Review of Sergei's "Mayerling" Performance in Moscow, 2013 | Sergei Polunin
Review of Sergei’s “Mayerling” Performance in Moscow, 2013

Review of Sergei’s “Mayerling” Performance in Moscow, 2013

theartsdesk in Moscow: ‘Sergei Polunin triumphs in Mayerling’

Royal Ballet rebel leaves Russians numb as MacMillan finally reaches them

Never a skull moment: Sergei Polunin’s Rudolf terrorises his wife Stephanie (Anastasia Limenko)© Oleg Chernous/Stanislavsky Theatre

Will be talked about for generations

Quite simply, the performance was one of those rarest of events in the theatre that will be talked about for generations.  Such is the Russian premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, with the former Royal Ballet star Sergei Polunin making his debut as Crown Prince Rudolf.

This has been a “must-see” evening since the minute it was announced by Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet.  Not only with Polunin now having rock-star status in Russia, but also for MacMillan’s choreography which is not found in any other Russian theatre. Extra chairs were put in, people were even sitting in the aisles. The full run of performances has long been sold out.

Impossible to do justice to what Polunin showed us on stage

So I’ll begin with Polunin.  It will be impossible to do justice to what he showed us on stage. He started his journey as a troubled young man from the very beginning.  After the arrogance of the wedding proceedings, his Rudolf emerged from the crowd and started his first solo with such fluidity that the change was imperceptible. In and out of the balletic gestures as he moved around the crowd.  Gradually he revealed the reality of his circumstances: contempt for the courtiers, chilly distance from his father, his expectation still to have the pick of the women (married or not) and his terrible ache for his unresponsive mother.

Polunin a highly intelligent, sensitive and dramatic performer

These days, one expects a dancer to have the physique and technique to cope with Rudolf, one of the toughest roles for a male dancer.  But merely doing the pyrotechnics simply isn’t good enough. Polunin is one of the most stunning technical dancers you could ask for. Prodigiously talented with an innate physical beauty he has all the proportions that classical ballet could lust after.  With his Rudolf, we discovered he’s also a highly intelligent, sensitive and dramatic performer. 

mayerling review
Polunin pictured below by M. Logvinov

And Polunin is only 23

Moreover, Polunin brought his inner soul to the performance and finely judged the disintegration of this Prince of the Hapsburg Empire.  He understood that he had to take us with him through his journey on stage, to develop the tragedy organically, not give it away too soon.  He never wrecked the nuances with grand guignol. And Polunin is only 23.

With good casting with MacMillan you will never see the same ballet twice; individual interpretation is paramount. Every dancer is required to find their inner reason for being the character they play. MacMillan himself wanted the audience to forget they were watching dancers and to be enveloped in the drama.

Company tailor-made for MacMillan

The Stanislavsky company is absolutely tailor-made for his work, with its roots in the legendary Moscow Arts Theatre, created way back in 1887.  The Stanislavsky has “dancing drama actors” – “method” acting translated into the ballet so the dancers live their roles and are the foremost contributors to create the drama.

mayerling review
Polunin and Pershenkova by M. Logvinov

So Polunin’s Rudolf evolves in a series of relationships and encounters.  Each of Rudolf’s ladies in turn firing on some pretty spectacular voltage as they relate to him. Anastasia Pershenkova’s Countess Larisch emerged as a really complex part of the Rudolf story.  From a sizzling sexy seductress in Act 1, she became more than his ex-mistress and his procuress; we also saw her as the only one who has come to care for him as the person he is under all the bravado. 

People were stunned going into the first intermission

As the Empress, Natalia Krapivina seriously changed the temperature from sunny dancing with her ladies to produce an arctic imperial distance from Rudolf in the scene in her closet. From which he could go on to his cruel and violent encounter with his new wife Stephanie. Danced by Anastasia Limenko (only 18 months out of ballet school), the two of them take the pas de deux to a breathtaking edge of physicality. People looked pretty stunned going into the first interval.

John Lanchbery’s orchestration of Liszt nuanced and shaded

The one problematic element of Mayerling for me has always been John Lanchbery’s orchestration of Liszt.  All too often I’ve heard blasting over the top into the seriously vulgar. But I heard a quite different score with Anton Grishanin’s conducting. Nuances were shaded, climaxes tailored to what was happening on stage in the drama – and the tempi were fabulously alive.

mayerling review
The Act 1 ensemble in Moscow’s remake of the Georgiadis designs.  Photo by M. Logvinov

Two other points on ensemble: the Stanislavsky Theatre presents both opera and ballet, but the orchestra doesn’t think it’s slumming for the ballet – it too is signed up to the Stanislavsky ethos. I saw players watching as much as they could of the stage, where in other places they might only be reading car magazines while counting the rests before their next entry.

In the crowd scenes – particularly the Tavern scene at the start of Act 2 – a great deal of the electricity on stage emanated from stunning dancing from senior dancers in the company, principals and soloists.  They seemed eager to be part of the MacMillan experience, even down to playing whores and potboys. Apparently among the four Hungarian officers there were three Siegfrieds and two Albrechts, matching Polunin’s technical physicality. Never has the Mephisto Waltz in the tavern scene in Act 2 fizzed so joyously.

mayerling review
Ol and Polunin, by M. Logvinov

Polunin shows Rudolf’s deepest anguish

Then, after Maria Vetsera’s arrival in Rudolf’s bedroom, Polunin found ever more to show us of Rudolf’s deepest anguish, his physical and mental disintegration in those series of extreme pas de deux. Anna Ol matching him all the way, obviously so well supported by and confident in his partnering that we were completely sucked into the vortex. 

At his final solo, Polunin gave us a terrible, futile, emptiness. How could it be possible to dance a nothingness?

A member of the audience told me that after Act 1, she was in a state of high tension.  She couldn’t believe that it could rack up more in Act 2. And yet again in Act 3 so that by the end she was choked by the experience. At the Royal Opera we’re used to wild bravos erupting before the final drumbeat.   The Russian audience, more considered, went into their slow and measured handclap for 15 minutes.

Polunin should continue to astonish us in the future

Is this report way over the top? Polunin, by every standard, produced a performance that was superlative.  Even though Friday night was his first stab at dancing Rudolf and he is still only 23. Part of the back story is that since his sad departure from the Royal Ballet a year ago, he’s been mentored by Igor Zelensky, the Stanislavsky’s artistic director and one of the greatest dancers of recent times. With this kind of backing Polunin should continue to astonish us in the future.

Second casts still packed the house

Polunin however, is only one of the Rudolfs in the company. Igor Zelensky himself makes his debut in the role.  The theatre was again packed for the Stanislavsky’s star dancer Georgi Smilevski, with Natalia Somova as Stephanie, Erica Mirkitcheva as Larisch and Ksenia Shertsova as Maria Vetsera.

Smilevski’s was perhaps a slower descent to hell, his relationship with his mother reading as bitter.  His anger is colder, his depravity more ruthless. Ksenia Shertsova’s Maria Vetsera was also chilling.   We saw she knew exactly what he liked to do with skulls and guns and played him at his own game. From there on the two were on an unstoppable descent, the particularly Russian timbre of the brass section screaming an accompaniment.

mayerling review
Natalia Krapivina’s Empress Elizabeth with Mikhail Pukhov, her lover Bay Middleton, by M. Logvinov

MacMillan dancers required to “inhabit” their characters

Rudolf’s tragedy is played in the context of a vast canvas: the decadence of the Hapsburg Court, intrigue, infidelity, betrayals, jockeying for advancement. Courtiers spying, denouncing, women available sexually, two-faced politicians: those who worked with MacMillan know he required everyone on stage to contribute, everyone to know their own back story, to inhabit their character.

For Julie Lincoln, and her colleagues from the MacMillan team who teach and stage the works, the task is not only to teach the choreography from the notation, but to help everyone to understand the importance of the characterisation.  Also, to encourage them to develop beyond the steps. By night two, Lincoln’s encouragement was obviously working.  Dancers were already growing their characters.  The courtiers more nosey, the tarts saucier.

Intimate theatre allows for more subtle details

Stanislavsky is an intimate theatre.  You get all the detail, even though it seats 1,500. No-one gets away marking their performance and subtle details register which might otherwise be lost in bigger theatres.  Therefore, for the first time I saw how Baroness Vetsera, a stately performance from Natalie Trubnikova, is horrified when she understands just what a terrible liaison Larisch is cooking up for her daughter. With this clarity of detail possible, the audience doesn’t struggle through the complexities of plotting they print in the programme book.

mayerling review
Zelensky with Ksenia Shevtsova as Vetsera, by M. Logvinov

Set, costumes are original Nicholas Georgiadis designs

Zelensky is the catalyst for the Stanislavsky acquiring the rights to perform MacMillan.  At the Royal Ballet, he was in Manon and Romeo and Juliet and has the trust of the MacMillan estate which fiercely protects the integrity of the choreography. Bringing it to Moscow is a major commitment for the company.  Sets and costumes were built from the original Nicholas Georgiadis designs with financial support from BP.  BP has chosen the Stanislavsky as one of their major partners in Russian culture. Also, last year they helped with a new production of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace which has contributed to the company being nominated this year as one of Europe’s best opera companies. In addition, other BP cultural partners are the Moscow Conservatoire, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St Petersburg.

The Stanislavsky companies actually belong to the city

Talk of classic Russian ballet and many think only of Bolshoi and Mariinsky as the exemplars of the best.  Huge houses, huge companies with long traditions.  Highly political profiles, closely related to federal government. The Stanislavsky companies belong to the City of Moscow, which funds them.  They’re proud to be part of that city’s strong and living theatrical tradition.

The ballet showcases new talent.  They work in partnership with other companies abroad.  This autumn, Dance Inversions will bring in companies from Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.  They have a tradition of building relationships with the creative talents who come to work with them. Notably, the likes of John Neumeier, Jiri Kylian and Nacho Duato. Their general director Vladimir Urin told me that it’s interesting for the development of the dancers to work with a variety of different styles all the time.

MacMillan ballets have a new home

Having MacMillan is a considerable coup for the company and its national profile. Until now, Muscovites have only seen MacMillan live on stage from visits by the Royal. Mayerling is in rep till July; Manon will join it next year.  Again they will build in Moscow the Georgiadis sets and costumes.  Surely, more MacMillan will come thereafter no doubt. Will it be said that MacMillan has found a new home?

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