theartsdesk in Moscow: Sergei Polunin triumphs in Mayerling | Dance reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk in Moscow: Sergei Polunin triumphs in Mayerling
Royal Ballet rebel leaves Russians numb as MacMillan finally reaches them
Quite simply, the performance was one of those rarest of events in the theatre that will be talked about for generations - the Russian premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, with the former Royal Ballet star Sergei Polunin making his debut as Crown Prince Rudolf.
This has been a "must-see" evening since the minute it was announced by Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet not only with Polunin now having rock-star status in Russia, but also for MacMillan’s choreography which is not found in any other Russian theatre. Extra chairs were put in, people were even sitting in the aisles. The full run of performances has long been sold out.
So I’ll begin with Polunin: though it will be impossible to do justice to what he showed us on stage. He started his journey as a troubled young man from the very beginning: after the arrogance of the wedding proceedings, his Rudolf emerged from the crowd and started his first solo with such fluidity that the change was imperceptible. In and out of the balletic gestures as he moved around the crowd, gradually revealing the reality of his circumstances: contempt for the courtiers, chilly distance from his father, his expectation still to have the pick of the women (married or not) and his terrible ache for his unresponsive mother.
These days, one expects a dancer to have the physique and technique to cope with Rudolf, one of the toughest roles for a male dancer; but merely doing the pyrotechnics simply isn’t good enough. Polunin is one of the most stunning technical dancers you could ask for, prodigiously talented with an innate physical beauty and all the proportions that classical ballet could lust after - but with his Rudolf, we discovered he’s also a highly intelligent, sensitive and dramatic performer. (Polunin pictured below by M Logvinov)
Moreover, he brought his inner soul to the performance, finely judging the disintegration of this Prince of the Hapsburg Empire, understanding that he had to take us with him through his journey on stage, to develop the tragedy organically, not give it away too soon – and never to wreck the nuances with grand guignol. And Polunin is only 23.
With good casting with MacMillan you will never see the same ballet twice; individual interpretation is paramount, and every dancer is required to find their inner reason for being the character they play. MacMillan himself wanted the audience to forget they were watching dancers and to be enveloped in the drama. The Stanislavsky company is absolutely tailor-made for his work, with its roots in the legendary Moscow Arts Theatre, created way back in 1887 by theatre revolutionaries Konstantin Stanislavsky and his colleague Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, for a new kind of work which abandoned the hackneyed classical traditions to explore new ways with drama. The Stanislavsky has “dancing drama actors” – “method” acting translated into the ballet so the dancers live their roles and are the foremost contributors to create the drama.
So Polunin’s Rudolf evolves in a series of relationships and encounters: each of Rudolf’s ladies in turn firing on some pretty spectacular voltage as they relate to him. Anastasia Pershenkova’s Countess Larisch emerged as a really complex part of the Rudolf story: from a sizzling sexy seductress in Act 1, she became more than his ex-mistress and his procuress; we also saw her as the only one who has come to care for him as the person he is under all the bravado. (Polunin and Pershenkova pictured left, by M Logvinov)
As the Empress, Natalia Krapivina seriously changed the temperature from sunny dancing with her ladies to produce an arctic imperial distance from Rudolf in the scene in her closet. From which he could go on to his cruel and violent encounter with his new wife Stephanie, danced by Anastasia Limenko (only 18 months out of ballet school), both of them taking the pas de deux to a breathtaking edge of physicality. People looked pretty stunned going into the first interval.
The one problematic element of Mayerling for me has always been John Lanchbery’s orchestration of Liszt, which all too often I’ve heard blasting over the top into the seriously vulgar. But I heard a quite different score with Anton Grishanin’s conducting. Nuances were shaded, climaxes tailored to what was happening on stage in the drama – and the tempi were fabulously alive.
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