The most-talked about male dancer of his generation imploded in 2012, quitting The Royal Ballet where he had been made a principal dancer at the unprecedented age of 19. This was followed by a tawdry period of unfortunate declarations (and tattoos) adrift in a dancing wilderness, punctuated by rare grace moments like 2015’s explosive video to Hozier’s Take Me To Church (30 million views to date). His return to the London stage in 2019 was greeted with sharpened knives in a career where, latterly, his personality has overshadowed his dancing. This one-night gala performance at The Royal Albert Hall will go a long way to restoring faith and focussing attention back on his extraordinary talent.
Polunin is an artist whose exceptional talents have a visceral potency, matched by a presence that radiates to the furthest row. Just in case we forget that it’s all about him, he comes on at the very start for a newly created divertissement, leaping and turning like a young god, and blowing kisses (in character as Romeo?) like a rock star. The grandstanding is particularly appropriate in a venue on this impossible scale, where every gesture needs to be oversold.
Polunin is never less than compelling throughout, playing to the crowd as the cocky young Montague (and himself?) but also believably besotted and crazed with love later on. His dancing is powerful and effortless, if a tiny bit wild at times. But then he hasn’t performed a full season in a full company for many years. It is, perhaps, part of the rakish charm that he appears able to stroll on and toss out spins and grand jetés through sheer force of will – and talent. One can only dream that he will soon return to full repertoire and peak performance.
This production may be a vehicle for its star, but there is much else to note. Ballet is prone to endless longueurs of gesturing and parading in between the actual dancing. Rather than the drawn-out 150 minutes it usually takes for companies to wade through all the peripheral plots and padding, Kobborg’s lean cut shears way the fat, delivering 90 tightly trim minutes.
There’s no silly nurse, faffing with the priest or interminable family scenes. The storytelling is clear and concise, although the rigid focus on the central couple means some texture is lost and no secondary characters or storylines register. Part of this may also be thanks to the enormous echoing space, itself, where nuance (and indeed facial expressions) struggle to impact.
Leading lady Cojocaru, of course, is as divinely exquisite as always in her phrasing and impossible lightness. Paired with Polunin, they are a balletomane’s dream. However, for me, while she dances flawlessly, she doesn’t sell any of the emotion out to the crowd with her body or face. Something which is essential in this big old barn, however gorgeous it may be.
Likewise, the towering single set set-piece is a magnificently huge hewn block of chiselled stairs, platforms and arches that endless reconfigures itself. It’s a triumph of engineering but still a little lost in the cavernous hall. The music also suffered somewhat from being blasted full-volume from reverberating speakers, robbing some of the more tender passages of any delicacy.
Oh, to see this production in a more intimate, atmospheric setting. There is a jewel of a piece here, still needing some precision cut and polishing, but deserving to become a popular work, regularly performed, to please purists and entice newcomers alike.