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Midnight Express

Peter Schaufuss
Peter Schaufuss Ballet
London Coliseum

Midnight Express Credit: Peter Schaufuss Ballet

Choreographer Peter Schaufuss has based this ballet (new to London but actually first created some years ago) upon Billy Hayes's book about his experiences in a Turkish prison after trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. The story is well-known from Alan Parker’s movie and those who have seen it will probably find the action easier to follow than those who don’t already know it.

In contrast to the image the movie projected, this version presents a pristine, almost clinical environment and the choreography often produces a sense of detachment, its violence observed rather than viscerally experienced, about images much more than feelings.

Steven Scott’s setting and lighting is both impressive and beautiful. With its sliding metal gates and descending prison bars it suggests multiple cages and Schaufuss often uses his dancers as moving shapes dimly seen or blurred by light dazzle behind them as a background to foreground action, often creating some beautiful pictures. He presents violence through robotic stamping, truncheon blows and symbolic thrustings, fights portrayed in slowed-down motion that makes their menace symbolic rather than scary.

In days of colour-blind and cross-gender casting, perhaps one ought to be oblivious to the fact that some of the men in this prison are actually women, or perhaps this is part of Schaufuss’s stated intention to broaden the concept beyond a Turkish prison and to make his ballet universal, representing atrocities and affronts to human rights anywhere.

His programme scenario describes his opening scene as “Billy preparing himself for his hash smuggling trip”. Johan Christensen dances it with authority but, though we see him taking long drags and blowing smoke to establish the hashish there is little sign of preparation for anything but. Instead we have an opening solo that seems to go from those slow drags to what could be a foretaste of what is to come like an overture—then suddenly he is being arrested. This is less narrative than sudden moments that are blindingly explicit, for Schaufuss has a strong sense of the theatrical and is not afraid of using the obvious.

The stomping of his sadistic, black-outfitted guards may be banally familiar, but its variations and repetitions leave no doubt about what they symbolise and he creates a rhythmic crescendo of metal bowl bashing to accompany the fight that ends the first act with Billy biting out the tongue of his tormentor.

Subtlety is not what Schaufuss is looking for. He contrasts the harsh prison action, largely set to G Moroder’s pulsing electronic music, with elegiac duets in which Billy’s murdered Frisco (Stefan Wise) and Max (Daniel Cardoso) are joined each by their own angel of death and have pas de deux to ethereal Mozart. It is no odder than things that happen in classical ballet and its unearthliness is emphasised when Frisco exits carrying his personified death, the bars opening in a blaze of heavenly that prefigures the gold radiance the greets Billy on his escape—although quite how that happens the choreography doesn’t bother to explain.

The “defection” of star Sergei Polunin, originally announced as dancing Billy, grabbed the headlines and required rapid recasting. Polunin and fellow defector Igor Zelensky probably decided that Schaufuss’s choreography was not their style and did not want to be seen in it and it certainly won’t fit some tastes.

Nevertheless Midnight Express has a theatrical validity. With his designer's help, Schaufuss creates some beautiful images and some striking moments. He has given former Royal Ballet star Wayne Eagling, making a brief cameo appearance as Billy’s father, a poignant duet with his son that captures the awkwardness of their meeting, but—the opposite side of Schaufuss’s creativity—he does not show the same judgement with Billy’s girlfriend (Simona Marsibilio) when he makes her bare her breasts without making any real point.

Midnight Express (the title is prison slang for an attempt to escape) will please Schaufuss fans who admire his theatricality rather than classical balletomanes.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton