When talk is cheap

Discounted seats are not equal to accessibility initiatives, writes IAM editor Maria Roberts

Sergei Polunin, the bad boy of the dance world, is set to return to London from 5-10 December with his own company Project Polunin. The show at London Coliseum – home to English National Opera (ENO) – is described as a “mixed programme of new and revived work”. Tickets went on sale to the public on 2 August, even though the full cast and works had yet to be announced (at the time of going to press).

I do like Polunin: he’s a rebel with a cause, a tortured soul and an incredibly talented and creative being. Even so, his latest project has, for me, raised some questions around his motives.

The dancer has boldly claimed that he wants to shake up the dance industry, but if you take a look at the online booking system for his latest five-date appearance at London Coliseum, his claims simply don’t add up.

Project Polunin “strives to make dance accessible to people of all ages and incomes, and to inspire, nurture and support young people to be more creative,” declares the marketing blurb, yet in reality the story is very different.

At the time of writing, a seat in the stalls (for example, a Friday night performance at 7.30pm, 8 December) ranges from GBP70-GBP400 (€77-€440). Partially restricted and balcony tickets are GBP20 and GBP35 (with some GBP12 tickets available, though I couldn’t find them), while upper circle seats are priced from GBP20-GBP65.

The figures may not be outrageous, but they are at odds with other shows presenting at London Coliseum. For example, ENO’s 2018 double-bill Le Jeune Homme et la Mort / La Sylphide has tickets ranging from GBP13.50 to GBP65; cheap upper circle seats for Meatloaf adaptation Bat Out of Hell The Musical are GBP16, while top-tier tickets for the world premiere (on a Friday night in August) are GBP276. Likewise, ENO’s La traviata (April 2018) has tickets priced from GBP12-GBP105.

Bat Out of Hell © Specular
Bat Out of Hell © Specular

For me this raises the question: is Project Polunin’s production, with no named programme and cast, a bigger draw than ENO? Is he bigger than the Meatloaf brand? Or does he simply have a bigger ego and hungrier pockets?

Perhaps a closer comparison is the similarly interesting contemporary programme, Men in Motion, presented by Matthew Ball (a first soloist of English icon, The Royal Ballet). This piece stars Bolshoi-trained Irek Mukhamedov, Norwegian National Ballet’s Daniel Proietto and Edward Watson (a principal of The Royal Ballet).

This is a programme that has flesh on its bones; it is something I can latch onto and learn from. The tickets for Men in Motion range from GBP21.50 to GBP96.50, not so cheap across the board as other shows, but not so expensive for the best and middling seats either.

I wanted to get to the bottom of Project Polunin’s strategy and find out more about his plans to match action to manifesto. So in an email to Project Polunin’s PR I asked: “What constitutes Project Polunin’s manifesto to ‘make dance accessible to people of all ages and incomes, and to inspire, nurture and support young people to be more creative’?”

Surprisingly, no response was forthcoming. Amanda Malpass, from the PR agency handling the event, replied that Sergei and the producers were travelling [most arts companies we deal with travel and tour, they can still talk]. Then Malpass advised me that the GBP400 tickets come with the VIP chance to “meet some of the performers in the show.”

I’m not satisifed with this response. Even with a special meet and greet, I still can’t grasp what is accessible about the production. Perhaps access to dance at Project Polunin is being delivered through outreach activities? So, I ask if there are any outreach projects or off-stage events that link with the company’s plans to “make ballet accessible for all”. Silence.

This strikes me as peculiar: if a company makes the claim that it “strives to make dance accessible to people of all ages and incomes, and to inspire, nurture and support young people to be more creative” then usually the company wants to shout about how good they are.

Project Polunin’s response annoys me – they are using serious words frivolously. Cheap tickets with restricted views are exactly that, cheaper tickets with restricted views. And cheap tickets in less popular seats are exactly that, cheaper tickets in less popular seats. That’s not a social movement, it is a pricing structure that acknowledges that people who can afford the best seats will pay top whack, and for everyone else it’s all about getting bums on seats at a price point people can afford. That’s not access to the arts, it’s a sales strategy.