When I was young my Mum would often tell me stories about how for only a few shillings and pence she saw Fonteyn and Nureyev at the Royal Opera House. Well, maybe one day those up in the gods at Sadler’s Wells this week will tell their grandchildren about the night they saw Natalia Osipova dance with Sergei Polunin. For though this Triple Bill of new works was commissioned by Natalia to explore more contemporary styles, it is her union with Sergei was the box office draw.
Did it fulfil expectations? Well, most of it did. But let’s start with the good…
The first piece, Qutb, comes from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and it’s a work of extraordinarily high technical demands that sees Natalia and her two accompanying male dancers, James O’Hara and Jason Kittelberger, examine fluidity, connection and dependency in a piece of almost constantly connected coordinated motion.
The precision in the execution is extraordinary. The movement is perpetual, the dancers constantly in touch. No sooner has one movement ends then another begins. The physicality of the piece is impressive also. So much strength is exerted, and Natalia is not once found wanting in this department compared to the men.
The three tumble and weave across the floor, always maintaining contact with another. It’s a haunting piece, with themes of loss, sorrow and mutual support infusing the choreography. There’s an apocalyptic sense here too, accentuated by the low red lighting that floods the stage. These are survivors, constantly taking it in turns to collapse, then to support; to lead, then to follow.
Some of the production values were a bit OTT – the planetary eclipses dominating the back drop were there as some kind of echo of alignment, reflecting how the dancers themselves must align in order for this to work – but the choreography was more fluid, more unpredictable than celestial movement. But this is a small gripe in what is an absorbing work.
But it’s what follows that will stay with you: Natalia dancing with Sergei Polunin in Russell Maliphant’s Silent Echo.
This was sublime. That sensuality was completely removed from this piece, instead interrogating a relationship of support and trust, makes this unpredictable in the most impressive of ways. How easy it could have been to be have been sucked into blending the personal with the public (Natalia and Sergei are a couple offstage as well as on). But no, instead this is a performance of duets and solos which shows both Natalia and Sergei operating at an extraordinary level.
The piece starts with a series of coordinated solo spins that had the audience gasping. And this then flows into a duet full of moments of speed and grace broken up with passages of almost classical pas-de-deux. The two are so syncopated. As Russell says in the programme, ‘there’s an incredible togetherness about them.’ But it’s an interesting togetherness: it’s not an electric chemistry; more a mutual understanding.
And all this set to an intense score from James Lavelle and a lighting design from Michael Hulls that has the stage shrouded in darkness, the dancers lit up in contrast with the spotlights.
It’s Natalia’s evening, I know. But it’s impossible to write about this production without writing about her partner. Sergei Polunin is simply the finest dancer I have ever seen in my life.
His solo, well, breath-taking is used too often but, my god, this man is extraordinary. Such strength, such elegance, such lightness… He is a master of everything and his blend of his immense technical classical expertise with his exploration of modern contemporary dance, infusing it with something that comes from deep within – an excavation of pain from his inner self – is so impressive. To see Sergei Polunin dance is to witness greatness – it is that simple.
So where to go after such an exhilarating high? Well, the only way to go, it seems, is down as the final piece is woeful. It hurts to even have to explain it to you as it means I have to relive it again in my head.
Basically, choreographer Arthur Pita seems to have become utterly obsessed with Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil – their crazy co-dependence and their ever-off-again-on again status – and decided to bring this to life through dance.
Only there is actually no dancing to speak off. Instead, two of the finest dancers (not just right now but ever) are reduced to posing and preening themselves through an am-dram level production.
You know things are going to go badly when the piece starts off with Natalia and Sergei grasping out from their joint grave, pushing themselves out through the dirt, Thriller-style. Your heart sinks but, frankly, it even manages to go downhill from here.
There’s no nuance or subtlety in this – Amy (or should that be Natalia?) bee-hive in place is swigging vodka straight out the bottle, staggering all over the stage. Whereas Sergei’s Blake is all tight white t-shirts, cigarettes and needle in the arm. (*obligatory eye roll at the deliberate parallels being drawn on his personal life.*)
The woeful under-utilisation of the talent on stage is criminal. I say again, there is no dancing, except for some extended armography as the unhappy couple pass their fags and booze back and forth, and an eye-wateringly cringey sequence when the pair are going for it Sixties-style with some hitch-hike moves and the notorious swim where you hold your nose and wiggle down to the floor. The great Sergei Polunin, probably the finest dancer since Nureyev, reduced to the funky chicken… I mean, what else is there to say?
Not even the music saves it as Amy’s unique back catalogue is overlooked in favour of a jukebox-blend of Sixties hits from The Shangri-Las, The Crystals and Frank Moon. Natalia gives it her best with some real fragility in the bits where the two are standing looking at each other for minutes on end but I’m grasping at straws here to say something nice.
If exhaustion was a factor, if it was thought that both but especially Natalia would be too exhausted following the extraordinary level of performance in the first two pieces, then the decision should have been made to keep this as a double bill. It short changes both performers and the public to let them endure this.
But anyway, let’s focus on the positives… The first two are worth the price of admission alone.
Sadler’s Wells, London
June 29 – July 3, 2016, and September 27 – October 1, 2016
Run Mary Run images are by Bill Copper
Qutb images are Alastair Muir