Sergei Polunin dances James Dean for Men in Motion
With a headline screaming “Sergei Polunin: I’ll give up ballet by 26” in The Guardian last Tuesday, Alex Needham wrote that, “Men in Motion includes the first dance he [Polunin] has ever choreographed, a piece about James Dean.”
What happened was, Polunin commissioned his former colleague, Royal Ballet First Artist Valentino Zucchetti to choreograph a piece based on the actor James Dean. Polunin, who resigned from The Royal Ballet on January 24th this year, had long been inspired by Dean, and Zucchetti accepted the challenge of researching and choreographing the piece in little more than a month, for the re-run of Ivan Putrov’s highly praised celebration of male dancing, Men in Motion, which you can see at Sadlers Wells this week (13 – 15 March).
Rebel With A Ballet Cause
Zucchetti knew little of James Dean and during his mid-season break last month, set about watching his films, as well as James Franco’s version to gain inspiration for the choreography. Zucchetti is an avid music listener – particularly classical music, “I’ve always loved it since I was young,” and found two pieces that he could meld together to create two very different moods within the solo. He is often inspired by the music, and finds that sometimes “it’s screaming to be choreographed on.”
An animated interviewee, Zucchetti is always listening carefully and never afraid to thoughtfully offer his views. Also never one to sit still for long, I can see why he’s often cast as Puck (The Dream), or the Blue Boy (Les Patineurs) and he’s also a great host; mindful that Polunin is running late and courteous to a fault. Currently sporting an injury to one finger that requires it be bandaged with a protective metal hoop over the tip, he remains upbeat about the fact that he’ll miss some opportunities because of the injury (partnering is tricky) because he knows that others will be just over the horizon.
Knowing that dancers lead risky, injury-prone lives I tentatively (I’m not good with blood) ask whether he’d slipped, fallen or worse, but no; he was doing nothing risky at all – just putting on his socks! So be warned.
Zucchetti is modest too – when I ask about his choreographic experience to date he tells me that he took part in two Draft Works (held in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House and curated by resident choreographer Wayne McGregor, these are not performances as such, but an opportunity for dancers to cut their teeth in front of an audience) which “went down well.”
This is a massively modest understatement. Both of his pieces – Trio Sonata in 2011 (comprising a pas de trios for Sander Blommaert, Sergei Polunin & Yasmine Naghdi) and Brandenburg Divertissement (for four couples, “I had the largest cast” which he said made rehearsals difficult to squeeze into their crazy schedules) won rave reviews and Zucchetti was singled out on both occasions as a choreographer of note.
So what can we expect from James Dean ?
The first section of the solo portrays Polunin as James Dean while he was shooting his movies and the second variation has much more emotional body language; it’s evocative of Dean’s yearning for affection from his father, which was never forthcoming.
The theatrical and dramatic elements of Zucchetti’s choreography snagged Polunin’s interest early on and the pair work well together, though both have intense schedules. When we meet, they have had 2 rehearsals already and need to be finished before the technical rehearsal this weekend. Zucchetti has a double show day looming (Romeo & Juliet in which he has numerous parts), as well as preparing for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Liam Scarlett’s new work and Polyphonia. Polunin has been rehearsing his other pieces with Putrov for Men in Motion. Despite this, both are trying to shoe-horn in one more rehearsal, but they’ll need a Tardis if they are to succeed. They will get there – they are a great team and if nothing else, putting together any sort of choreography is all about teamwork – consulting with the lighting technicians, wardrobe etc.
In rehearsal, Zucchetti demonstrates what he has devised to accompany the music, which they mark first of all and then dance to the music, and every now and then Polunin will jump in with a request for more jumps. Choreographing a solo is harder than an ensemble piece for Zucchetti, because with more people comes the possibility for layers of more complex music, which he loves. Together they debate and discard anything too flashy or out of character and work on the nuances which are so important to them both – neither has any interest in dancing steps just for the sake of them. Zucchetti wants Polunin to stand and really eyeball the audience; Polunin tries out a couple of barrel turns. It’s a process that takes much longer than, say, the choreographer turning up with a fully fledged ballet ready to roll, but despite the pressures, tiredness and lack of time, both remain grounded, cheerful and focused on the task.
At the end of each rehearsal they record what they’ve done on their iPhones. Polunin records the second section of music to listen to later. Zucchetti is a big fan of Benesh Movement Notation (BMN) – he has been coached in roles by Christopher Carr who is never without his Benesh notes in his hands – and prefers notation over video, which he says can only ever record what the dancers did, which may not have been exactly what the choreographer intended, but for this short solo he is happy to use technology.
The music which Zucchetti finally settled upon is in two parts – firstly he chose one track from the soundtrack of the 1960’s film The Apartment, and the second part is a track taken from the soundtrack to the film James Franco plays James Dean. There is a narrative through the piece, though the pair have worked hard to avoid making it “too jazzy, or too classical.” Too Hollywood, I ask ? “Yes” shoots back the reply.
James Dean is a five and a half minute solo, with Polunin raiding his own wardrobe for the requisite white t-shirt, jeans and jacket. He even has a James Dean tattoo. What you’ll see is a very honest, direct piece of work with no subtext. What you see is what you get and Zucchetti hopes that with this approach, the audience will immediately “get it.” He has always wanted impact from the beginning – and here the lighting will play a crucial role.
I think you’ll get it. But first, you need a ticket. You have bought one, haven’t you ?
Men in Motion opens at Sadlers Wells on Tuesday this week (13 – 15 March).