Men in Motion, Sadler's Wells, London

Runaway Polunin bounds all too briefly into boys-only pop-up
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The Independent Culture

At the start of last week, the name Sergei Polunin was barely known beyond hardcore ballet fans. On Tuesday, the 21-year-old walked out of his job as a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet.

By midweek, his bare-chested image was taking up half the front page of a national broadsheet and the world knew of his part-share in a north London tattoo parlour. By Friday, a show in which he was to perform a small solo sold out. Even the fabled Serge Diaghilev, wily impresario of the Ballets Russes, couldn't have cooked up a better way to shift tickets.

Polunin's friend, fellow Ukrainian Ivan Putrov, may still be wondering whether that turn of events was good news or bad. He himself was meant to be the star attraction of his own first venture as a producer. Men in Motion, a programme of short ballets performed by Putrov and some of his mates from top companies in Russia, as well as the Royal and ENB, was designed to spotlight masculine prowess, but more specifically his.

In the event, "irresolvable issues with visas" meant that only one of the stars travelling from Russia turned up and two items were scrapped. The result was that the single titbit offered by the renegade Polunin – a showpiece from the Bolshoi repertoire – was thrown into greater prominence. Suddenly it was the only gasp-worthy choreography on the bill and duly Sadler's Wells gasped, thrilled to discover that the boy is everything he was cracked up to be.

Clad in skinny nude trunks and a lot of make-up, though not quite enough to obliterate entirely the giant tattoo that swirls across his chest, he launched into Kasian Goleizovsky's Narcisse with a single bound from the wings as joyous as it was wide and high. Was there irony in his choosing to inhabit a beautiful Greek youth who falls in love with his own reflection? Some call it vanity that so young a dancer should think he can do without the artistic nurturing that the Royal Ballet is able to give him. It was interesting to spot Kevin O'Hare, artistic director-in-waiting of the Royal Ballet, in the audience. The company has made it plain that the door is open, should Polunin change his mind.

But for this night, at least, Polunin was a free spirit, glorying in the hot, over-the-top Bolshoi style that's poles apart from the cool finesse he learnt at the Royal Ballet School. His Narcissus greedily plucked imaginary fruit, played the flute and struck Greek attitudes. He threw off a series of fabulously complicated leaps, apparently without effort. When at last he sank to the floor in a puddle of anguish, the audience roared.

The evening had begun, less confidently, with the very pink and perfumed effusions of Le spectre de la Rose, the piece that brought the 21-year-old Vaslav Nijinsky to world attention in 1909. Indeed, the shade of the tragic Ballets Russes prodigy hovered over other elements of Putrov's programming. In Frederick Ashton's slight gala number Dance of the Blessed Spirits, Putrov's clean-lined movement had an air of lonely plangency, despite his being bare-chested in white tights topped with a thick gold belt (bling that Putrov carries off surprisingly well).

But technical polish is nothing without good material. And that was in short supply in this peculiar venture. Of Putrov's own foray into choreography, a trio which seemed to be about a man who can't decide if he's gay or straight, the least said, the better. The sight of Putrov picking up the chunkier, hirsute Aaron Sillis and cradling him like a baby was surely not intended to be funny. Nor the painted sash window (design by Gary Hume) that jerked upward at a climactic point.

The protein of the evening came in Afterlight, a long, strange solo by Russell Maliphant inspired by Nijinsky's insanity and loneliness, with a turbanned Daniel Prioetto turning obsessively in a spot of light. It's hard producing a good ballet show. There's more to it than some young men think.

Last performance today (0844 412 4300)

Dance Choice

The tunnels beneath London's Old Vic have hosted a number of offbeat theatre shows. Now comes Without Warning, a dance piece inspired by Brian Keenan's book An Evil Cradling, an account of his four years in captivity. Four dancers and four musicians play out erratic states of euphoria, ridiculousness and uncertainty (to 11 Feb).