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‘Midnight Express’ Opens With Dane Replacing Polunin

Johan Christensen
Danish-born dancer Johan Christensen. He has taken over the title role in Peter Schaufuss's "Midnight Express" after a last-minute no-show by former Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin. Photographer: Eric Richmond/Borkowski PR via Bloomberg

April 11 (Bloomberg) -- “Midnight Express,” a dance version of the 1978 hashish-smuggling movie, premiered in London last night with Johan Christensen the late replacement for Sergei Polunin, who suddenly disappeared last week.

Christensen, a 20-year-old Danish ballet dancer, learned the role of Billy in three days, according to the show’s producer Peter Schaufuss. Last night at the London Coliseum, he received thunderous applause.

“Midnight Express” (which runs through April 14) is the true story of a drug runner called Billy Hayes who gets caught and thrown into a rough Turkish jail. The real-life Hayes was at the premiere.

Hayes said that, without wanting to “say anything bad about Sergei” and “hoping that he’s all right,” he was “happier” to see Christensen in the part because they were more alike.

Ukrainian-born Polunin went absent from rehearsals last week, without giving a reason. Producers replaced him with Christensen on April 4.

Polunin did another disappearing act last year, when he suddenly quit London’s Royal Ballet after becoming its youngest-ever principal. He later joined the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow, led by Igor Zelensky, where he is now based.

The Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow said that both Polunin and Zelensky -- who was also in the “Midnight Express” cast -- were back in the Russian capital and well.

Controlled Rage

In the show, Billy gets jailed, kicked, clubbed, and suspended by his limbs. At one point, he bites off the tongue of a fellow inmate. He is consistently brutalized by a jailor, and witnesses the death of more than one friend. Christensen puts on a strong performance, full of controlled rage, his movements sharp yet expressive.

“There’s a bit more of a similarity between us: Being blond in a darker country made it tough,” Hayes said of Christensen in an interview after the show. “Also, he has this innocent quality that I think really plays.”

“I liked to think that I was sophisticated, but I wasn’t, I was a young fool,” said Hayes, now 66, who is about to publish a book of his jail time correspondence.

Polunin gave a video interview to Bloomberg News on March 27, just before dropping out of “Midnight Express.”

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on London theater, Mark Beech on arts, Jason Harper on cars and Lance Esplund on U.S. art shows.

To contact the reporter on this story: Farah Nayeri in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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