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Another Glowing Review! Sergei’s 2013 Mayerling

Another Glowing Review! Sergei’s 2013 Mayerling

Another glowing review of Sergei as the tragic Crown Prince Rudolf!  The ballet “Mayerling” is based on the horrific real life story of the Mayerling incident.  This review is from The Arts Desk in Moscow.

theartsdesk in Moscow: Sergei Polunin triumphs in Mayerling

Royal Ballet rebel leaves Russians numb as MacMillan finally reaches them

another glowing review
Never a “skull” moment as Sergei Polunin’s Rudolf terrorises his wife Stephanie (Anastasia Limenko) Photo: Oleg Chernous/Stanislavsky Theatre
Quite simply, the performance was one of those rarest of events in the theatre that will be talked about for generations – 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.

So I’ll begin with Polunin: though 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 revealing 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.

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 and all the proportions that classical ballet could lust after – but with his Rudolf, we discovered he’s also a highly intelligent, sensitive and dramatic performer.

yet another glowing review
Polunin as Crown Prince Rudolf. Photo: M. Logvinov

Moreover, he brought his inner soul to the performance, finely judging the disintegration of this Prince of the Hapsburg Empire, understanding that he had to take us with him through his journey on stage, to develop the tragedy organically, not give it away too soon – and never to wreck 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, and 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.

The Stanislavsky company is absolutely tailor-made for his work, with its roots in the legendary Moscow Arts Theatre, created way back in 1887 by theatre revolutionaries Konstantin Stanislavsky and his colleague Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, for a new kind of work which abandoned the hackneyed classical traditions to explore new ways with drama. 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.

another glowing review
Rudolf (Polunin) and Countess Larisch (Anastasia Pershenkova). Photo: 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. 

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), both of them taking the pas de deux to a breathtaking edge of physicality. People looked pretty stunned going into the first intermission.

The one problematic element of Mayerling for me has always been John Lanchbery’s orchestration of Liszt, which 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.

another glowing review
Act 1 Ensemble in Moscow’s remake of the Georgiadis designs. Photo: M. Logvinov/Stanislavsky Theatre

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, who were 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.

another glowing review
Anna Ol and Polunin. Photo: M. Logvinov

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 and 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 bravoing erupting before the final drumbeat.  The Russian audience, more considered, went into their slow and measured handclap for 15 minutes.

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.

Polunin however, is only one of the Rudolfs in the company. Igor Zelensky himself makes his debut in the role, and on the second night 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, but his anger 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.

another glowing review
Empress Elizabeth (Natalia Krapivina) with Mikhail Pukhov as her lover Bay Middleton. Photo: M. Logvinov

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, encourage them to develop beyond the steps. By night two, Lincoln’s encouragement was obviously working: dancers were already growing their characters: courtiers more nosey, tarts saucier.

You also get all the detail because the Stanislavsky is an intimate theatre even though it seats 1,500. No-one can get away with marking their performance and it also allows subtle details to register which might otherwise be lost in bigger theatres. 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 need to struggle through the complexities of plotting they print in the programme book.

another glowing review
Zelensky as Rudolf with Ksenia Shevtsova as Vetsera. Photo: M. Logvinov

Zelensky’s artistic direction also bodes well for the Stanislavsky company.  This is his second season with them, the first of his own full planning with Mayerling his first big import.  He is also the catalyst for the Stanislavsky acquiring the rights to perform MacMillan.  While at the Royal Ballet, he danced in Manon and Romeo and Juliet.  The MacMillan estate which fiercely protects the integrity of the choreography trusts Zelensky.

Bringing it in to Moscow is a major commitment for the company.   The company has built its own sets and costumes 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.

Talk of classic Russian ballet and many would think only of Bolshoi and Mariinsky as the exemplars of the best of it.  Huge houses, huge companies with long traditions and highly political profiles, closely related to federal government. The Stanislavsky companies actually 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 side has regular festivals showcasing new talent, and they work in partnership with other companies abroad.  General director Vladimir Urin said it’s interesting for the development of the dancers to work with a variety of styles.

And now they have the challenges of MacMillan, which is a considerable coup for the company and its national profile. Until now, Muscovites have only seen MacMillan live on stage when the Royal visited.

Mayerling will be in rep until July.  Manon will join it next year.  Again, there will be a new build of the Georgiadis sets and costumes.  More will follow thereafter no doubt.  Will it be said that MacMillan has found a new home?

Mayerling “Love Deaths” Still Haunt

Mayerling “Love Deaths” Still Haunt

mayerling
Mayerling Lodge as it appeared in 1889. Photo: Public Domain

One of Sergei Polunin’s greatest roles is that of Crown Prince Rudolf in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling.”  He drew rave reviews for his pristine ballet technique and innate talent, but even more so for his emotional torching of the stage.  Many fans, while adoring the ballet “Mayerling,” are a bit lost when it comes to understanding the story.  It is a tragic tale that is based in fact.  The Mayerling deaths were real, and happened to real people.  

The Mayerling deaths

For more than 100 years, the mysterious “love deaths” at Mayerling, a village just southwest of Vienna.  They have gripped the imagination of the world and provided the raw material for many a play, film and even a ballet by Sir Kenneth MacMillan for The Royal Ballet.
The year 1989 marked the centennial of the Mayerling tragedy.  It was observed with the publication of books and articles analyzing the incident, the details of which were purposely obscured at the time the events occurred.

On Jan. 30, 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf, archduke of Austria-Hungary and heir to the Hapsburg crown, was found dead in the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, in the Vienna Woods, about 15 miles from the capital. Beside the body of the 30-year-old prince lay that of his mistress, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, 17.  Both had been shot.

mayerling

Prince Rudolf

Rudolf was the son of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and the famously beautiful and infamously melancholy Empress Elisabeth. Young Rudolf seemed to be a very different type than his cold and calculating father.  He developed an early passion for the natural sciences, liberal politics, and a somewhat more delicate sensibility in general.

By the time Rudolf was wed to Princess Stephanie of Belgium in 1881, he had already established the other habit that would appear to be his undoing.  He had a certain weakness for the ladies.  In fact, he allegedly brought a lover with him to his wedding.

Within a few short years, the marriage devolved into a relationship of mutual tolerance. Rudolf’s womanizing, drinking, and more recently acquired drug habit took over his life, apparently leading him in a downward spiral.

Seventeen year old Mary

Mary Vetsara on the other hand, appeared to be a young woman very much smitten with the prince. The 17 year old baroness, however, was not Rudolf’s first choice for his suicide pact. He actually attempted to convince another woman, a prostitute named Mitzi Caspar, to die with him. She declined his offer.

Mary and Rudolf left Vienna for the hunting lodge in Mayerling on January 29th, 1889.  The prince claimed he wanted to do a bit of hunting the following morning. Sometime in the night, Rudolf shot and killed Mary, and then turned the gun on himself. When the staff came to the door in the morning, the bodies were discovered.

A massive cover-up operation followed.  The royal family attempted to pass off Rudolf’s death as one of natural causes.  They tried to hide Mary’s body entirely.

Suicide?

A finding of murder was out of the question.  Rudolf, after all, was heir to the throne. At first there was even no mention of suicide, out of fear that the church would not permit a proper burial. Rudolf’s death was attributed to poison at the hands of his enemies, or to natural causes.

Because Rudolf was unhappily married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, no public mention was made of the teen-age baroness. Her body was spirited away and secretly buried.

Finally, the emperor informed the Pope that Rudolf had committed suicide in a “deranged state of mind.”  The Pope then allowed Rudolf a Catholic burial in the imperial vault in Vienna.

Mayerling mystery

The mystery gave rise to much speculation about the circumstances surrounding the deaths. Much of it emphasized the romantic aspects of Mayerling. Not until years later did the details became widely known.  But because the incident had been so shrouded in secrecy and deceit, conflicting versions endure.

For instance, Clemens M. Gruber, an author and opera archivist, published an account called “The Fateful Days of Mayerling.”  In Gruber’s view, Mary’s angry relatives forced their way into the lodge and Rudolf drew a revolver, accidentally shooting the baroness. He is then said to have been killed by one of her enraged relatives.

Another writer, Gerd Holler, who is also a physician, says in his book, “Mayerling–New Documents on the Tragedy 100 Years Afterward,” that Rudolf had arranged an abortion for Mary, who was reputedly three months pregnant. Holler contends that she died in the process and that Rudolf committed suicide.

Attempts to exhume the body of the baroness for examination have been blocked by members of her family.

Murder?

Empress Zita, who died at the age of 96 in a Swiss convent, argued that Rudolf was murdered by French political enemies of his father. She was the consort of Karl I, the last emperor and grand nephew of Franz Joseph.

Most scholars now prefer the version offered by historian Brigitte Hamann in her book, “Rudolf, Crown Prince and Rebel.” Hamann, who took part in a recent international conference on the incident at Mayerling, said in an interview:

“He was a poetic young man and brooded a lot. He was ill with syphilis and felt guilty that he had infected his wife. They had no children. The reason for all the confusion was the cover-up by the Imperial Court…  The fact is that Rudolf was a very nervous, sensitive man who flirted with suicide more than once.”

According to Hamann, the Baroness Vetsera, who was in love with the increasingly despondent Rudolf, was more susceptible to the love-death idea.

“There is no question,” she said. “Rudolf shot the girl and then himself.”

Their end brought about the end

Rudolf is buried in the Habsburg family crypt in Vienna, and Mary’s body lies in a modest grave in Heiligenkreuz, Austria.

Rudolf’s death left Franz Josef I without an heir, leading to the succession of Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 kicked off the hostilities of WWI, and effectively led to the end of the Hapsburg dynasty.

After the deaths, the emperor ordered the hunting lodge at Mayerling razed, and the area was transformed into a Carmelite church.  A small museum houses artifacts related to the deaths.  The Carmelite nuns there still pray for the souls of Rudolf and Mary.

This is a blog post by Pam Boehme Simon that includes excerpts from a March 19, 1989 article by William Tuohy, a Times staff writer, and a atlas travel article featuring the Mayerling Hunting Lodge.

Polunin “Miracle” in Ashton with Ananiashvili

Polunin “Miracle” in Ashton with Ananiashvili

Polunin Miracle in Ashton ballet with Nina Ananiashvili

Excerpts from a November 2015 review by Tatiana Kuznetsova

Frederick Ashton’s increasing popularity in Russia is shown in a new triple bill at the Stanislavsky Ballet, directed by Igor Zelensky, and starring Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody and Marguerite and Armand with Nina Ananiashvili. Tatiana Kuznetsova of Kommersant was swept away by the Marguerite and Armand, which she says has never before been so miraculously intimate in a Russian performance. It was like spying on the lovers through a keyhole, she says.

The artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theatre’s ballet company, Igor Zelensky, was at one time principal dancer simultaneously of three theatres, the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and the Balanchine company New York City Ballet. Since then his love for English-language classicism has only grown. He has regularly staged signature ballets of England and America on the Stasik stage, trying with mixed success to extract the right choreographic pronunciation out of Muscovite dancers.

Following on from the monumental dramas of the Scot [Kenneth] MacMillan, and the one-act lyricism and comic sketches of the American [Jerome] Robbins, we are now offered a group of the romantic poems of Frederick Ashton – the UK’s first and chief national choreographer.

One should add that the artistic director’s Anglomania is fuelled by the presence in his troupe of Sergei Polunin, with his immaculate English style: before he became the Stasik’s guest star, the young Polunin graduated from the Royal Ballet’s school and successfully danced with the company for several seasons, becoming the youngest male principal in Covent Garden’s history.

The choice of Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, was targeted on Polunin, with its hellishly tricky male lead role: Frederick Ashton, captivated by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s academic virtuosity and Soviet athleticism, made the ballet in 1980 specially for him.

“On a theme by Paganini” is dropped from the title with good reason – there is none of the agony of creativity or the battle against obscurantism in this optimistic work (unlike the ballet Paganini that the Soviet classicism Leonic Lavrovsky choreographed long before Ashton). The protagonist’s profession is indicated only by the lightest gesture (just a couple of times stroking an imaginary bow across an imaginary violin), and perhaps too in his romantic quest for his one muse – the ballerina, hidden among six coryphees.

But Polunin had not forgotten Paganini; he performed the pirouettes and entrechats, the explosive, whipping turns and slides with a psychological subtext that hinted at some circumstantial challenge, which actually cannot be found in this radiant choreography.

La Valse is a well-populated, opulent victory ball: the men in frock coats, the women in full dresses and tiaras, chandeliers, liveried footmen, the riotous crescendo of the finale in which the swirling of the couples, the surrendering jumps and high lifts, all reach an ecstatic climax.

In Moscow the grand triumphalism was turned into a feverish pursuit of the music’s tempi, especially as young conductor Zangiev was getting carried away by Ravelian contrasts, making the brass roared like a military band, letting the strings spread into a lyrical intimacy. The frock-coated men coped elegantly with the music’s heedless turns, but the women were noticeably panicking, spraying out obviously strained arms and frantically bobbing on the simplest balances.

So it turned out that the highlight of the “Ballets of Frederick Ashton” evening was not the premieres but the ballet in repertoire, Marguerite and Armand, on Lizst’s music, which the Stanislavsky has had in its repertoire for several seasons.

Then the miracle happened…

This time artistic director Zelensky’s choice of Marguerite was Nina Ananiashvili, former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi and many other international companies, and currently artistic director of the National Ballet of Georgia. She is 52 years old while her partner, Sergei Polunin, is 25. Yet the age difference was no problem: at the end of the day, this ballet was created by Ashton in 1964 for 25-year-old Nureyev and 44-year-old Fonteyn, taking into account the capabilities of an older ballerina.

The first thing has to be that notorious question: ‘chemistry’. If the players can’t be convincing in conveying fateful passion, the ballet is exposed as a set of stilted tableaux and some more or less striking lifts. So far, no one on any Russian stage has managed to transmit the magic of this archaic ballet.

polunin miracle

At the Stasik the miracle happened. This Marguerite and Armand forced one to forget everything about the old-fashioned direction, the naivety of the choreography, and the technical performance. It was as if it was not of the slightest importance whether the ballerina’s back was so flexible, or her legs went so high, or she had a wasp waist or not, if the love story of a selfless, tender courtesan and an ungovernable young aristocrat mesmerised you as if you were watching them through a keyhole.

polunin miracle

Photo Credit:  Kommersant

Royal’s Romeo And Juliet 2011

Royal’s Romeo And Juliet 2011

12,000 pack in to see Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet debut at the O2

Royal’s Romeo and Juliet at London’s O2 arena was a gamble that paid off, finds Louise Levene.

royals romeo
Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet at the O2: Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, Photo: ROH

Covent Garden it ain’t. The crowd is six times the size and a good half of them of them will be munching hot dogs throughout.  However, the Royal Ballet’s debut run at London’s O2 this weekend is a great success nonetheless.

The company’s bold experiment has brought high art at low prices to a whole new demographic, winning thousands of friends (and political brownie points) in the process.

Rock and Romeo

The old Millennium Dome’s hangar-like interior has meant rethinking the presentation.  Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 Romeo and Juliet took on brash, rock concert-like lines.

No pit meant putting Barry Wordsworth and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a narrow glass box above the stage. Their playing has been subtly amplified. Prokofiev’s thundering score floods the great barn of the O2.

Above the orchestra are three huge screens. They highlight important entrances and reaction shots that might easily be missed by a spectator two football pitches away.

The six cameras are coordinated by a nerve centre of screens and headsets in the stalls.  The show is directed by ex-Royal Ballet stars Michael Nunn and William Trevitt.

These one-time Romeos know precisely which moments need to be reinforced but even their best efforts are not always enough. The Royal Ballet has (rather touchingly) assumed that Romeo and Juliet is too well known to need telling.  But, while it is flattering not to be spoon-fed or patronised, I’m not sure the 12,000-strong audience was fully up to speed with characters or plot.

There are two chunks of Shakespearean voice-over but a few surtitles wouldn’t go amiss.  Particularly given that the only synopsis was inside a souvenir programme costing £10 (as much as many of the tickets).

Magic but confusing

The pas de deux worked their usual magic but crowd scenes were confusing. If the experiment is repeated – and I don’t see why not – it might also be an idea to colour code the characters more obviously: black for Tybalt; white for Romeo etc – that or put numbers on their backs.

In interviews before this expertly-hyped event the Royal Ballet’s stars had fretted that their close-ups might seem hammy and exaggerated.  These fears have proved groundless.

The playing was lusty and vivid but none of Friday night’s cast overacted.  Zooming in on the action merely reveals the detail that any balletomane with binoculars has long been aware of.

Rojo and Acosta

Friday night’s cast was led by Tamara Rojo and Cuban superstar Carlos Acosta, who was on superb form (not always the case this late in his 20-year career).

There were traces of the old fire in the great arcing leaps and every lift was a caress. Rojo’s dark expressive eyes were made for the big screen.  The intensity of her acting and the musical sweep of her dancing soon made you forget the venue and concentrate on the art inside it.

And, then there’s Polunin…

Thiago Soares made a dashing and dastardly Tybalt.  The 21 year old Sergei Polunin (doubling as Benvolio and lead Mandolin dancer in a last-minute casting crisis) was the best (and handsomest) dancer on stage.

The gilding and plush of Covent Garden has always been a major part of the Royal Ballet’s appeal but bigger, cheaper, less glamorous venues attract new audiences – the holy grail of every arts establishment.

English National Ballet’s conquest of the Royal Albert Hall proved that widening access needn’t compromise quality and the Royal Ballet was right to join the party.

This month’s O2 project has been the brainchild of the company’s 45-year-old administrative director Kevin O’Hare who has just been anointed as Dame Monica Mason’s successor. Not a bad start.

The final performance is today at 3pm: O2 Box Office 0844 856 0202 or online at www.theO2.co.uk

The Independent Culture, an article from November 2011

The Independent Culture, an article from November 2011

Sergei Polunin: One giant leap for British ballet

Sergei Polunin makes his debut in Manon. The Ukrainian also explains how he combines dance stardom with plans to open a celebrity tattoo parlour.

By Jessica Duchen

Tuesday 8 November 2011 00:00 GMT

He’s 21, he’s been called “better than Baryshnikov” and he has tiger scratches tattooed into his torso. Sergei Polunin, the youngest star of the Royal Ballet, makes his debut tonight as Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon. His extraordinary roller-coaster of a story, from rags to incipient riches, as told to me a couple of weeks ago by the lad himself, is in today’s Independent.

He’s rather lovely – intelligent and self-aware, under that youthful bravado – and I couldn’t help teasing him a little when he started talking about how he envies the street life of his former school friend back in Kherson, Ukraine, whom he encountered “walking around in a gang, looking cool”. I asked where he lives and he named a reasonably rough bit of north London. Plenty of gangs there, I said. I’m sure they’d have you, what with the tattoos and all. Fortunately he recognises that he can’t risk breaking a leg. Still, he’s already seen more of real life in his 21 short years than many of ballet (and music)’s practitioners will experience in twice that.

Stage lights, says Sergei Polunin, can conceal as much as they illuminate. Perhaps it’s just as well, because among this youthful Ukrainian’s ventures into body art beyond ballet is a simulation of tiger scratches on his torso. “Nobody really noticed my tattoos,” he remarks. “I put Sellotape or pancake make-up over them, but you’d be surprised how much you can’t see when the lights hit.”

What you can see of Polunin, the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal dancer, is mightily impressive. Long-limbed, with a radiant openness about his upper body, a spacious musicality and an apparently weightless, stratospheric jump, at only 21 he’s a persuasive candidate to be British ballet’s biggest hope. One bedazzled critic, reviewing him in Rhapsody earlier this year, even declared him “better than Baryshnikov” – praise indeed.

This season is packed with vital landmarks and debuts for him: tonight, he makes his debut in Manon as Des Grieux, the luxury-seeking heroine’s unfortunate lover. Soon there’s his first Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and an international cinecast of The Sleeping Beauty in which he is the Prince.

Polunin looks like a young man in a hurry, but in fact he is lucky to be alive. Aged eight, he contracted pneumonia; one of his lungs stopped working and the local hospital sent him home still ill after six weeks. The condition lasted a year. “My mum tried everything,” Polunin remembers. “Eventually, I ended up seeing this guy who heals with his hands.” After 10 sessions, by hook, crook or miracle, he was better.

He was born in Kherson, close to the Black Sea in Ukraine, where initially he joined a sports school to learn gymnastics. Pneumonia ended that: “I couldn’t come back to gymnastics because the floors were too dusty for my health.” The alternative was ballet. “Some of my friends were going to dancing school and, when one of them was auditioning for a ballet school in Kiev, my mother saw an opportunity for me to do that, so we could move to a bigger, better city.

“I’d always been one of the best in my gymnastics school, so I transferred to trying to be the best dancer, without knowing anything about ballet. I learned it as a routine. And even in Kherson, which had nothing like a ballet company, they respected dancers. It was so rare for a boy to be a dancer that everyone was impressed, even street kids.”

Kherson, he adds, was desperately poor: “Everyone was living in the same poverty and there was no hot water or electricity after 6pm. I had pocket money for good marks, but at some point I had to give it away for food. We moved to Kiev with $10 in my mum’s pocket; that was all. My dad went to work as a builder in Portugal and my grandmother went to Greece to support my mum and me.” He and his mother lived in one room for four years in Kiev.

Next Sergei auditioned for the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg. It wasn’t for him, nor he for it. “They were quite excited when they saw me dance but when they heard I was Ukrainian, not Russian, they backed off,” he says. He speculates that this might be due to the school’s funding set-up. “Besides, the whole city felt wrong for me. It was very cold and, in St Petersburg general, schooling is more important than dancing. I hated school.” He is dyslexic, he says: “Homework was torture.”

Now his mother suggested London and the Royal Ballet School. His father called an acquaintance in the UK who told them how to apply. Sergei was soon invited to audition but when the letter of acceptance arrived, it was in English and they could not understand it. “We thought it said we would have to pay £32,000 a year in fees, so we decided to forget the whole thing.”

If his ballet teacher’s dog had not played with another dog during a walk soon afterwards, he might not be here now. The two dog owners talked and became friends. “This friend knew English, looked at our letter and said: ‘no, you need a sponsor, but you don’t need to pay anything yourself’.” The same friend put the Polunins in touch with UK contacts to help find Sergei sponsorship from the Nureyev Foundation.

Aged 13, he arrived at the Royal Ballet’s junior school, White Lodge, in Richmond Park. “I’d read the Harry Potter books,” he laughs, “and it felt just like that!” His fate seemed assured when he won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in 2006; and at last he entered the Royal Ballet itself, having graduated from its school two years ahead of his age group.

Now he’s relishing the high demands of his biggest season so far. Des Grieux is a big challenge, he adds, for peculiar reasons: “I like strong characters, big steps and jumps. This role is a weak character, he’s insecure and it’s all adagio! It’s very pure. I think my dancing comes over as a bit wild, even if I’m thinking ‘pure’. The challenge is to make him interesting, without putting across the wrong type of character.”

His Manon is Lauren Cuthbertson; together they created the leading roles in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland earlier this year and their partnership has attracted much enthusiasm. “I think our lines complement each other – we both look quite long,” Polunin suggests. “And she’s very spontaneous, which makes it exciting to dance with her.”

Nevertheless, there’s a sense that Polunin is champing at the bit. He’s had invitations to make guest appearances with American Ballet Theatre and in Russia, and wasn’t pleased to find that his Royal Ballet duties would not allow him to go. But he managed some moonlighting closer to home: last month he danced in The Phantom of the Opera when it was cinecast to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

His dream roles, he says, are “manly” characters that require immense drama; long-term, he has his eye on two MacMillan masterpieces, Mayerling’s crazed Prince Rudolf, and the dark and devastating The Judas Tree. But he loves dancing Albrecht in Giselle: “The second act is so cleverly choreographed that when you’re supposed to be at the point of death, you feel you really are.”

He’s hungry for life and experience. “I’m not good!” he declares. “I don’t do many classes. Sometimes I don’t eat all day, then have four meals between 8pm and 4am. I go to bed really late – if I just sleep I won’t have a life outside ballet. And I have this idea to open a tattoo place. I’d like to create something classy, with open windows, maybe some celebrities coming in…” He is not joking. “It’ll be 50-50 with this American guy who’s a former gangster and learned tattooing in jail. I’m fascinated by that life. Once I went back to my old city and saw my best friend from childhood walking around with a gang, looking cool. I think I missed out by never having that street life doing stupid things.”

There’s another tattoo on his lower back, he says, in glass letters: “It represents my memories being washed away by rain.” His parents broke up when he was 14. “I was very upset,” he says. “After that I decided I was never going to think about anything bad again.”

His life is literally inked into his body. Perhaps it is inked likewise into the power of his dancing.

Sergei Polunin dances Des Grieux in ‘Manon’ on 8 and 15 November, Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000)

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?

The Mayerling Incident, A Tragic, True Story

The Mayerling Incident, A Tragic, True Story

1889 Tragedy at Mayerling : ‘Love Deaths’ Remain Fascinating

March 19, 1989|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer
VIENNA — For 100 years, the mysterious “love deaths” at Mayerling, a village just southwest of here, have gripped the imagination of Central Europeans and provided the raw material for many a play, film and a ballet by Kenneth MacMillan for The Royal Ballet.
This year, 1989 marks the centennial of the Mayerling tragedy, and it is being observed with the publication of books and articles analyzing the incident, the details of which were purposely obscured at the time.

On Jan. 30, 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf, archduke of Austria-Hungary and heir to the Hapsburg crown, was found dead in the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, in the Vienna Woods, about 15 miles from the capital. Beside the body of the 30-year-old prince lay that of his mistress, the Baroness Marie Vetsera, 17. Both had been shot.

At the time, the Roman Catholic Hapsburgs were at the zenith of their power, ruling much of Central Europe. Rudolf’s father, the Emperor Franz Josef, ordered an immediate cover-up, and this brought on much of the mystery that has shrouded the deaths.

No Mention of Suicide

A finding of murder was out of the question; Rudolf, after all, was heir to the throne. At first there was even no mention of suicide, out of fear that the church would not permit a proper burial. Rudolf’s death was attributed to poison at the hands of his enemies, or to natural causes.

Because Rudolf was unhappily married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, no public mention was made of the teen-age baroness. Her body was spirited away and secretly buried.

Finally, the emperor informed the Pope that Rudolf had committed suicide in a “deranged state of mind,” thus allowing a Catholic burial in the imperial vault in Vienna.

The mystery gave rise to much speculation about the circumstances surrounding the deaths, much of it emphasizing the romantic aspects of Mayerling. Not until years later, on the death of Franz Josef in 1916 and the crumbling of the Hapsburg Empire, did the details became widely known.

But because the incident had been so shrouded in secrecy and deceit, conflicting versions endured.

This year, for instance, Clemens M. Gruber, an author and opera archivist, published an account called “The Fateful Days of Mayerling.” In it he argues that Rudolf died in a brawl following a bout of drinking. In Gruber’s view, Marie’s relatives forced their way into the lodge and Rudolf drew a revolver, accidentally shooting the baroness. He is then said to have been killed by one of her enraged relatives.

Attempts to exhume the body of the baroness from a nearby cemetery have been blocked by members of her family.

Another writer, Gerd Holler, who is also a physician, says in his book, “Mayerling–New Documents on the Tragedy 100 Years Afterward,” that Rudolf had arranged an abortion for Marie, who was reputedly three months pregnant. Holler contends that she died in the process and that Rudolf committed suicide.

Empress Zita, who died last week at the age of 96 in a Swiss convent, argued that Rudolf was murdered by French political enemies of his father. She was the consort of Karl I, the last emperor, and grand nephew of Franz Joseph.

Most scholars now prefer the version offered by historian Brigitte Hamann in her book, “Rudolf, Crown Prince and Rebel.” Hamann, who took part in a recent international conference on the incident at Mayerling, said in an interview:

“He was a poetic young man and brooded a lot. He was ill with syphilis and felt guilty that he had infected his wife. They had no children. The reason for all the confusion was the cover-up by the Imperial Court…  The fact is that Rudolf was a very nervous, sensitive man who flirted with suicide more than once.”

Courtesan’s Refusal

She said that recently discovered documents show that Rudolf proposed the idea of a love murder-suicide to another woman, a prominent courtesan, Mizzi Kaspar, but that she refused.

According to Hamann, the Baroness Vetsera, who was in love with the increasingly despondent Rudolf, was more susceptible to the love-death idea.

“There is no question,” she said. “Rudolf shot the girl and then himself.”

After the deaths, the emperor ordered the hunting lodge at Mayerling razed and a Catholic convent built in its place. It still stands, and the Carmelite nuns there still pray for the souls of Rudolf and Marie.

 




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