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Stars Experiment

Posted on December 13, 2017


Encouraged by their international acclaim, well-known dancers often abandon the ballets on which they’ve built their reputation to test themselves on the unknown. Well before she became a household name, Margot Fonteyn went off to dance with Roland Petit in Paris, and Maya Plisetskaya radically redefined herself in Albert Alonso’s Carmen Suite and Maurice Béjart’s Bolero. Rudolf Nureyev took on Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, Adam Cooper made a splash by Singing in the Rain.

However, experiments like these don’t necessarily draw today’s celebrity-led public, so dancers have begun commissioning new pieces rather than exploring established works. Their star names can usually sell tickets, but it’s not so easy to find a vehicle that will enhance their gifts and enlarge their range.

Two of the three ballets in Svetlana Zakharova’s programme at the London Coliseum last month, enticingly entitled Amore, revealed no more of her than the dramatic charisma and technical brilliance that already justify her stardom. Yuri Possokhov’s Francesca da Rimini and Patrick de Bana’s Rain Before It Falls frame her talent in the same sombre passionate situation – essentially, a love triangle – and both choreographers substituted a “modern” angular vocabulary for her familiar fluid lyricism, as if her mastery of unexpected shapes would highlight new facets of her artistry.

Of the third piece, Marguerite Donlon’s Strokes Through the Tail, the choreographer explained, “I wanted to gambol a little… I wanted the spectators to leave… in easy, light, high spirits.” We did, because finally Zakharova smiled and showed some spirit, filtering the dance’s flirtatious comedy through her own personality. Sharing the stage with five of the Bolshoi’s leading men – now sleek in tights, now beefy and bare-chested in tutus – identified her as one of the boys, not competing, not in love, simply a buoyant response of Mozart’s playful sophistication. Unburdened by narrative, character, or any worthy agenda, she could expose a side of herself rarely seen in the standard repertory, and what fun it was to discover it.

To introduce his “personal journey to reconnect with his love for dance and passion for the arts,” Sergei Polunin organised a programme, also at the Coliseum, to display himself, Natalia Osipova, leading artists from eight companies, a full orchestra, elaborate scenic effects, and three pieces in which others danced more than he did. He gave his eager public 40 minutes of his own choreography, Satori, a fuzzy fantasy of a man’s growing spiritual awareness, and 40 minutes of a historical curiousity, Scriabiniana, a series of lushly romantic miniatures by Kasyan Goleizovsky that featured all his guests, with Osipova particularly adorable in a pert, pretty solo.

Offering his muscular best in a short striking solo by Andrey Kaydanovskiy, Polunin then delivered a touching pas de deux and an explosive bounding solo – think Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus – in the Scriabin suite and wandered soulfully through Satori.

We learned that at 28 he’s no longer an enfant terrible in performance and that his choreographic intentions surpass his ability. I found Scriabiniana fascinating – the young George Balanchine expressed enormous admiration for Goleizovsky – but there’s no way of knowing how much of it was original and how much cobbled together from memory and surviving fragments.

The evening also reminded us that wishes have consequences. Osipova’s dancing inevitably leaves everyone else in the dust, and her partners risk being overshadowed by her presence, exactly as Polunin was.

Pictured: Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Scriabiniana and Satori. Photographs by Tristram Kenton.



Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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