Thursday, 11 April 2013

Midnight Express

Midnight Express, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 10th April

Photo courtesy of Midnight Express
Peter Schaufuss's works are more about controversy than choreography. He tackles brutal themes with little concern for interesting narrative exploration or well-considered movement, even making the delightful Sleeping Beauty into a nightmare.

His 2000 ballet, Midnight Express, currently in performance at the London Coliseum, is another example of a good idea poorly-executed. The story of Billy Hayes, immortalised both in a book and on film, tells of a man imprisoned for five years in Turkey following an unsuccessful drug smuggling attempt. The experience of being incarcerated took "a profound toll on body and soul" in Hayes's words, as he was repeatedly tortured and interrogated and then segregated in a cell for mentally-disturbed prisoners before eventually escaping.
Schauffuss translates this remarkable tale into a mixture of ballet and contemporary language, but choreography is so repetitive and uninspired that it takes away from rather than adding to the narrative. Prison guards move robotically to frenzied house music as if dancing in a 1990s gay nightclub and the supposedly violent scenes are so unrealistic they become almost comic.

20-year-old Danish dancer Johan Christensen stepped into the lead role with just three days to prepare after Ukrainian star Sergei Polunin unexpectedly disappeared from rehearsals. And whilst he performed with conviction and prowess, Christensen couldn't make a purse out of the meagre sow's ear of material on offer.

Prison officer Hamid was danced by Johan King Silverhult, another last-minute replacement, this time for Igor Zelensky. Even worse than the role of Hayes, the character's choreography involved merely walking around the stage and banging his faux-metal baton aggressively against the ground.
In case the choreography wasn't bad enough, Schaufuss chooses to use an inexplicably diverse and incohesive range of music from classical choral sounds to electronic disco. At one point, the soundtrack resembled an Islamic call to prayer as topless men engaged in athletic duos, before instantaneously metamorphosing into a melodic string-accompanied scene where the Angel of Death bourréed on pointe across the floor like the Queen of the Wilis. The sets also add a strange dimension, with constantly opening and closing panels and a number of awkwardly-placed ladders on which prisoners unfathomably climb.
There are a few nice moments; Wayne Eagling, as Hayes's father, performed a tender and impassioned duet with his son, and the moment where Christensen revealed his blood-stained face (after biting out a fellow prisoner’s tongue) was just the right amount of shocking and arresting.

Seeing the choreography, it's no surprise that Polunin walked out from the production. As much as I disagree with him dishonouring his contract and his fans, it was probably for the best that he wasn’t involved in such a painfully-drawn out and utterly bizarre ballet. 

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