay in the unknown future. Well might two major artists perform a masterwork of psychological truth about young men, drugs and sex in Moscow, and then hotfoot it over to the next job in London to discover, with plummeting hearts and aghast guesses at the effect on their stratospherical reputations, Schaufuss's work about young men, drugs and sex.
Not that Midnight Express is scream-out horrid or shocking. Among the celeb-followers who hightailed to the Coliseum box office demanding refunds after Polunin’s exit there were some who turned back when they heard about the blowjob scene that apparently he gagged at. Let it be a warning - there is smoking in this production, but last night there was no blowjob. Only you can decide why you want to see this show. In my view the time to demand a refund for a show is after you’ve seen it, and I’m here to help you avoid that messy scene.
The story of Billy Hayes’s hellish incarceration in a Turkish jail made a powerful film (pictured right, Brad Davis in Alan Parker's 1978 film) but in ballet terms has a very short plot: Billy’s arrested (first five minutes), Billy’s in jail (years and years), Billy escapes (last two minutes).
It could work if a choreographer could choreograph males in thrilling physical tension the way, say, Russell Maliphant did recently for the Ballet Boyz, or could understand male emotional extremes and guilt-complexes the way, say, MacMillan understands in The Judas Tree (or Mayerling), or could portray the pounding fear of a prisoner under torture the way, say, Christopher Bruce did in his fine work Swansong, which Schaufuss commissioned at the then London Festival Ballet and is the most obvious source of homage here.
Schaufuss, an outstanding dancer and - at LFB/ENB at least - a fine director, has the creative gifts of none of these choreographers. He can’t provide emotional tension, character interest, or anything other than melodramatic semaphore and mediocre schoolroom steps. He’s hugely assisted by a versatile steel-barred prison set and brilliant lighting by Steven Scott. The midnight-blue sky is glimpsed through tiny windows, and a positively Renaissance array of light effects blaze down over the prisoners inside.
Johan Christensen takes on the role Polunin didn’t want - it involves little more than backbending lithely away from a marauding jailer, or hanging upside-down half-naked from his electric prod.
As for the role allotted to Zelensky, the marauding jailer is almost comically underwritten, his brief appearances almost all composed of Godzilla walks and flourishes of his large prod. I am not certain that the billed performer replacing Zelensky was not himself replaced last night - it was no sort of performance of no sort of role. At least Wayne Eagling, who has one short scene as Billy’s dad, rumpled and grey-haired, has echoes of ballet in the steps, enough for him to show passionate grief for his son, an impotent desperation to do more - he always was a charismatic actor.
There is the ghost of some energy in Schaufuss’s mustering of the prison riot scene which ends Act 1, though one can't tell from the moves (or from the dancers) whether the prowling, hunched men are beaten down and exhausted, or uncoiling themselves in frustrated aggressiveness. It seems telling that Schaufuss is so indecisive, batching them all up to render them safe, not dangerous. He is essentially afraid of character (which MacMillan and Bruce were not).
Above - or below - all, is the use of music that can’t be made to unite in any way that isn't clumsy, sentimental or naff: Seventies disco, bleeding chunks of Mozart greatest hits, electronic heartbeats. The entire work seems composed without any overriding purpose, except for headlines.
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