Polunin at the Palladium. Enhancing the alliterative twang, this choice of venue for the Prodigal’s return to a London stage was clever as well as allegorical. Sergei Polunin has shunned – and been shunned by – the traditional world of classical ballet for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with dance. Yet he remains – by some considerable distance (and, I mean light years) the most enigmatic and popular figure in the world of dance today. So his choice of London’s most popular theatre (I grew up on Sunday Nights at the London Palladium), but also one which is virtually unused for dance, is symbolic of gravitating away from the insularity of traditional dance and towards a fan-base more attuned to the celeb-infused world of entertainment. Contrary to my press-fuelled expectations, the house was largely full, crammed with legions of “Poluniners”, coming from all over the globe to express their adulation (some even paying a huge VIP premium to “meet and greet” their idol after the show).

Sergei Polunin (Rasputin) and Elena Ilinykh (Alexandra) © Vitaly Krivtsov
Sergei Polunin (Rasputin) and Elena Ilinykh (Alexandra)
© Vitaly Krivtsov

Palladium is also a precious metal, thirty times rarer than gold, mostly mined in Russia and mired in controversy. One scientist described it as “the nastiest metal in the world”. Substitute ‘critic’ for scientist and here we have layers of further symbolism that resonate with Polunin.

I believe in “calling a spade a spade”, irrespective of what it may or may not have been shovelling. And this new full-length ballet is an unqualified success; an achievement all the more admirable because it has been created without the continuity or resources of an established ballet company.

Djordje Kalenic (Tsarevich), Elena Ilinykh (Alexandra) and Alexey Lyubimov (Tsar Nicholas) © Vitaly Krivtsov
Djordje Kalenic (Tsarevich), Elena Ilinykh (Alexandra) and Alexey Lyubimov (Tsar Nicholas)
© Vitaly Krivtsov

Rasputin was an ordinary man from the middle of nowhere who suddenly became a mystic in his 30s and somehow rose to be the confidante (and maybe more) of Tsarina Alexandra, partly because of his uncanny ability to heal the pain and bleeding suffered by her haemophiliac son, Alexei. A divisive figure, loved by most who came under his spell (particularly women – the evidence of Rasputin as sexual predator is legion) but hated by most in the Russian establishment and seen as a cipher for Tsar Nicholas’ ineptitude, which grew to uncontrollable anger in the light of Russian military failings in World War 1. Having decided that Rasputin was a threat to the empire, Prince Felix Yusupov and a group of nobles assassinated him on 30th December 1916.

These essential building blocks of Rasputin’s biography are all present and correct in Yuka Oishi’s new ballet. Even the alleged need for Yusupov (and his unseen crew) to kill Rasputin several times over is clear, because after poison and gunshots, he kept reviving before eventually being dumped in the frozen Neva. His care and concern for the Tsarevich Alexei, the resultant devotion from Alexandra and the stoic support of the Tsar are all evident in carefully constructed passages and intelligible characterisations. Fifteen-year-old Djordje Kalenic gave a splendid cameo as the Tsarevich with Elena Ilinykh and Alexey Lyubimov as his earnest and devoted parents, albeit ineffectual as the rulers of that great empire.

Sergei Polunin (Rasputin) and Johan Kobborg (Yusupov) © Vitaly Krivtsov
Sergei Polunin (Rasputin) and Johan Kobborg (Yusupov)
© Vitaly Krivtsov

The ballet also benefits from simple and effective set designs by the multi-talented Otto Bubeníček, large chess pieces that served double duty as chairs and the handgun with which Rasputin was assassinated. The set reminded me (and not just because of chess) of the serviceable stagings that graced the birth of new British ballets by De Valois, Ashton and Helpmann in the 1930s and 40s. The score by Kirill Richter – one of the most sought after in the new generation of Russian composers – has tremendous power, sweeping in its symphonic range and suggestively descriptive.

Towering above all of this are two almighty performances. It is a welcome pleasure to revisit Johan Kobborg’s rich sense of dance theatre. His interpretation of the complex personality of Yusupov was lavishly and expressively detailed and he is in fine shape, dancing with assured precision, even in high-heeled shoes.

Sergei Polunin (Rasputin) © Vitaly Krivtsov
Sergei Polunin (Rasputin)
© Vitaly Krivtsov

Polunin is Rasputin, a titanic, totemic performance, revealing many facets of this controversial figure. When dancing in the simple peasant’s smock in which Rasputin is most popularly represented in the global psyche, the crown of Vladimir Putin’s head, famously tattooed on Polunin’s upper chest, was clearly visible, which seemed strangely relevant to the purpose. Polunin used the whites of his eyes to memorable effect, portraying the febrile mania of Rasputin in expressive characterisation and frenetic bouts of solo dancing, deliberately rough around the edges in ferocious multiple spins and frenzied jumps, which were routinely applauded mid-performance by an audience clearly in thrall to his talent. Wherever one stands on Polunin, the man, there is no doubt that this extraordinary performer retains a mesmeric stage persona and Rasputin is a role for which he was destined.

****1