At first sight, the new Royal Ballet double bill might come across as an odd coupling: Ashton’s sparkling The Dream on one side, MacMillan’s metaphorically sombre Song of the Earth on the other. Yet the two works are complementary in that they show two distinctive and historically significant facets of 20th-century British dance-making.
On the opening night, an impressive roster of stars appeared in MacMillan’s reading of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The refined artistry of Tamara Rojo, Sarah Lamb, Lauren Cuthbertson, Carlos Acosta and Rupert Pennefather turned the performance into one of the best I have seen.
Stars populated The Dream, too. Alina Cojocaru is a splendid Titania and Valentino Zucchetti, as Puck, dazzled viewers with his technique — even though he needs to fine-tune his exuberance. As Oberon, Steven McRae, in his debut, came across as an almost perfect interpreter of the part: majestic and whimsical, mercurial and charismatic, breathtakingly at ease with the most demanding passages.
This was The Dream that, according to the recent hype, ought to have shattered the dreams of those wanting to see the Ukrainian star Sergei Polunin as Oberon. If it did, I am only sorry for their artistic shortsightedness, as little could be said against the dancers I saw.
Indeed, the Polunin affair is still getting media coverage, in line with the cheap trends of that ‘celebrity’ — as opposed to ‘star’ — culture we live in. I have no desire to add to what has become a rather unfortunate game of gossip, aspersions, retaliations and speculation for speculation’s sake. Yes, Polunin is a good dancer and, yes, his quitting is a blow. But this is as far as it should go, for, in spite of his being a local darling and, possibly, a ‘celebrity’ he is not yet the international ‘star’ some would like him to be, certainly not the ‘new Nureyev’ — a comparison that I find short-sighted and unfair, as artists ought to be praised for their talents and not for being an idealised copy of someone else.
Interestingly, Polunin’s not fully fledged star status came to the fore in his solo performance in Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion, a few days after his resignation from the Royal Ballet. His rendition of Narcisse, by Kasian Goleizovsky, a piece created as a vehicle for the likes of the unforgettable Vladimir Vasiliev, was competent but not memorable, and certainly not as charismatic as Daniel Proietto’s interpretation of Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight (Part 1) in the same bill.
Amid all the tabloid-like morass, what truly caught my attention was Polunin’s declaration that his resignation stemmed mostly from his being ‘bored’. What has been interpreted as teen whimsicalness by some could also be read as dramatically symptomatic of the rotting state of the ballet form, something Polunin might have had enough of. Were that the case, he would have my support and my respect, as not everyone has the guts to say no to convenient mediocrity.
Indeed, convenient mediocrity is what ballet is made of today, with only a few rare exceptions. I have no intention of listing what is wrong, nor do I wish to ruffle the feathers of those who are content with mediocrity. When, in a notoriously demanding artistic context, values go to the dogs, and those who try to restore them are accused of all sorts of crimes against humanity — as in the case of the eminent dance writer who ‘dared’ to comment on the unbecoming plumpness of a lead dancer — there is little to do but to retreat into either despair or hope.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 11, 2012