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Peter Schaufuss Ballet

'Midnight Express'

by Charlotte Kasner

April 10, 2013 -- London Coliseum, London, UK

Anyone who was put off attending this year's production by Schaufuss Ballet after the ghastly Tchaikovsky triple bill that they presented when last in London made a big mistake.

Thirty five years after the film of “Midnight Express” shocked so many and on the day that we hear that a British woman has been sentenced to death for drug smuggling, Schaufuss gave us the chance to see Billy Hayes’ story represented in dance - and it works. Sets and costumes are excellent and the lighting particularly effective. Paradoxically, the set is spacious but suggests confinement, bars sliding and flying in and out to create the sense of a vast prison complex. Bright lighting represents the burning Turkish sun outside, only a few feet away on the other side of the windows, but utterly unattainable to the inmates. Darkness descends as the guards gather to beat another inmate or Billy himself, sometimes fatally.

The opening is extremely effective as the smuggling attempt is danced against the soundtrack of a heartbeat that gets faster and more stressed until Billy's arrest. Not original but nonetheless effective for all that. The first interrogation scene, danced by the guards wielding chairs will draw inevitable comparisons with Christopher Bruce’s seminal “Swansong”, as will Billy’s exit towards the light at the end, except that here, he is walking to real freedom.

Yes, this is Billy Hayes’ story but this is an ensemble piece with strong dancing and acting from all the cast. In spite of the much publicised and precipitous departure of Sergei Polunin and the less spectacular one of Igor Zelensky, the work was none the poorer. In fact, it perhaps made the collective nature of the work more effective as no one’s ego got in the way of the telling the story, which is no less harrowing with the passage of time. Incidentally, the production team are to be congratulated in getting the programme out with the new details and so little turnaround time.

It is the subject of this ballet that is innovative; the choreography is not especially original, although it is at times exciting and always effective in serving the narrative. The end of Act I is stunning and what Anthony Dowell would call a ‘gut-buster’ as the men jump straight up onto the table time and time again and bang their metal mugs rhythmically. It could have been a piece by DV8.

The duet for Billy and his father, played by Wayne Eagling, the only survivor of the original ‘names’ in the cast is extremely moving. It is all about line with extensions and arabesques proving that dance should not just be confined to the young. You can almost hear the recriminations and forgiveness in their interactions. A later visit by his girlfriend, danced by Simona Marsibilio is similar to the scene in the film, sends Billy down into another spiral of despair, although she provides the money for a bribe that eventually leads to Billy’s escape.

Schaufuss daringly includes an allegorical figure, an angel of death; in fact two angels as the prisoners who die have their own personal nemesis. Not least, it provides two more roles for female dancers and an opportunity for some serviceable pas de deux.

The music is a mix of popular songs (the “Istanbul Blues” being achingly apposite) and Mozart. It should be a cliché, but it really works. Schaufuss has selected some of the most popular and sublime works (the “Requiem”, “Ave Verum” and “Elvira Madigan” to name but three) and it comes as a blessed relief from the relentless horror and violence of the setting.

But, this is without doubt Johan Christensen’s night. Catapulted into the lead following minimal understudy's rehearsal in true Hollywood style, he is uncannily like Billy Hayes himself (present on stage at the opening). At only 20 years old, he not only has the technique and stamina to carry off the role but the dramatic maturity to be convincing. His Bournonville training showed throughout in expressive ports de bras and everlasting extensions. This is not a role that would suit a vast ego and it does not really provide a chance for bravura dancing. It is much more subtle than that. Let us hope that Christensen is given opportunities to develop slowly and fully and that we see much more of him in the future. Those lucky enough to have caught this production can say they saw him here first.

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