The eclectic freelance life of Sergei Polunin is flourishing as movie roles take him further towards the kind of stardom few ballet dancers are ever likely to experience. However, some in the dance community appear unwilling to forgive his past demeanours: most commentaries on his current work begin either with reference to certain activities of five, or more, years ago; or through the regurgitation of the “bad boy of ballet” tag that hangs in the air like a bad smell.  

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Satori
© Tristram Kenton

I prefer each iteration of Project Polunin to come on a clean slate. And, with Satori, one senses a welcome step forward in every regard. An elite cohort of well-prepared dancers; an exceptional creative team bringing strong production values; and refreshingly “new” content. It felt like the evolution of a new “pop-up” company with that glitzy VIP feel of a big statement.  And, by and large, it was.

The second part of the evening showcased forty minutes of Polunin’s own choreography, in the title work, bringing holistic production values one would expect of a long-standing company. An impactful set, incorporating a gnarled, ancient tree and plenty of clouds, designed by David LaChapelle (the director of Polunin’s viral, YouTube dance to Jade Hale Christofi’s Take Me To Church); an impressive score, by Lorenz Dangel, played by the ENO orchestra, conducted by English National Ballet Music Director, Gavin Sutherland; light, pastoral costumes by Angelina Atlagic; with effective lighting designs by Christian Kass, incorporating a plethora of opening digital images as a butterfly flitted ethereally through the landscape of pictures and echoes of Churchill’s unmistakeable voice speaking “…never surrender”. 

Satori is an unusual mix of expressionism enveloped in a romantic setting; without linear narrative, but clearly with meaningful intent. The flowery language used to describe the work in the printed programme left me none the wiser about that purpose but it was nonetheless intriguing trying to join up the dots.

Sergei Polunin in Satori
© Tristram Kenton

Polunin is, apparently, a “seeker”, although nothing to do with Quidditch, spending much of the work either in meditation or raging against unseen forces. Natalia Osipova brings a contemplative quality of reassurance in her interaction with the seeker. One wonders if she is a memory of a past love, an idea reinforced by the appearance of a mother and child. The child may be the seeker’s former self and the parent - Serbian dancer, Ljiljana Velimirov – a memory of his own mother. The child is played by Tom Waddington, a charismatic eleven-year old student of the Dance Warehouse, in Canterbury.

The programme had opened with a seven-minute piece, aptly entitled, First Solo. Perhaps there was a statement of sorts in Polunin beginning by dancing with his back to the audience.   Andrey Kaydanovskiy’s choreography configured contrasting bouts of wistful reflection and sharp attack, while the dancer’s barely-covered torso evidenced the ripped physique of a man who has certainly been exercising hard.

Polunin also deserves credit for reviving important historical works, this time, celebrating the 125th anniversary of Kasyan Goleizovsky’s birth by presenting one of his few surviving works. Scriabiniana appears as a kind of capsule gala, in a succession of individual dances – from solos to quartets – that appear remarkably modern, despite having been made 60 years’ ago. Scriabin’s music is beautiful and the choreography flows through it with masterful intuition.

Elisa Badenes in Scriabiniana
© Tristram Kenton

A small quartet swirl like leaves blown in a gentle breeze; Osipova brings exotic plasticity to a solo that ends in the silhouetted pose of an art deco divinity; Elisa Badenes and Jason Reilly danced duets of calm and mature assurance; and – appearing like a young Denis Matvienko – Alexei Lyubimov brought the contemporary Soviet essence of Spartacus to his warrior-like, virile attack in a duet with Evgenia Savarskaya. I greatly enjoyed this flavour of Goleizovsky’s innovative, lyrical choreography as an example of how to fill an empty stage with pure dance, to great effect. 

It would be unfair to expect Polunin to have the strength of classical technique that he once enjoyed through a daily regime of full-time ballet, in one of the world’s elite companies; but he still has the passion and expressionism of an artist aligned to the physical excellence of an Olympic athlete. He jumps high, with both brio and ballon, and spins with speed and precision, and even if the refined classicism is no longer quite there, Polunin brings a notable sense of excitement every time he takes to the stage. He is also showing a keen impresario’s eye through the presentation of an innovative programme that was as well produced as it was performed.

Polunin gave his fans what they wanted, occupying the stage, prominently, in all three works and showcasing Osipova to strong effect in a programme that showed this P&O vessel to be more the elite ocean liner than the channel-hopping tramp steamer. If we can learn to forget the vagaries of impetuous youth and appreciate the maturing of an outstanding artist/producer then there is much to look forward to, both on stage and screen.