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Itinerant Balletomane Reviews Young Sergei

Itinerant Balletomane Reviews Young Sergei

Itinerant Balletomane reviews young Sergei and the veteran blogger is blown away

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sergei Polunin at the Stanislavsky Theater

I am completely starstruck.  Last week I saw Sergei Polunin perform twice with the Stanislavsky Theater – first as Basil in Don Quixote and then as the Prince in Swan Lake.  I’ve obviously heard a lot about Polunin.  For the non balletomanes out there, he was made a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet at the age of 20, making him their youngest principal ever. After two years, he unexpectedly quit the company.  A few months later, he signed on as a principal with the (respectable but still not nearly as famous) Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow.  You can read an excellent article about him here.

itinerant balletomane reviews young sergei
Natalia Somova and Sergei Polunin in Swan Lake

Lucky to catch him

Since his move to Moscow, Polunin has become a more elusive dancer to see, and I obviously felt very lucky to catch him in two performances. I was especially eager to see if he lived up to any of the hype. The answer is that he completely surpasses it.  I really have never been so impressed by a dancer. The thing that strikes me most forcefully about him is his enormous charisma.  Whenever he is onstage, he draws the eye to him.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a beautifully intense stare, but he has much more than that.  In every moment he is performing he is fully present in the role.  Every gesture no matter how small is done with acuteness and power. This is especially potent in his portrayal of the Prince in Swan Lake, a role that has to anchor the ballet’s narrative without having much opportunity for solo dancing.  Polunin’s prince begins somewhat lost and disaffected; his ardent love for Odette seems to give him something to hold on to in life. His eyes follow her across the stage, and he runs to her as though drawn by some outside force.  

Dramatic intensity with textbook-perfect technique

Polunin’s solo variations combine this dramatic intensity with textbook-perfect technique.  I’ve seen a lot of impressive male dancers here in Moscow. Many of them seem to lose a sense of their character and of the audience as soon as they have to perform impressive jumps or turns.  Polunin never turns off the artistry. So many other male principals land with the greatest of care in order to avoid falling over or take an extra step. Doing this takes concentration you can see on their faces. Polunin simply lands on the ground perfectly and moves into the next step or pose.  He draws us with him in a torrent of movement. His technique does not fixate, even though that technique is beautiful. In addition to having amazing height on his jumps and beautiful turns, Polunin also boasts an arabesque and a back attitude that most ballerinas would kill for.

Nureyev comparison is apt

I’ve heard Polunin spoken of as the next Nureyev and the comparison is apt.  Sadly, however, this is a Nureyev without his Fonteyn.  Both evenings I saw Polunin performing with Natalia Somova, who just isn’t cutting it on this level.  She can be sweet and charming, but she lacks charisma and simply doesn’t have the same level of technique.  In addition, sometimes their partnership seems strained.  In particular, there was a disastrous pair of flying fish dives in Don Quixote, during the second of which Polunin didn’t manage to tip Somova over at all, and they ended up sort of hugging standing up.  I’ve seen videos of Polunin paired with other people and doing it brilliantly, so I assume that this is not an inherent flaw in his dancing, but I’m not enough of a dancer myself to tell who’s really at fault.

My favorite ballet orchestra ever

The wonderful partner that Polunin does get at the Stanislavsky is its beautiful orchestra.  Having been to five ballets at this theater, I am now prepared to dub it my favorite ballet orchestra ever. It is better than New York City, better than the Bolshoi, and miles better than the Royal.  Felix Korobov, the chief conductor, likes a fiery brass section and a quick tempo.  He always manages to bring out a full and lyrical sound.  Even so when he tampers with the music to fit the choreography.  The instrumentalists are a dream, particularly the French horn section and the harpist.  Sadly I can’t name them because they’re not listed on the website. Everything in the ensemble provides the emotional background for Polunin’s portrayal.  I know that the orchestra isn’t the reason Polunin moved to this theater, but I deeply wish it were.

So, in sum: see Polunin at the Stanislavsky (especially in Swan Lake), but hope with the rest of us that they persuade some wonderful young ballerina to move to the company.

Stanislavsky Theater, Don Quixote, June 14, 2013.  Music by Ludwig Minkus, Choreography by Alexei Chichinadze, Kitri: Natalia Somova, Basil: Sergei Polunin, Conductor: Anton Grishanin

Stanislavsky Theater, Swan Lake, June 20, 2013. Music by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, Production by Vladimir Burmeister, Odette/Odile: Natalia Somova, Prince: Sergei Polunin, Evil Genius: Nikita Kirilov, Jester: Dmitri Zagrebin, Conductor: Felix Korobov
Posted by blogger 
Another Man

Another Man

“RUSSIAN PRODIGY Sergei Polunin HAD SOARED TO THE SCORCHING HEAVENS OF BALLET. BUT, TORMENTED BY ITS SUFFOCATING STRICTURES, HE WALKED AWAY FROM THE WORLD OF DANCE AGED JUST 24. NOW, WITH DEMONS FINALLY CONQUERED AND HIS SIGHTS SET ON CINEMA, THE FIERY PERFORMER IS READY TO RISE AGAIN.” – Another Man magazine, issue #25

Sergei Polunin seems like a creature from another time, an era of fairytale, when the thin silk that separates myth from reality was at its most fragile. It’s as if he has stepped directly through the veil, from a place where darkness is lit by flames and hooves echo across cobblestone.

He seems completely out of place, here, in Los Angeles, in midsummer 2017. He moves like a pale ghost through the sunburnt crowds hunched over their phones along Hollywood Boulevard. Tightly muscled, tall but still delicate somehow, he exudes a romantic, Byronic kind of elegance. He’s beautiful, but in the way of silent movie leading men – Valentino, Keaton – a face of angles and extremes.

It is only when he finally sits down in a red leather booth in the city’s oldest restaurant (Musso and Frank, circa 1919) that he seems to have arrived in the kind of present that suits him. A tuxedoed waiter takes his order; the wood table glows with polish, there are fine linens, real silver. Polunin smiles, looks around and nods approvingly. Then he takes a breath and, in softly accented English, begins to tell his story.

“It started with Take Me to Church,” he says quietly, “suddenly, people’s whole approach, their whole behaviour changed. I realised that maybe… that I can possibly change something. That I shouldn’t be a weak person who quits. And I realised that something might be done that – if I quit – is not going to be done. So that’s how it all began.”

For those who don’t know who Polunin is, there’s a simple introduction. Go to YouTube, type in his name and step back in wonder. At last tally, there were 20,860,577 views of a video, directed by photographer David LaChapelle and backed by Hozier: Take Me to Church captures Polunin’s last dance, his farewell (at age 24) to ballet, an art he’d studied since the age of four, an art to which (as he tells it) he had sacrificed both his childhood and his family. In the video, Polunin takes traditional ballet and turns it into catharsis. He seems to hover in the air, to float, to fly. His body is lean, nearly naked, covered in tattoos. His face shows a mix of emotion: vulnerability, frustration and, finally, elation. It’s intoxicating to watch.

“IT STARTED WITH TAKE ME TO CHURCH…SUDDENLY, PEOPLE’S WHOLE APPROACH, THEIR WHOLE BEHAVIOUR CHANGED” – SERGEI POLUNIN

In the 2016 documentary Dancer, Polunin’s story is chronicled in all its mythic rise-and-fall glory. It goes something like this: born in relative poverty in the Ukraine, he was crowned a ballet prodigy soon after he took his first steps. His mother, father and grandmother did everything in their power to put him in the best schools, offer him the best possibilities.

This meant separation, his parents’ eventual divorce, Polunin on his own in London as a pre-teen onward. He was the top student at the prestigious Royal Ballet Academy and aged 19 selected as the youngest principal dancer ever of the Royal Ballet. He was feted and celebrated, critiqued and acclaimed. His rebellions were tabloid fodder. His victories were breathtaking. To watch Polunin dance is to be awed. But it was all too much, a fast build to a dramatic end.

On 24th January 2012, just two years after joining the company, Polunin announced his resignation, claiming loudly that, “the artist in me was dying”. There was a sojourn to Russia, a series of demeaning TV competitions, and eventual tutelage under renowned artistic director Igor Zelensky. There was success and there was turmoil. Finally in 2014, Polunin decided to call it officially quits. He met up with Chapelle in a sundrenched Hawaiian church to film Take Me to Church and to take what was to be his final bow.

Except it wasn’t.

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

Take Me to Church gave me the opportunity to experience collaboration,” Polunin explains. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what it is. That’s how it should feel.’ And suddenly, I wanted everybody to experience that. I wanted to create movies about dance, and create more pieces like that because I realized that it’s very, very important to crossover, to share ballet with everyone.”

Instead of ending his career, the video ignited it. Polunin found a whole new audience, the vast world watching from their computer screens. The piece went viral – and so did Polunin. “I had quit ballet, but I realised that was weak of me. That what I needed to do was share ballet,” he says.

Polunin became an overnight internet sensation. The comments poured in, people from all over the globe confessing their admiration, thanking him for the inspiration. He and Chapelle had touched something deep. And Polunin began to rethink his retirement. “I started to see that the ballet establishment had to be broken. Ballet is stuck. It’s the only art form which didn’t evolve and it lost a few things – because the best directors, best musicians, they work where the biggest output is, where you can reach bigger audiences. Ballet is very closed and it’s for elitists – it shouldn’t be like that. I think everybody should enjoy it.”

“DANCE IS IMPORTANT. IT’S THAT LANGUAGE THAT EVERYBODY UNDERSTANDS. IT’S A POWERFUL TOOL TO OPEN PEOPLE’S MINDS” – SERGEI POLUNIN

Since the Take Me to Church phenomenon, Sergei has formed his own foundation, the Polunin Project, with an aim to bring ballet to the masses. “It’s a spiritual-like experience,” he says of ballet, “and it’s possible I think to transfer that. I’ve been trying to bring dance closer to people, to wider audiences. That’s why we created this project, to move, in any way possible, dance forward.”

“We have the photographers, the music people to collaborate and to create art. And as well I want to create movies about dance. I think it’s very, very important to crossover. Ultimately, my vision is ballet has to open up to agents, to managers, to TV, to videos, to Netflix, to YouTube. Because I don’t see why people who cannot afford a ticket can’t watch it at home. You watch sport at home. Once a week to watch ballet would be, I think… transcendent.”

Despite this enthusiasm for dance, Polunin is still very much the rebel when it comes to defying the ballet establishment. His much talked about exit from the Royal Ballet still obviously hits a raw nerve. He bristles when talking about his experiences with the more conservative aspects of the art. His voice grows lower, tense.

Dancers work 11 hours a day, six times a week. When I was working as a principal dancer that was the hardest I ever, ever worked. And you will finish your career after 10 years.” Polunin points to his head, smirking, “because after 10 years you might start thinking. And realising that it is maybe the worst job to be in. The money is low. Crew get more money. Musicians get unions. And everywhere dancers get treated with the least respect. I still haven’t worked it out. The approach to dancers is like to kids. I never see stage people talk to musicians that way. But with dancers it’s okay to do that.”

Polunin checks himself and softens. “But ballet itself – it’s important. Dance is important. It’s that language that everybody understands. It’s a powerful tool to open people’s minds. There’s a subconscious thing, a connection we all have. Kids dance before walking. It’s our truest nature of being. It’s true spirit.”

He pauses. “And then, slowly and slowly, as we grow older, we get more and more baggage and life changes you. We are more scared of things, more fearful. So how to eliminate that? We have to go back to how we were as a kid, because that’s our truest nature. And with ballet, that is how I’m trying to come back to this state of mind. Because that’s the purest state. Tribes dance. Every country has a national dance. In the clubs we dance, we dance at weddings. Dance is a language. It’s a language that we need, like music, to survive.”

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

This is how Polunin talks, at 27 years old. In part because he was raised in ballet, amid structure, discipline, beauty and philosophy. He grew up, matured, became a man, within an older art. A more refined one. And despite his issues with the constrictions, the rules, the exhaustion, and the exploitation, ballet has formed and shaped him – not just his body, but also his mind, his way of thinking and being.

The dedication he has to share dance with the world, is also a reflection of the stubborn perseverance he learned from many years and countless hours committed to his craft. It is because of this perseverance that, today, Polunin is not just surviving, he’s thriving. He’s dancing all over the globe, performing just the past evening for thousands at Los Angeles’ legendary Hollywood Bowl.

Now he’s moved into acting as well – he’ll be appearing in not one, but four upcoming films, among them the spy thriller Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence, the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express and in the highly anticipated biopic of legendary ballet bad boy Rudolf Nureyev, White Crow. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, the latter film was rumored to star Polunin as his infamous predecessor, but today Polunin quietly explains there have been some changes in casting. He will say only that, “I’ll do whatever they need me to do for the film, the very best I can do it.”

“I’m learning a completely new skill and that’s very exciting,” he says of acting, “and acting is not just acting. You learn about yourself. That’s what I think is special about it. Before I thought acting was like, ‘Oh, I learned a new skill.’ But no. It requires a much deeper understanding of existence and of being human, what it is to be human. You are really searching through your own memories – you have to really know who you are. Going into childhood memory.”

“I’M PREPARED TO DESTROY EVERYTHING I HAVE TO HAVE THAT OPPORTUNITY TO FEEL FREE” – SERGEI POLUNIN

What Polunin also seems to enjoy about acting is the collaborative nature of it, the family of artists necessary to make a film. “What I really loved is being together,” he admits. “It’s working with others. It’s not like you’re by yourself doing something. You are a team. You’re one with the camera, you’re one with the director, you’re one with your co-worker, so it’s like you are creating together. You feel like you are a part of something, rather than doing it all by yourself.” He pauses and thinks for a moment.

“I want to be able to feel freedom. I never want to be owned by anything and be stuck with anything. It’s like this…” he reaches down and picks up a heavy silver knife in one hand, clutching it tight in his fist and pointing to it. “We think if we let go of a person, let them free, they’re going to disappear. But you don’t need to clench and suffocate people. It’s on many levels – on the parenting level, on working level, on friendship level, on a social level. It’s important to push that boundary. What I’ve found is that by letting go of a person, letting them free, he’s still yours, but there is a still a feeling of freedom.”

Here Polunin stops and turns his fist over, opening his fingers up, slowly, dramatically. The knife rests gently on his open palm. Polunin smiles broadly. “It’s a feeling of freedom,” he says again, “that’s what’s important. That’s what I always fight for and I’m prepared to destroy everything I have to have that opportunity to feel free. Everybody wants to control or own. I’m against that. I felt like I was owned for so long. I was looking to feel freedom. When I quit Royal Ballet… it would be amazing if I could have stayed and found that feeling of freedom. But instead, I destroyed everything and went all the way down, to be able to climb up.”

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

Polunin shakes his head. He looks suddenly older, wiser: “For many years, I had a negativity in me, and I never used to be like that. It’s just that life takes a toll on you and then you start. And it’s comfortable. Being negative is very easy. Being bad is easier. It takes a lot of strength to be on a good path and that, for me, was a conscious decision. Let’s go up. Sometimes I went down and I just had to rebuild, build, build. Slowly regain. With Take Me to Church, kids were watching, were being inspired and I realized that this inspiration I was giving them, this positive message, was a stronger tool than trying to destroy things. I had to learn not to destroy because you’re hurting people around you. Even now I’m always on the verge of destroying things.”

Polunin trails off… a shadow passes his face. Then, he shakes it off, looks up and grins. And he is young again, joyful, the shadow gone.

Spend time with Polunin and you realise what defines him most is this earnestness – emotion and truthfulness always moving across the surface for all to see. He speaks his mind, for better or for worse.  Self-obsessed and self-aware, Polunin, at 27 in 2017 – is beautiful, famous, volatile and complex. And there is more to come. More dance, more art, more self-exploration.

If your spirit is not broken, nothing can take you down

“You always have in life, different paths. And you choose,” he says, “But for me it is always choosing to be an artist before anything.  What is more important than art? Without it, we’d be nothing. We’d have nothing. The artist – he creates a building, he designs a car, a rocket. The world needs an artist’s vision. Who would we be without the artists to design our clothes? Or make music? And the thing is, I think art is in everybody. It’s important for people to be creative. To sing, to dance. You need creativity because creativity gives you confidence.  Confidence is very important, because it gives you spirit, and if your spirit is not broken – nothing can take you down.”

TEXT:  Jessica Hundle
PHOTOGRAPHY:  Collier Schorr
STYLING:  Alister Mackie

Hair Matt Mulhall at Streeters; Make-up Laura Dominique at Streeters; Set design Andrea Cellerino at Streeters; Photographic assistants PJ Spaniol, Will Grundy; Digital technician Stefano Poli; Styling assistants Reuben Esser, Rhys Davies, Steph Francis; Retouching Two Three Two; Production Sylvia Farago Ltd.

1000 Degrees Of Sergei

1000 Degrees Of Sergei

1000 Degrees Of Sergei

As some of you know, I find the relationship between dance and music fascinating.  By simply changing the music, identical steps and choreography take on a completely different nature.  It is so much fun to discover the differences the music can make in the tone, the mood and the overall feel of the piece.  There is a particular video of Sergei Polunin that I love to “play” with.

The video is “100º Celsius,” a ballet by Emil Faski.  It was performed by Sergei and Kristina Shapran during an episode of the “Big Ballet’ or “Bolshoi” television show.  It was a ballet competition show that Sergei entered upon arriving in Russia after leaving the Royal Ballet.

He won.

Here are my adaptations of the video, as well as the original.   Hope you get as much fun out of the “experimentation” as I did.

The Original

My Creations

“Breathless”

“Indigo”

“Moulin Bleu”

“Immersion”

Thank you Sergei, Kristina, and Emil.

 

About this post:

“1000 Degrees of Sergei”

This is a blog entry written by Pam Boehme Simon.  Thank you for reading.

Stunning Sergei, Photos From 2008

Stunning Sergei, Photos From 2008

Stunning Sergei

A Blog Post

by Pam Boehme Simon

On July  27, 2008, the fifteenth edition of the Civitanova Danza International Festival was celebrated.  Among the festivities was a dance gala called Italians Dance It Better.  Sergei Polunin performed a Ben Stevenson piece, “End Of Time,” set to music by Sergey Rachmaninov.  His partner was fellow company member and Royal Ballet principal, Mara Galeazzi.  At the time, Sergei was not yet even a soloist, however, his star quality was already very evident.  The performance took place in the Teatro Rossini in Civitanova Danza, Italy.

Photographer Manuel Cafini shot a beautiful collection of Sergei and Mara.  Enjoy!

All photos by Manuel Cafini, 2008.

Polunin “Miracle” in Ashton with Ananiashvili

Polunin “Miracle” in Ashton with Ananiashvili

Polunin Miracle in Ashton ballet with Nina Ananiashvili

Excerpts from a November 2015 review by Tatiana Kuznetsova

Frederick Ashton’s increasing popularity in Russia is shown in a new triple bill at the Stanislavsky Ballet, directed by Igor Zelensky, and starring Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody and Marguerite and Armand with Nina Ananiashvili. Tatiana Kuznetsova of Kommersant was swept away by the Marguerite and Armand, which she says has never before been so miraculously intimate in a Russian performance. It was like spying on the lovers through a keyhole, she says.

The artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theatre’s ballet company, Igor Zelensky, was at one time principal dancer simultaneously of three theatres, the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and the Balanchine company New York City Ballet. Since then his love for English-language classicism has only grown. He has regularly staged signature ballets of England and America on the Stasik stage, trying with mixed success to extract the right choreographic pronunciation out of Muscovite dancers.

Following on from the monumental dramas of the Scot [Kenneth] MacMillan, and the one-act lyricism and comic sketches of the American [Jerome] Robbins, we are now offered a group of the romantic poems of Frederick Ashton – the UK’s first and chief national choreographer.

One should add that the artistic director’s Anglomania is fuelled by the presence in his troupe of Sergei Polunin, with his immaculate English style: before he became the Stasik’s guest star, the young Polunin graduated from the Royal Ballet’s school and successfully danced with the company for several seasons, becoming the youngest male principal in Covent Garden’s history.

The choice of Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, was targeted on Polunin, with its hellishly tricky male lead role: Frederick Ashton, captivated by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s academic virtuosity and Soviet athleticism, made the ballet in 1980 specially for him.

“On a theme by Paganini” is dropped from the title with good reason – there is none of the agony of creativity or the battle against obscurantism in this optimistic work (unlike the ballet Paganini that the Soviet classicism Leonic Lavrovsky choreographed long before Ashton). The protagonist’s profession is indicated only by the lightest gesture (just a couple of times stroking an imaginary bow across an imaginary violin), and perhaps too in his romantic quest for his one muse – the ballerina, hidden among six coryphees.

But Polunin had not forgotten Paganini; he performed the pirouettes and entrechats, the explosive, whipping turns and slides with a psychological subtext that hinted at some circumstantial challenge, which actually cannot be found in this radiant choreography.

La Valse is a well-populated, opulent victory ball: the men in frock coats, the women in full dresses and tiaras, chandeliers, liveried footmen, the riotous crescendo of the finale in which the swirling of the couples, the surrendering jumps and high lifts, all reach an ecstatic climax.

In Moscow the grand triumphalism was turned into a feverish pursuit of the music’s tempi, especially as young conductor Zangiev was getting carried away by Ravelian contrasts, making the brass roared like a military band, letting the strings spread into a lyrical intimacy. The frock-coated men coped elegantly with the music’s heedless turns, but the women were noticeably panicking, spraying out obviously strained arms and frantically bobbing on the simplest balances.

So it turned out that the highlight of the “Ballets of Frederick Ashton” evening was not the premieres but the ballet in repertoire, Marguerite and Armand, on Lizst’s music, which the Stanislavsky has had in its repertoire for several seasons.

Then the miracle happened…

This time artistic director Zelensky’s choice of Marguerite was Nina Ananiashvili, former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi and many other international companies, and currently artistic director of the National Ballet of Georgia. She is 52 years old while her partner, Sergei Polunin, is 25. Yet the age difference was no problem: at the end of the day, this ballet was created by Ashton in 1964 for 25-year-old Nureyev and 44-year-old Fonteyn, taking into account the capabilities of an older ballerina.

The first thing has to be that notorious question: ‘chemistry’. If the players can’t be convincing in conveying fateful passion, the ballet is exposed as a set of stilted tableaux and some more or less striking lifts. So far, no one on any Russian stage has managed to transmit the magic of this archaic ballet.

polunin miracle

At the Stasik the miracle happened. This Marguerite and Armand forced one to forget everything about the old-fashioned direction, the naivety of the choreography, and the technical performance. It was as if it was not of the slightest importance whether the ballerina’s back was so flexible, or her legs went so high, or she had a wasp waist or not, if the love story of a selfless, tender courtesan and an ungovernable young aristocrat mesmerised you as if you were watching them through a keyhole.

polunin miracle

Photo Credit:  Kommersant

24 Hours With Sergei

24 Hours With Sergei

24 hours with Sergei Polunin

24 hours…

Long days that stretch into the night.  Class, rehearsal, fittings, makeup, performance.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  That is the life of a company dancer.  Follow along.  If you have the energy…

Sergei Polunin / Сергей Полунин “Early Bird / Night Owl”

See behind the scenes at the theater for one day. His day starts early with class and rehearsal, then a performance takes him late into the night. Not much rest for the superstar ballet dancer, Sergei Polunin.

Music: Josh Woodward “Lafayette”

All the World’s a Stage

All the World’s a Stage

A Rising Star at the Royal Ballet, Ukrainian Dancer Sergei Polunin Has a Flare for the Dramatic

The Wall Street Journal
Sarah Frater
October 29, 2010

all the world is a stage
Sergei Polunin in ‘Le Corsaire’ Photo: Johan Persson

Sergei Polunin is unusually candid for a ballet dancer. Most speak with the restraint of their art form and play down the sacrifices it often involves. This tends to make them charming, even beguiling company, but also strangely unreflective on the long years of training ballet demands.

Not so Mr. Polunin, the rapidly rising young Ukrainian star of the Royal Ballet, who speaks revealingly about the hard work of classical dance and his journey from the Ukraine to London’s Royal Opera House.

“It was like something out of Harry Potter,” he says of the Royal Ballet School in southwest London, where he trained. “I’d never seen anything like it. It’s a magical building. We had no money. My father worked in Portugal to support me. I lived in the same room as my mother for four years. When I got the letter offering me a place, I thought I’d have to give it up as we couldn’t afford the fees.”

Mr. Polunin was just 13 years old in 2003, when the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation agreed to sponsor him. The only child of nontheatrical parents had already spent four years at a gymnastics academy, and another four at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute. “He worked hard,” says Sir John Tooley, the former chair of the foundation and the onetime director of London’s Royal Opera House.

“He was an extraordinarily able student with a developed sense of the classical style,” continues Sir John. “There was lots of talk about him, all extremely favorable, and it all turned out to be correct. The Nureyev Foundation didn’t run a competition, but relied on schools to identify the most able and deserving students. The Royal Ballet School asked for our support, and we were only too happy to give it. And Sergei wrote to thank me, which doesn’t happen very often.”

At the school, he was fast-tracked in a class two years above his age. “Sergei was so technically advanced and so physically mature, I knew he would cope,” says the school’s director, Gailene Stock, adding that he quickly learned English and easily made friends. He also won several student prizes, and when he graduated in 2007, several ballet companies offered him contracts, including American Ballet Theatre in New York and Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.

What made him choose the Royal Ballet? “Everybody wants to dance with this company,” he replies. “You don’t know what you’ll get when you arrive, but it has a good reputation.”

Mr. Polunin is sitting in a quiet corner of the Opera House. It is five in the afternoon, and the theater is gearing up for the evening performance. The 20-year-old will be dancing in barely two hours, but he shows no sign of nerves, just a slight impatience to get talking and get away. Despite a reputation for running late (“I leave things to the last minute,” he laughs), he arrives early, and, in informal practice clothes, looks and sounds what he is, which is a young man who is also a very able, very ambitious dancer.

Audiences and critics were quick to spot his talent. As well as his technical finesse, he is a natural actor who brings a believability to the big old ballets. Early successes include Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering,” where he outshone several more established dancers, and the lead role in “La Bayadere,” when he was only 19. Promotion quickly followed, with his becoming a principal this past summer, the Royal Ballet’s highest rank, and one of the youngest in its history.

On stage, Mr. Polunin looks entirely at ease, and you wonder if it’s where he feels most at home. “It’s much easier than being in rehearsal,” he says. “When you are in character, you can convey the story, the emotions. I prefer the dramatic roles, where you give your feelings, your energy, to the audience. But you have to connect with the person you are dancing with. You have to look them in the eyes. The audience can see if the dancers are connecting. It’s totally visual.”

Off stage, Mr. Polunin has a reputation as a jester with an irreverent sense of humor. Ask him about a ballet he is scheduled to dance, and instead of the usual pleasantries about character and narrative, he says he thinks the choreography is “very weird.” On the physical demands of dancing, he says it’s much tougher than soccer: “Footballers only play two games a week.” And ask him about how he would cope with injury, the bête noire for ballet dancers, and he deadpans: “I hear it can extend your career. You don’t dance, you heal, you go on for a few more years.”

For all the joking, you don’t doubt that Mr. Polunin takes his career very seriously. He has a focus and efficiency, and is clear-eyed about what to dance and where to perform. “I like the dramatic roles, Mayerling, Romeo,” he says. “It’s good to have a base at the Royal Ballet, but I’d also like to guest [with other companies]. I get asked a lot. It’s not just the money, but having a name and a profile. I’d quite like to act. It would be fun to do films.”

You can judge his filmic potential for yourself in a promotional video the Royal Ballet made for the Opera House website. It shows Mr. Polunin preparing for a photo shoot on Crimea’s Black Sea coast, with the gothic folly Swallow’s Nest in the background. The music is from Benjamin Britain’s opera “Peter Grimes.” The three-minute film is skillfully made and cleverly edited, and suggests Mr. Polunin is as adept at working the camera as he is the stage.

For now, he has the evening’s live performance to prepare. It is a small role in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Winter Dreams,” but provides vital stage time to hone his craft. “I do it because I can,” he says. “I enjoy being on stage, the performance. It’s my thing. A kind of destiny.”

Sergei Polunin can be seen at the Royal Opera House in “Sylvia” on Nov. 6 and 15, in “Cinderella” on Dec. 17 and “Peter and the Wolf” on Dec. 14, 16 and 18.

Write to Sarah Frater at wsje.weekend@wsj.com

Sergei Talks on “The Talks”

Sergei Talks on “The Talks”

SERGEI POLUNIN: “IT’S LIKE BEING IN THE ARMY”

ANA BOGDAN

 

sergei talks
Photo by Rankin

Mr. Polunin, what can dance teach you about life?

I think what it teaches you is discipline, which is very important, and it’s fun when you’re in dance classes together with other people while growing up — but later it drains your energy for no reason. You have to be very strong inside because in ballet, being creative is told off. It’s ridiculous, but I just thought about this the other day: even if you look to your right when you are supposed to look to your left in a dance sequence, they will tell you off!

Does that really matter?

(Laughs) Exactly! It’s your soul that people want to see! And if you understand life at all, you understand that everything is in constant change: it’s never going to be the same movement ever again. But the people who dictate this in dance institutions are not necessarily looking at the bigger picture. You know only one thing — it’s like being in the army: you’ve been told what to do and you have to do it!

“They don’t teach you that ballet is much more than just dancing.”

You’ve been enrolled in this system since you were three years old. How do you break out of that kind of regimented behavior?

Well, that’s why ballet is one of the hardest disciplines — you kind of stay childlike, because you never really experience childhood, so you try to stay in that. Even in terms of your observation of the world, you don’t really see anything because you’re in the studio all the time! And you are with the same-minded people and with the same-minded teachers literally all the time. Everything is one way. You don’t really talk to people from different industries. And the teachers, they’re people who don’t really necessarily teach you what’s going to happen to you after ballet; they don’t teach you that ballet is much more than just dancing.

Is that something that you had to learn on your own?

Absolutely. I actually never thought of myself as a dancer — I was curious about life outside of ballet more. I wanted to achieve things. You know, it was only by travelling that I started to mature and to make my own choices, learn how to deal with people and understand how the industry works. For example, when I met David LaChapelle, it was strange to him to find out that I didn’t have an agent! (Laughs) But dancers don’t have agents, because the system wouldn’t want them to have the freedom or the power to make their own choices — it’s more comfortable to do what the company wants.

But it didn’t use to be like this. Dance used to be a progressive art form, in tune with contemporary culture — now it seems to be more segregated.

Right, and in ballet, the great dancers and choreographers like Rudolf Nureyev were always free spirited. Now everything is put in a box! Why are they telling me what’s English style and what’s Russian style in classical ballet — that distinction shouldn’t even exist! For instance, English style was never restricted. Dancers like Margot Fonteyn and Anthony Dowell were free dancers, and they were amazing. Now suddenly everything became so small. You don’t lose anything, in fact you gain a lot by having free-thinking people. I tried to work it out myself, which… Probably wasn’t as smart. (Laughs)

James McAvoy said that your ability to question authority and expand your horizon is dramatically reduced when you’re not exposed to culture growing up.

Exactly! That’s why it’s important to have mentors that could teach you about life experiences rather than only ballet class — they should teach you how to think! To think is to create and that’s what’s most important. Dancing is to me the only industry that hasn’t evolved in any way. But it doesn’t have to be like this! I think it’s important to change dancers’ mindsets as well. Dancers are motivated by their love for dance but they get paid really little, and that’s not fair. Not a single dancer can afford their own flat. You just work and work and then you end up with nothing. And that has to be changed because there is so much talent out there in dance today, and it has to be rewarded.

“When you have two heads, you can bounce ideas off one another — unless there are egos involved.”

Is that why you recently turned to acting?

Well, it’s a different type of reward. In acting you feel like a team, like you’re creating something together. So many things have to come together and you are not alone, you’re not all by yourself. And you’re not so far away from people, you’re close to people — because on stage you can’t really see anybody! When the cameras are rolling, it’s such an exciting moment. For example, in Red Sparrow I was dancing with Jennifer Lawrence while Francis Lawrence was directing, and I felt like I can add something to the big picture. It’s a joint effort, which is fun.

Is this type of collaborative creativity something you were missing when you were at the Royal Ballet?

For sure. When you have two heads, you can bounce ideas off one another — unless there are egos involved. But as long as there are no egos, you just create more! You figure out ideas that you can then take to the next level. And you don’t feel it’s all on you.

Has relieving that pressure given you the headspace to figure out what you actually want to do with your career?

Yes! If you distance yourself from something and you miss it, then you really find out if you really care about it. You ask yourself, “Am I okay to let this go forever?” and you have to listen to your gut feeling. Filming Take me to Church for example was a big moment for me. Through that, I found out how powerful something good and something light can be — instead of darkness and negativity. I personally always feel that fight within me. After that, I danced for free for a couple of months to regain the hunger for dance and the joy of dance: to dance not because I am being paid to or because somebody is telling me to, but because I wanted to do it.


Dancer: The Outtakes

Dancer: The Outtakes

Julie Kavanaugh goes behind the scenes of a documentary recording the life of Sergei Polunin.

By Julie Kavanaugh For Dancing Times, March 2017 issue

 

An idea is born

In September 2012, I was approached by the Dutch documentary director Aliona van der Horst.  She’d read a long article I had written on Sergei Polunin.  Aliona thought the story of the Ukrainian boy burdened with a phenomenal talent would make a moving film.  I knew that terrific archive material existed.  Galina Polunin, Sergei’s mother, had photographed and filmed all the key moments of his childhood.   I knew as well that he would be safe in the hands of the Van der Horst, who is half-Russian and makes poetic, human, award-winning documentaries.

Additionally, it didn’t seem right to make a Polunin documentary that failed to portray the dancer as the extraordinary classicist he is.   His every step is a blueprint of balletic perfection.  A specialist’s eye was needed.  I wrote telling Aliona that I was married to the film dance filmmaker Ross MacGibbon and that we’d decided to take this on ourselves.  While working on a Ralph Fiennes profile, I got to know the Coriolanus producer Gabrielle Tana and we become friends.  Gaby loved ballet, understood Polunin’s importance, and promised to make our documentary idea happen.  Three months later the three of us flew to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where Serge was performing, to discuss a shooting schedule.

 

Igor Zelensky stepped up

He was under contract then to the Stanislavsky ballet in Moscow whose director was the charismatic Russian dancer Igor Zelensky, also director of the Novosibirsk’s ballet company and now in charge of Munich’s Bavarian State Ballet where Polunin is a “permanent guest.”  After his dramatic bolt from The Royal Ballet, when the other major companies had shied away from signing up a dancer then regarded as a volatile delinquent Zelensky had stepped in.  “After I left, everything started to close up.” Sergei said, “people started to turn away from me. Igor really helped me get out of this darkness.” 

Zelensky, whose face  Serge has tattooed on his shoulder as a tribute, became a father/brother/mentor figure while his wife and children were his Moscow family.  With his European sophistication combined the Russian machismo and a wild side of his own, Zelensky was a vital role model, instilling in his protégé the importance of self-discipline.  It soon grew into a symbiotic pact with Zelensky creating a Polunin repertory with masterworks by Kenneth McMillan and Fredrick Ashton.  The young dynamo’s presence adding luster and excitement to the Stanislavsky.  In Novosebirsk Zelinsky was able to keep Serge performing and for big money too (one Nutcracker solo earned him more, he told me, than two months pay in The Royal Ballet). 

 

Even in a bad red costume, Sergei looked noble and refined

We watched him the first night in the Gazprom-sponsored gala in Novosibirsk’s “Siberian Coliseum” – the largest theatre in Russia. it was a “Snow Forum” with a blizzard soundtrack, snowflake lighting effects in the auditorium and a performance consisting of winter-themed extracts from musicals, operas, and ballets –  mostly The Nutcracker.   Even in a bad red costume, Sergei looked noble and refined, but was so reined in during his manege by the inept, ponytailed conductor who hardly looked at the stage, that the audience’s slow handclap soon petered out. 

I found myself thinking of a remark Ashton once made when we were talking about why Rudolf Nureyev had chosen The Royal Ballet as his home company:  “A beautiful jewel needs a beautiful setting.”  Because by contrast, the State Academic Opera And Ballet Theater, with its rickety sets and brash lighting appeared as tarnished costume jewelry at best. 

 

A motley lot

Physically and technically, the dancers were motley lot, their mime movements almost comically old school.  “They don’t know how to be natural,” said Sergei, who like Nureyev in his day, was breathing new life into the 19th-century classics.  He was preparing for Giselle while we were there, saying that he’d had to stop the make-up woman from powdering over his brows and painting clownish black arcs in the middle of his forehead. 

Outside in the snow banked-streets the temperature was -24°C, but Sergei virtually lived in the theater, where he and Zelensky had been given backstage apartments.  Igor’s was smart and minimalist.  Sergei’s not much more than a boarding school cell with chipboard cupboards and a bed covered with a garish duvet and strewn clothes.  But he loved Novosibirsk, which was less lonely for him in than Moscow, and we planned to come back and film his cocooned existence with Igor, as well as make good use of the theater’s vast blackened stage.

 

Galina sees Sergei dance professionally for the first time

The following month we shot the first footage in London.   The Royal Ballet was reviving Marguerite and Armand to mark Tamara Rojo’s farewell season with the company and Kevin O’Hare had invited Sergei back to partner her.  This was a huge deal for him. A comeback begging to be recorded, as well as what I saw as the perfect opportunity to carry out a promise I made to his mother.  I’ve already written about my friendship with Galina Polunina, and how I invited her to London to see him for the first time on the Royal Opera House stage. 

That night, sitting beside Galina, as she clutched my arm when the curtain rose, her eyes shining with tears, has to be one of the most memorable ballet-going experiences; but more to the point, it gave us a tremendously powerful scene for the film – one which our cameraman, positioned in the stall circle, and following Galina through the pass door onto the stage, caught in soul-stirring detail.

“I’ve always been scared of contemporary”

In the summer of 2013 Serge was back in London, appearing with the Stanislavsky company in Roland Petit’s Coppelia.  A kitsch, mawkish version which also happens to be an exhilarating showpiece for a male star. Galina came over for it and so did a director/producer acquaintance of Gaby from the US named Steven Cantor.  Tall and rangy, he talked earnestly about the necessity of a Formula and a Journey for the documentary, but had our ear as he was offering to put a large chunk of the budget. 

We now had the funds to commission an eight minute piece by Russell Maliphant, and over a week in August we recorded Sergei working with the choreographer for first-time. “I’ve always been scared of contemporary,” Sergei told me. “For me ballet is so much easier.  It’s unusual for me to go low to the ground – I feeling going to pull everything.”  Even from the first day, however, there was a rapport between the pair, the atmosphere in Maliphant’s north Acton studio almost Zen-like.  

 

Original idea for Dancer focused on artistry

To begin with Sergei was “just trying to copy what Russell’s doing” and having trouble mastering a tricky for swivel but the falls and capoeira-inspired movements came naturally to him, and ini close-ups and wafting his arms beautifully framed his Slavic face.  Maliphant’s idea was to exploit his virtuosity – “the great leaps and turns, those explosive moves.”  – but blend it with other techniques.   “We’ll be dipping into the classical, but I want to play around its edges, and how we go into it and come out of it is something I like to explore.”  

Ross wanted the making a solo to be linking device throughout the film, and planned to shoot the finished piece on location with multiple cameras using time-spliced technique – a freezing of 24 frames a second that would capture and hold the exquisite purity of shapes Polunin makes in space.

 

And then came the tattoos

One August evening we filmed Sergei’s London family, talking to his Royal Ballet School friend Jade Hale-Christofi; his brother Phil, whom Sergei described as a “gang member” but who seemed soft as a kitten; their Greek father and maternal North American mother whose suburban home in been a refuge to surrogate and his most troubled times. 

A few minutes away was the tattoo parlor he’d co-owned with Anthony Lammin, a cool, confident black guy who’d created a number of Sergei’s tattoos.   The latest was to be a replica of a pretty church in Kherson, where Sergei had been “christened.”   To the buzzing of the drill, we filmed Lammin at work on Sergei’s back.  There was a piece of kitchen paper on each thigh to catch the dripping sweat off his armpits, but his dancer pain threshold is so high he could talk to the camera naturally, without a flinch.

 

Nikolai Priadchenko and what might have been

In the autumn of 2013 we traveled to Ukraine to film the backstory.  The trip had been prompted by an invitation for Sergei to perform Giselle in Kiev with the Bolshoi Ballet’s Ukrainian-born star Svetlana Zakharova.  A double comeback this time.  After their press conference he visited Kiev’s ballet academy were he been trained as a child.  He was visibly moved by the “same smells and faces.”  

In Giselle rehearsals he was coached by his first mentor Nikolai Priadchenko, a wirey man with thick gray hair and leathery skin, who’d prepared Serge for his Royal Ballet School audition, taught him variations for European competitions, and passed on the combination of romantic softness and danseur noble imperiousness that defined his own performances as a company star. 

 

“If I had him every day, I’d be on a different level”

Priadchenko had been horrified to hear that Sergei had walked out of The Royal Ballet.  ”It’s not a company to be left.  It was his base” and on camera was visibly shocked when the dancer confessed to hardly ever taking company class.  Among his teachers only Priadchenko,  Sergei said, was “constantly critical,” something he admitted he badly needed.  “I work by myself, I mark things and nobody tells me anything.  So I’m trying in a way to lie to people – pretending I know what I’m doing, but really I don’t.   Nicolai knows that and tells me off in rehearsals.   He wants to correct me show me; show me something new.  I try to hold onto the key moments that I remember, but it’s not the same.  If I had him every day, I’d be on a different level.”  (Sadly for Sergei, Priadchenko died six months later.)

 

Home to Kherson

From Cosmopolitan Kiev we took the overnight train to Kherson.  Kherson seemed a world away especially in its outskirts were Vladimir Polunin lives with his mother.  Sergei’s adoring, pillowy grandmother, who’d got up at 5 AM to make borscht for him, was there along with Galina’s mother, who was strikingly more sophisticated than Vladimír’s.  Vladimir is a gentle, handsome man, who answers difficult questions with touching frankness, as did the two “babushki” sitting side by side.

 

Where it all began

In town we filmed the gymnasium where Sergei trained from the age of six.   His coach was interviewed about the qualities that could’ve made him a professional.  Sergei’s first ballet teacher put on a special display for him.  He was dragged from his seat onto the stage by the pupils.   After improvising to a melancholy Pavarotti aria he spontaneously lifted his teacher off her feet and swung her horizontally round and round. It was a euphoric moment, but there was one more indelible experience left.  

 

The healer

Sergei had suggested we film a session with his healer, a former taxi driver.  His eyes were as glassy as a blind man’s.  He spent about 15 minutes on Sergei, muttering as he rocked him back and forwards, which may or may not have produced a result.  All I know is that it urged Sergei to have a go.   He translated the soft torrent of words spoken by the healer.  I was astounded by accuracy of what I was hearing.  Sergei wasn’t surprised.  Struck with pneumonia as a child he’d been discharged after six weeks in hospital as there was nothing more to be done.  It was Galina’s desperation that first took him to this healer who cured him within a fortnight.

The Dancer outtakes and what might have been

The last day of the shoot, November 20, was Sergei’s birthday.  On the overnight train we had a celebration buffet supper.  We toasted him with plastic cups of warm, sweet, Russian “champagne.”  We did not know it at this time, but this was the end of our collaboration.  Gabby Tana had become enraptured by the work of the photographer and music video maker David LaChapelle.  She decided that she wanted a more commercial film.  In a video of a re-released Freddie Mercury /  Michael Jackson track, LaChapelle dressed Sergei up in combat gear.  He stripped it off while running and leaping over the Hawaiian terrain and into a sunlit white barn. 

This was refined into the now famous Hozier “Take Me To Church” solo, an internet sensation, and today, the centerpiece of the documentary Dancer.  Aimed at the massive YouTube audience, the film has given Sergei the global exposure he craved.  Steven Cantor replaced Ross as director, and in focusing on Polunin’s angst, and not his artistry, Cantor created a portrait of a hugely gifted, mixed-up kid.  Our vision for the documentary, while telling the affecting family story, and filming his movements with innovative expertise, would’ve enshrined forever a great dancer in his prime.


 

Sergei’s Dance Mom, The New Yorker 2016

Sergei’s Dance Mom, The New Yorker 2016

The New Yorker Culture Desk

What happened when Galina Polunina finally saw her son dance.

Sergei’s dance mom

Dance moms… as a breed, we ballet mothers can be insufferable—clingy, controlling, and omnipresent. The mother of Margot Fonteyn, who was known as the Black Queen.  She trailed after the ballerina, even on company tours abroad, acting as a composite of a personal assistant, lady’s maid, and nineteenth-century chaperone. Many of us are failed dancers living vicariously through our talented offspring.  Looking back, I find something embarrassingly “Black Swan”-like in the way I drew satisfaction from my son thriving at the Royal Ballet School—the very place where I’d felt so miserably inadequate.

Sergei’s dance mom, Galina Polunina, though, saw ballet primarily as an escape, an opportunity for her only child, to achieve a brighter existence than her own. “In my life, the choices were between salted cabbage and marinated cabbage,” she said. “I wanted him to have more of a choice than that.”

Sergei today

Today, Sergei Polunin is renowned throughout the world for the four-minute solo he performed to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.”  The dance video of raw, erotic force went viral on YouTube, and forms the climax of “Dancer,” a new documentary about Polunin. In fact, its hectic acrobatics don’t do him justice. Polunin is an outstanding classical dancer—probably the purest virtuoso since Mikhail Baryshnikov—and brings a cinematic subtlety to his dramatic roles. The smudged lines and head-clutchings of the Hozier piece give little sense of this, although in its strange, swaying opening you can feel the power of Polunin in repose.

Peacock among pigeons

I got to know Sergei when he was thirteen and already a legend to his fellow-pupils at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s junior school. Watching him in end-of-year displays was like seeing a magnificent strutting peacock among a straggle of urban pigeons.  He was so perfectly formed and technically astounding that his teachers had moved him ahead by two school years. He’d started dancing at the age of three, when Galina first took him to classes in their Ukrainian home town of Kherson. As he grew older, his parents, believing that he stood more chance of success as a professional sportsman, enrolled him in gymnastics.

From the age of four, Sergei trained after school until he dropped with exhaustion.  There was no kicking a football about with friends or fun of any kind. After Sergei had recovered from a long spell of pneumonia, Galina decided to give ballet lessons another try, and when he turned nine she entered him for the Kiev State Choreographic School, which accepted him at first sight.

Sergei’s “Billy Elliot” moment

The school’s boarding facilities were so rough that Galina felt she had no option but to move to Kiev herself to make a home for Sergei. Galina’s husband, Vladimir, and her mother both left Ukraine and worked abroad to fund his training.  The four-year separation inevitably took its toll on the Polunins’ marriage. For Sergei, the knowledge that he was responsible for the family’s breakup was hard to bear.  Even harder was the constant pressure to fulfill his remarkable talent. Galina began preparing Sergei for a brilliant future.  She entered him in ballet competitions and rebuked him for not taking his dancing more seriously.

She accompanied him to London for an audition at the Royal Ballet School, and afterward suffered a “Billy Elliot” moment of despair when the acceptance letter arrived, knowing the family could never afford the fees. The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation later agreed to subsidize Sergei’s schooling. Losing him to London was Galina’s greatest sacrifice.  She fell into a long depression before beginning a new life for herself as wardrobe mistress at Kiev’s National Opera.

Royal adventure

For Sergei, however, after four years living in a single room with an exacting mother, the Royal Ballet School, housed in a stately hunting lodge on two thousand acres of parkland, was an exhilarating adventure. Determined to meet his family’s hopes, Sergei was a model pupil at White Lodge.  Once, however, at the senior school he began to kick against its regimental confines. He experimented with club drugs when he joined the company. Later, finding himself unchallenged, having already soared to the top of his profession.  He began using cocaine to heighten the adrenaline rush of performing.

Then, in 2012, he made what he called a “big boom” in the world press by quitting the Royal Ballet. Appointed its youngest ever principal at the age of nineteen, he’d been fast-tracked through the ranks, given too many major roles too quickly, and by twenty-one felt burnt out. He told me at the time that it seemed he had nothing left to prove.  He realized that his lack of a real vocation for ballet owed to the fact that he’d been forced into it as a child. It had been his mother’s choice, not his.

Sergei’s mom kept up with him on the internet, like the rest of us

I visited Galina in her studio apartment in the outskirts of Kiev in 2012.   I was working on a long profile of Sergei. His tweets about his late, druggy nights, and the press excitement about his new tattoos and his escapades in North London’s underworld, had frightened her.  She craved reassurance that the online rumpus was mostly hearsay.

Despite the language barrier, Galina and I bonded immediately, perhaps because of my own brief experience as a ballet mother. I’d done my own share of pushing, arranging a Russian tutor for my youngest son, Alfie—he also had conversation sessions at White Lodge with Sergei—in case he ever studied at Vaganova Academy, in St. Petersburg. This never happened; he decided he wanted to go to “a normal school,” and I’ve never been allowed to forget that the Russian lessons, which he dropped as soon as he could, were all my idea.

“I vowed I’d arrange for her to see him dance”

But an adolescent’s raised finger to parental influence was nothing in comparison to what Sergei put Galina through. They had kept in regular touch and vacationed together during his summer trips to Ukraine.  Now he dissuaded her from attending the students’ graduation concert at the Royal Opera House, in London.  He was the star, and all but forbidden her to watch his Royal Ballet performances.  Galina was forced to follow his progress online. Video clips can’t capture the glow of his presence onstage, and I vowed that somehow I’d arrange for her to see him dance.

“All is good”

A year later, an opportunity came up. I’d begun work on a documentary about Sergei with my husband, the dance filmmaker Ross MacGibbon. There was already a wonderful visual narrative, as in typical dance mom fashion, Galina had photographed and filmed all the key moments of Sergei’s early life.  We decided to shoot the first footage in London, in February of 2013. The Royal Ballet was reviving the Fonteyn/Rudolf Nureyev vehicle “Marguerite and Armand” to mark the ballerina Tamara Rojo’s farewell season with the company, and the director had invited Sergei back to be her partner.

After sending Galina an invitation to help secure a visa, I presented her London trip to Sergei as something of a fait accompli. I’d acted on impulse—mostly out of empathy with Galina—but I readied my excuse to Sergei.  If we got permission to film his mother watching him for the first time on the Royal Opera House stage, it would be a powerful moment in the documentary. He didn’t protest at the time, but told me later that he’d tried to talk Galina out of coming. “I felt so connected to her that I thought I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the role,” Sergei recently recalled. “All I would be thinking is ‘She is there.’”

February 10th, 7:50 a.m.: “I am start fly, love Galina.”

1:07 p.m.: “Where are you now?”

“Now in the train! All is good!”

Galina in London

I met Galina at Victoria Station, and took her to a small, chintzy hotel I’d booked nearby, on Ebury Street, leaving her to rest. Sergei had told her that it was warm in London, but the weather had turned foul, with sleet and freezing wind, so later we went together to buy a pair of boots. That evening, I picked her up at seven and drove to our flat, where I’d prepared dinner for her and Sergei. She hadn’t been able to contact him yet, and neither had I, our calls going straight to voice mail. At 8:30, we were still unsure if he was going to arrive, but finally I got through to him. He was in a taxi with his friend, the Royal Ballet’s Nehemiah Kish, a soft-spoken American dancer whose loyalty is much valued by Sergei.

More than one dance mom

Dinner was a little awkward at first.  Sergei hardly spoke to Galina, who was quiet and couldn’t join in the English chatter. I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake. Male stars with absent mothers are a magnet to devoted, middle-aged fixers—Nureyev had surrogate stage mothers in every city he frequented.  I hated the thought that I’d become one of those meddling obsessives. Sergei was already nervous about returning to the company he’d abandoned.  He seemed to think that having Galina there might jinx his performance.  In challenging this, I was responsible for stressing him out even more. But then the mood loosened up. The baftas, which were on television, helped to break the ice.  The dancers drank several beers and tucked into second helpings of venison. All three stayed late.

Rojo kisses Galina’s hand

“Marguerite and Armand,” which was performed the next night, was the last ballet on the bill.  When the curtain rose Galina clutched my arm for a second. Sergei told me afterward that with his very first step he’d thought about his mother being there. “If I’d screwed up or fallen, I’d have blamed it on her,” he said. But his performance was flawless—blazing, bestial, tender, and beautifully in tune with Tamara Rojo, a superb dramatic ballerina. Galina sat straight upright throughout, dabbing her eyes with a napkin that she’d taken from the bar. At the end, the entire auditorium was hushed (“I thought, What’s going on?” Sergei said), but when the curtain rose again there was a collective roar.

Then the house manager arrived to escort us through the pass door onto the stage, with our film crew following behind. A stylist acquaintance had lent Galina a chic black dress and feathered cape.  When Sergei caught site of her, he took hold of her hand.  They talked in Russian about her designer outfit until he realized they were being filmed. Rojo came over to hug Galina.   She thanked her for “making such an amazing dancer and letting him come to London.”  Then, in a balletic act of homage, she knelt and kissed Galina’s hand.

“I want to make her happy”

Galina went to see “Marguerite and Armand” again during her trip.  She and Sergei had a dinner by themselves. Later in the week, we took her to a local restaurant.  She had a giggling fit when my langoustines arrived with a lemon half-wrapped in muslin. She put it in her bag as a souvenir. We saw matinees of “Mamma Mia” and “Billy Elliot.”  Galina was delighted.  After a couple of days she was as independent as a Londoner. On her return, she carried a stash of demerara sugar in her suitcase (“It costs six times more in Ukraine”).   Galina paid the hotel bill with a brick of banknotes that Sergei had given her. This was the first of many trips. “It was time to stop being selfish,” he told me. “I want to make her happy.”

First of many performances

Sergei was then under contract to the Stanislavsky company, in Moscow.  Director Georgian dancer Igor Zelensky, was a former principal with the Mariinsky and the New York City Ballet.  Other major companies shied away from signing a dancer then regarded as a volatile troublemaker.  Zelensky stepped in.  Galina said he “saved” her son. He created a Polunin repertory, featuring European masterworks.  Igor also became a mentor, part father and brother.  His wife and children became Sergei’s Russian family. I saw Galina in Moscow.  Sergei made an extraordinary début in MacMillan’s “Mayerling,” and, in London, with the Stanislavsky in Petit’s “Coppelia.”

Could be mom knows him best

In the fall of 2013, just before my husband and I stopped working on the documentary, we travelled to Ukraine to film Sergei’s backstory.  We returned home a week before the first rumblings of revolution erupted in Kiev’s Independence Square. In Kiev, Galina’s exposure to the West was apparent in the transformation of her apartment. A new minimalism had replaced the Soviet décor.  The heavy brown furniture was gone.  Flocked wallpaper with flying fish was covered in white paint. By the following summer, she too seemed to have undergone a process of reinvention. Sergei had again stunned the ballet world.  He announced that he was moving to Hollywood to begin a career as a movie actor.

Back to dance

This turned out to be a short-lived experiment.  He returned to Russia in October to star opposite Zelensky in “Spartacus.”  He was soon a “permanent guest” with Zelensky’s new company in Munich. At the time his decision to quit dancing was shocking.  I e-mailed Galina, thinking she’d be devastated. Her reply took me by surprise. “I am hope Serezha will be happy in America and will do what he like,” she wrote. Perhaps she’d been putting on a brave face.  Her words struck me as those of someone who’d learned to recognize when a crisis was just another blip, someone gaining strength by letting go.

 

  • Julie Kavanagh is a freelance writer whose books include the authorized lives of Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev.




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