REVIEW: Sergei Polunin at The London Palladium

Sergei Polunin in Fraudulent Smile. Photo by Alexey Kerkis

When the bad boy of ballet Sergei Polunin famously walked out of the Royal Ballet and turned his tattooed back on the ballet institution more than 5 years ago, I’m sure he didn’t imagine he’d be back in London dancing to less than full theatres with advertising defaced with the words ‘boycott’ gracing the tube stations of the West End. But his Instagram breakdown has seen this once proclaimed ‘greatest dancer of a generation’ truly and sadly fallen from ballet grace.

And unfortunately, Sergei’s Programme I at the London Palladium did little to restore the star’s reputation beyond that of an ‘enfant terrible’. The programme seemed to be curated to portray Sergei’s personal journey, to show his pain, his darkness and his torment, but it didn’t show any real remorse or regret, just anger, isolation and frustration of being what he believes is completely and unfairly misunderstood.

The evening started full of promise with Fraudulent Smile, a quirky and humorous piece created by Ross Freddie Ray. With an impressive cast of handpicked dancers from around the world, the French mime like characters were brought to life. With white painted faces, dressed in black trousers and bracers the male dancers were bare-chested, revealing most notably Sergei’s famous Putin chest tattoo.

Sergei Polunin in Fraudulent Smile. Photo by Alexey Kerkis
Sergei Polunin in Fraudulent Smile. Photo by Alexey Kerkis

Although this is an exceptional piece that is thoroughly entertaining, the choreographer poses the question of ‘why does a good man do bad things?’ before setting out that the piece is about how ‘we often blame an outside influence for our mistakes’ and ‘how blindly we follow’. He goes on to state that through the several characters ‘we take a look behind the mask and see inner reflection and torment’.

And with this introduction in the programme, we realise that we’re here not to see Sergei dance, but to be taken inside his mind and afflicted soul. Fraudulent Smile gives us a glimpse of Sergei’s talent with fleeting moments of complex jumps and mid-air twists that wow. This piece is a vehicle to show us Sergei laid bare, with his contorted painted face he screams silently in pain there’s a sense of palatable circus craze. Fraudulent Smile is an intelligent cabaret-style theatre show that’s made for Sergei, and the only highlight of the night.

Sergei chose Yuka Oishi to create the final two pieces of the programme. The first, Paradox, was a duo with Alexey Lyubimov and Dejan Kolarov dressed in black and white performing random, abstract and eclectic dance movements that were inspired by Nijinsky’s diary. But despite good performances by the dancers, the piece left me underwhelmed. Paradox was performed in a circle of leaves that became the setting for the final piece Sacré, Oishi’s reinterpretation of Nijinsky’s famous Sacre du preintemps that sees Sergei perform a solo to Stravinsky’s dramatic score.

Alexey Lyubimov and Dejan Kolarov in Paradox. Photo by Alexey Kerkis

Dressed in a camo suit and with his hair ragged the piece gave the impression of Sergei as the wild superstar trashing a hotel room as he flailed and flung his body in despair, his hands clawing at his tormented and gaunt face. But Sacré felt self-indulgent with a sense of anger, frustration and anguish in the fallen star. But just as the star falls, his story is not over. After literally entangling himself in rope and collapsing on the floor, a young skinny version of the ballet boy comes on stage and takes us back to the early days performing port de bras and tendu until his body begins to breakdown and he’s no longer able to perform the simple ballet steps. It all gets quite literal at this point and becomes a bit ridiculous and loses any impact of the bursts of Sergei’s trademark sky high leaps and dramatic performance. This piece left me wishing for more actual ballet and less running and stumbling across the stage. We were all there to see Sergei dance, but unfortunately, it was like reliving his public demise all over again and just like the Instagram feeds, wishing that it was less about the star’s inner demons and more about the dance.

Reviewed at the London Palladium on 28 May 2019.