Sergei Polunin: Rasputin

Choreography Yuka Oishi, music Kirill Richter
Polunin Ink
London Palladium

Choreographer Yuka Oishi "has created Rasputin especially" for Sergei Polunin’s short season at the London Palladium. I wonder what drew her to align the legendary ‘Mad Monk’ of Russian history with the perversely controversial, some might say delusional (contentious pronouncements, support for ‘strongmen’ Putin and Trump), Polunin?

Oishi is attempting, she says, to give us “the priest and the beast”, his addiction problems and mystical charisma dichotomy, ‘a major player’ and ‘a pawn’: a perfect vehicle for the conflicted Polunin, then...

Polunin has famously stated he wants to heal the world, or at least Russia and Ukraine (he holds joint passports). Rasputin allegedly ‘healed’ haemophiliac tsarevitch Alexey, the last tsar of Russia Nicholas II’s young son. He also had a hypnotic influence on tsarina Alexandra and many of the ladies of the court, of whom he took advantage. Did he precipitate the Russian revolution?

Anyway he had to be done away with, and Prince Yusupov (with others) did the honours. Rasputin, the sturdy Siberian peasant, was notoriously hard to kill. That’s as brief as I can make a tale of many variants. Oishi takes an hour of dance with a cast of five to cover its complexity. Several people I spoke to in the interval had no idea what was going on in this ‘Through the Looking Glass’ world. One thought it set in an asylum. There is much ‘antic disposition’.

On a chessboard set (set design by Otto Bubenicek) with symbolic chess pieces, a queen, a rifle, two horses (knights) which look like deer to me, rooks, a throne, but why is Rasputin kissing the deer—a touch of paganism, bestiality, or drawing energy from the natural world? Polunin forms a tangled bond with the three royals, arms linked, inseparable under a celestial light.

But what is Johan Kobborg doing in this hackneyed, episodic piece of kitsch dance theatre? Playing Yusupov as the rumoured bisexual, he is dressed in black with long red scarf and sparkly ‘Dorothy” red heels, lipstick smeared on his face. His duets with Polunin are tinged with S&M, the effete aristocrat desiring the unwashed muzhik?

Thank goodness for the fifteen-year-old Djordje Kalenic playing the tsarevitch—his athletic flips, gymnastics and poise lighten the faux intensity: a standout performance. And for Kirill Richter’s over-amplified cinematic score, in which most of the drama is played out...

Polunin takes on his role as if he were the Bolshoi’s Spartacus. Bravura leaps and dazzling dervish spins are interspersed with silent screen, larger than life acting and finger-splayed posturing. Those startled soulful, if not manic, eyes surely reach to the back of the upper circle. And the audience responds with a standing ovation. Every time he turns a fouetté, ballet’s trick pony, the audience responds with applause.

The mission statement on the back of the programme reads: “ballet is ready to evolve and integrate into mass culture”. It seems he has succeeded. Taking ballet into the world of variety. Didn’t Nijinsky perform in music halls after Diaghilev dispensed with his services?

Silhouetted against a red sky, he stands alone at the end, a risen Messiah, and a revolutionary (with his goatee beard he does look a bit like Trotsky)—in wide cinema screen. Validated.

Some exclusive top price tickets are advertised at £400+ to include champagne and a meeting with the star. Waiting for my companion, I am moved by security from the front steps of the theatre, as "important people will be arriving". Bread and circuses, religious ecstasy and melodrama...

Reviewer: Vera Liber