Project Polunin: Satori review – ballet's bad boy makes howling bid for inner peace

Published
08/12/2017 by

Sergei Polunin is a dancing star still searching for work that is the right fit for his undeniable charisma. The Ukrainian-born artist brings his messy past with him: companies abandoned, performances cancelled, vivid tattoos and tales of excess – yawnsome in a rock star but still seismic in well-mannered ballet.

It might seem unfair to drag in his bad-boy reputation, but the passion projects Polunin commits to often seem steeped in his own personal and professional frustrations. It’s all about him. Whether portraying James Dean’s crash-and-burn or Narcissus’s fatal self-absorption, Polunin’s favourite subjects are his own restless torments. Everything he dances becomes a new chapter in the Legend of Sergei Polunin.

So it proves in Satori, a triple-bill of old and new work for his company Project Polunin. The evening opens showing Polunin struggling with himself. The short, unsettled First Solo, made by Russian choreographer Andrey Kaydanovskiy, showcases Polunin’s restlessness. Topless, all tats and ’tache, he fidgets from posture to posture, squirms his arms in knots. He straightens into brief princely grace, bunches up gym-body muscles, snarls as he soars, and finally paces into the shadows.

Pulled from the stores of Soviet ballet is Scriabiniana, created in 1962 by Kasyan Goleizovsky, a choreographer who spent much of his career in conflict with authority. It’s a favourite of Natalia Osipova, Polunin’s offstage partner, who co-stars alongside a clutch of European talents in this plotless suite of short dances set to Scriabin’s mournful lyricism. Some duets are anguished, some more overtly sensual, more interested in exploring Scriabin’s lush, extended phrases than his doom-struck chords. 

Mostly refined and detailed, they grab at applause-baiting endings. Osipova gets a solo of princessy dazzle, all twinkling footwork, and some audacious dives in her duet with Polunin. He closes the piece with another beating-the-walls solo: leaping like Spartacus, fighting destiny with one hand behind his back.

The main event is Satori, choreographed by Polunin and directed by Gabriel Marcel del Vecchio of Cirque du Soleil. Polunin is “the Seeker”, tipped into a journey of self-discovery, fumbling towards enlightenment. The dancer may not consciously curate evenings tied to his own autobiographical trajectory, but he can hardly be surprised if audiences make the connection.

Satori looks great – designed by photographer David LaChapelle (who directed Polunin’s YouTube hit, Take Me to Church), with trees and long-tongued clouds taken from Japanese prints, zodiac skies in deep blue and an opening splatter of little screens that shuttle through the vain bibble-babble of our virtual world. Beneath the tree sits the Seeker, dissolute in open shirt and yesterday’s hair, wincing at the bright light. According to the programme synopsis, he cries out “to his own buried conscience” and Osipova, representing “the spirit of his purest essence, thrusts him into the deepest depths of his inner self.”

It sounds like the purest self-indulgence, and the symbolism is certainly well-worn. A gold-ringleted boy does star jumps to evoke lost innocence; Polunin literally wrestles with his gimp-masked demons. Osipova is lumbered with the floaty role of conscience, the patient woman aiding a wayward dude’s self-actualisation.

Balletomanes might tut at Polunin’s lack of commitment to the art form, but the dancer who as a boy would train for hours long after his schoolmates had packed up can clearly work when it matters to him. It’s a pleasure to watch the effortless spring of his leaps, the zip line speed of his spins. In Satori, his deep-seated technique gleams through howling encounters on the road to inner peace. But for all the temple chimes of Lorenz Dangel’s score, it’s hard to credit that he’s achieved it. An actor who chafes at a career in Shakespeare can opt to devote themselves to new writing, or work on screen. But a classical dancer who feels hemmed in by Giselle or Swan Lake has fewer options. Many modern classics are ensemble works; commissioning your own star vehicles demands ruthless quality control. (Baryshnikov and Sylvie Guillem set the gold standard here.)

Polunin’s most successful self-propelled piece is Take Me to Church, its ecstatic self-abasement set to Hozier’s hit single and choreographed by Jade Hale-Christofi. It will feature alongside Satori and some ballet plums in a matinee performance on Sunday. Unfulfilled dance and sniggersome synopses aside, Satori is a fair evening and nothing here is as cringe-worthy as, by all accounts, the lilac boots and sparkly jockstrap of his last evening for Project Polunin. Still, it’s too easy to mock his aspirations. There’s no snob like a ballet snob, and the ceaseless fusillade of snarky titters and sighs from the people sitting behind me rankled because many other dance fans still seem engaged in Polunin’s angst-paved journey. I suspect they long to be able to thoroughly enjoy his talent. They’d probably love him to enjoy it too.