sun 14/08/2022

Rhapsody/ Sensorium/ 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Rhapsody/ Sensorium/ 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, Royal Ballet

Rhapsody/ Sensorium/ 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, Royal Ballet

A star is born - the next big thing is here, better than Baryshnikov

For those in the know, Sergei Polunin has been marked out as “the one to watch” from his schooldays. Since he won the Prix de Lausanne in 2006 and joined the Royal Ballet the following year, he has been “the next big thing”. Well, I’m here to tell you, after last night’s performance of Rhapsody, he is not the next big thing. He is the big thing now.

He gave the performance of a lifetime, and, even more astonishingly, looked so comfortable that it is perfectly clear that, at only 21, he has a dance-lifetime of such performances well within his grasp.

I know, I know, I sound like a teenager in 1972 writing a love letter to David Cassidy. But I was there at the premiere of Rhapsody in 1980, and although I never thought I’d type this sentence, Polunin last night was better than Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov, of course had great gifts – charm to burn, a jump that came out of nowhere and grabbed you by the throat, and a pleasing stage manner. What he did not have, which Polunin does, is an ideal shape for ballet: small head, long neck, good proportions. And he may not (whisper it) have been as musical as Polunin. Or have had the ability to convey the overarching shape and structure of a piece as simply and directly.

Polunin was content to make a low-key start. I was puzzled by his opening variation, which seemed slow, and yet was entirely on the music. Great dancers, of course, always appear to have more time than merely competent dancers: they get from A to B without rushing, even as they are clearly moving faster than anyone else. Polunin took his amazingly speedy steps and slowed them down, stretched them out; there was no hustle, no bustle, to what he did, indeed, there was very little sense of personality. I was slightly disappointed, although what I was seeing was beautifully crafted. But then, as the piece continued, I realised that instead of dancing each variation as if it were the most important, Polunin was carefully building a sense of urgency, giving us not a minute-by-minute interpretation but a carefully developed arc.

This is not to say he didn't produce pyrotechnics: the fireworks in this notoriously fiendishly difficult piece were all in place - some steps, I think, don't even have names, because no one does them. Yet they were always in the service of the piece, not add-ons just because he could. When his partner entered for her variation before their main pas de deux Polumin, placed at the back of the stage, produced a series of entrechats that had the airy sense of being in a vision – suddenly the urgency was suspended, and a sense of immanence created by just a tiny shift in tempo and pace.

Laura Morera, his partner, also gave a performance of stature: she was musically alert, with a lovely sense of style in her upper body, folding and unfolding to Ashton’s quick changes of épaulement. I have never been a wholehearted admirer: she is a hard-working, conscientious dancer, but hard-working and conscientious don’t always get the blood racing. In Rhapsody, and with Polunin, she suddenly began to find another level, and I look forward to seeing how she tackles some of her older roles.

Rhapsody, too, benefited from new costumes and sets, getting rid of Ashton’s own self-indulgent stabs at design. (I can’t tell you how pleased I am not to have to see Polunin in gold lamé, with gilt-tipped hair and a necklace.)

It is a very English evening, in different ways: Ashton’s high-camp response to Romanticism, Marriott’s stiff-upper-lip Neo-Classicism, Bintley’s charming eccentricity

Benjamin_Whitehead_Sensorium_Johan_PerssonNo such problems with Alastair Marriott’s Sensorium (pictured right, with earlier cast Leanne Benjamin and Thomas Whitehead, photo Johan Persson/ROH), which is the height of stylish good taste in its designs by Adam Wiltshire and gorgeous lighting by John B Read. A huge curl of what appears to be a slashed sheet of paper looms over the dancers, elegant in blues and grey-whites.

Marriott’s best work here is for the corps, who have neo-Balanchinean Neo-Classical choreography as though reimagined through Jerome Robbins’s The Cage. The real problem is the two main couples, who danced the steps immaculately, but failed to inhabit them emotionally. They were not helped by the music: five of Debussy’s Préludes orchestrated by Colin Matthews, sometimes with romantic strings and woodwinds, sometimes with aerated modernity, and interleaved with two more Préludes played as the original solo piano pieces. Marriott, sleek and stylish though he is, is unable to convey to the audience the reasons for the shift from one to the other.

David Bintley’s “Still Life” at the Penguin Café finishes what has been a very English evening, in different ways: Ashton’s febrile high-camp response to Romanticism, Marriott’s stiff-upper-lip restrained Neo-Classicism, and Bintley’s charming eccentricity. “Still Life” has its longueurs, but in its pastoral yearnings, the musical joie-de-vivre pleasure of Simon Jeffes’s Penguin Café Orchestra score and, finally, the choreographer’s earnest message, delivered with grace and simplicity, it is a pleasure to revisit it from time to time.

Watch the Zebra from Bintley's "Still Life" at the Penguin Café, performed by Philip Broomhead in the 1989 Royal Ballet DVD

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