The onstage drama can’t compete with the goings-on behind the scenes. A week before the London premiere of the Peter Schaufuss Ballet’s Midnight Express, its star Sergei Polunin left the production. Last year, Polunin’s shock resignation from The Royal Ballet was front page news; he’s getting a reputation for disappearing acts. Given the quality of Midnight Express, he’s well out of it.
The ballet is based on Billy Hayes’ account of his time in a Turkish prison, later made into an award-winning film. Schaufuss, whose back catalogue includes a ballet about Diana, Princess of Wales, goes in for sensational productions. In recent years, he’s brought in star names to headline his London seasons. This time, he lost two of them. Igor Zelensky, ex-Mariinsky star and director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet, where Polunin is now based, was to have played the abusive jailor. He too has pulled out of the production.
Johan Christensen replaces Polunin as Billy Hayes. Having learned the role in three days, he throws himself into it, dancing Schaufuss’ dreadful choreography with athletic commitment. The ballet opens with Christensen posed in a spotlight, the drugs he’s trying to smuggle strapped to his chest, a heartbeat thumping on the soundtrack. Then he gets caught and – oh dear – taken to a scene of disco brutality.
Policemen strut like Village People to G. Moroder’s early 80s beat, while Johan King Silverhult’s heavy-set, underpowered jailor waves an extra-large truncheon. Hayes is beaten up and thrown into a jail full of stereotypes. The informer skulks around with painfully obvious sneaky moves. The intellectual wears glasses. It’s still oddly difficult to tell them apart. When prisoners die, angels of death show up to collect them, dancing hobbling pointework.
If police violence is expressed through disco, prison angst looks like an exercise class, with lots of aerobic leg-waving to a Mozart soundtrack. In the fight scene, prisoners smash metal mugs against bars or tables. Even that steady beat lacks punch. Schaufuss can’t decide if his fight should be stylised or naturalistic, and tries for both, complete with audible scream and spitting blood.
For a wonder, Wayne Eagling, the third of the guest stars, stayed on board to dance the hero’s father, in a duet full of pietà moves and waffling gestures. After more brutality, including an implied rape, Hayes finally escapes. It’s a merciful release for all of us.
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