I am completely starstruck. Last week I saw Sergei Polunin perform twice with the Stanislavsky Theater - first as Basil in Don Quixote and then as the Prince in Swan Lake. I’ve obviously heard a lot about Polunin. For the non balletomanes out there, he was made a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet at the age of 20, the company’s youngest ever principal. After two years, he unexpectedly quit the company. A few months later, he signed on as a principal with the (respectable but still not nearly as famous) Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow. You can read an excellent article about him here.
Since his move to Moscow, Polunin has become a more elusive dancer to see, and I obviously felt very lucky to catch him in two performances. I was especially eager to see if he lived up to any of the hype. The answer is that he completely surpasses it. I really have never been so impressed by a dancer. The thing that strikes me most forcefully about him is his enormous charisma. Whenever he is onstage, the eye is drawn to him. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a beautifully intense stare, but he has much more than that - every moment he is performing he is fully present in the role, every gesture no matter how small done with acuteness and power. This is especially potent in his portrayal of the Prince in Swan Lake, a role that has to anchor the ballet’s narrative without having much opportunity for solo dancing. Polunin’s prince begins somewhat lost and disaffected; his ardent love for Odette seems to give him something to hold on to in life. His eyes follow her across the stage, and he runs to her as though drawn by some outside force.
Polunin as the Prince in Swan Lake
Polunin’s solo variations combine this dramatic intensity with textbook-perfect technique. I’ve seen a lot of impressive male dancers here in Moscow, but many of them seem to lose a sense of their character and of the audience as soon as they have to perform impressive jumps or turns. Polunin never turns off the artistry. So many other male principals land with the greatest of care in order to avoid falling over or take an extra step; to do this takes a concentration that you can see on their faces. Polunin simply lands on the ground perfectly and moves into the next step or pose. We are drawn along with him into the torrent of movement, not fixated on the technique, even though that technique is beautiful. In addition to having amazing height on his jumps and beautiful turns, Polunin also boasts an arabesque and a back attitude that most ballerinas would kill for.
Polunin and Somova in the 3rd Act pas de deux from Swan Lake. Interestingly, the Stanislavsky uses the original 3rd act pas de deux music, better known to most audiences as the music for Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux
I’ve heard Polunin spoken of as the next Nureyev and the comparison is apt. Sadly, however, this is a Nureyev without his Fonteyn. Both evenings I saw Polunin performing with Natalia Somova, who just isn’t cutting it on this level. She can be sweet and charming, but she lacks charisma and simply doesn’t have the same level of technique. In addition, sometimes their partnership seems strained. In particular, there was a disastrous pair of flying fish dives in Don Quixote, during the second of which Polunin didn’t manage to tip Somova over at all, and they ended up sort of hugging standing up. I’ve seen videos of Polunin paired with other people and doing it brilliantly, so I assume that this is not an inherent flaw in his dancing, but I’m not enough of a dancer myself to tell who’s really at fault.
The wonderful partner that Polunin does get at the Stanislavsky is its beautiful orchestra. Having been to five ballets at this theater, I am now prepared to dub it my favorite ballet orchestra ever (better than New York City, better than the Bolshoi, miles better than the Royal). Felix Korobov, the chief conductor, who likes a fiery brass section and a quick tempo, always manages to bring out a full and lyrical sound, even when the music has been somewhat tampered with to fit the choreography. The instrumentalists are a dream, particularly the French horn section and the harpist (sadly I can’t name them because they’re not listed on the website). Everything in the ensemble provides the emotional background for Polunin’s portrayal. I know that the orchestra isn't the reason Polunin moved to this theater, but I deeply wish it were.
So, in sum: see Polunin at the Stanislavsky (especially in Swan Lake), but hope with the rest of us that they persuade some wonderful young ballerina to move to the company.
Stanislavsky Theater, Don Quixote, June 14, 2013. Music by Ludwig Minkus, Choreography by Alexei Chichinadze, Kitri: Natalia Somova, Basil: Sergei Polunin, Conductor: Anton Grishanin
Stanislavsky Theater, Swan Lake, June 20, 2013. Music by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, Production by Vladimir Burmeister, Odette/Odile: Natalia Somova, Prince: Sergei Polunin, Evil Genius: Nikita Kirilov, Jester: Dmitri Zagrebin, Conductor: Felix Korobov