2013 OK! Magazine article, fascinating interview! | Sergei Polunin
2013 OK! Magazine Article

2013 OK! Magazine Article

He had an amazing fate. At the age of 19, Sergei Polunin, a native of Kherson, became a principal with the Royal Ballet of London. One can only dream of such a swift and brilliant career.  But at 21, unexpectedly for everyone, Polunin left the theater to start his life practically from scratch.

By Vadim Wernick

JANUARY 16, 2013

2013 ok! magazine article
Photo: Mikhail Kharlamov

For many years, Sergei Polunin has spoken with others only in English. As he sits with me today, he speaks to me in Russian, rather slowly, probably looking for the right words.  Currently, the 22-year-old Polunin is a principal dancer with the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater.  The theater does not hide its joy about such a successful acquisition. As I listen to Sergei tell his story himself, I being to realize that it could well become a plot for a feature film.  Mentally, I give the command, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

Sergei, tell me about your childhood. Did you grow up quiet and calm, or energetic?

“I have always been very energetic. From birth I cried a lot and did not let my parents sleep. In the daytime, too, it was impossible to lay me down – so much energy! Because of this, I was told to join a sport. When I was four years old, I was taken to gymnastics lessons. When I was six years old, I entered a gymnastic sports school. The school day lasted six to eight hours. This is quite a serious load, more serious than in ballet. Plus it is a dangerous sport, sometimes it was scary. I had many quite serious injuries. I’ve completely taken the skin off my arms and hands, hit my head against some pieces of iron, and have fallen down badly more than once.”

They believed in you and considered you promising.  Did you compete?

“At first they did not want to admit me into the gymnastics school, because I was very tall, head and shoulders above the rest of the guys. In gymnastics, all are very small. But the coach believed in me, said that growth is not the most important thing and took me.  I always won prizes, never below third, and I did not fall in competitions. But then, and for a long time, I fell ill with pneumonia. When I returned, those who usually came in last were ahead. It was psychologically hard. Because of this, I left gymnastics, although my mother was against it. She, too, had given a lot of energy to it. She accompanied me to classes, every day, waited hours for me to finish.”

So you have shown stalwart character since childhood?

“Yes. It is easy for me to leave the old and find something new. I do not collect photos or discs of my performances. I do not store photos of my parents or ex-girlfriend – I tried to throw it all away or destroy it so that there was no pain. I even have a tattoo on this topic: the rain washes away the picture. I never miss people, never missed mom when I left for London. I do not get used to people, to work, to a place. It’s easy for me to leave. Now, if someone else leaves, and I stay, then it’s hard. When dad left for Portugal, it was hard. You stay in the old place, but you lose something. And when you are the one leaving, you gain something new and you do not feel the loss.”

2013 ok! magazine article
Photo: Mikhail Kharlamov

Your dad went to Portugal to work?

“He went to Moscow to work and to Portugal. He was a builder. In Kherson there is no work. Everyone leaves to work abroad.”

So you grew up mostly with your mom?

“Yes. Mom did not work, she was completely engaged in me. Dad returned twice a year, brought gifts – but always went back. There is no father in my childhood memory.  Because of this probably, I chose friends older than myself. I was rarely friends with the guys of my own age. I was more comfortable with adults, strong people.”

Tell me, how did you get into ballet? Was that your wish?

“It was my mother’s wish. When she asked me, a five-year-old boy, whether I like dances, I answered “no” – it seemed to me that this occupation was not for a man. Kherson is not the most advanced city, so to speak. There, almost everyone is dressed the same way, everyone has the same hairstyle … Few people danced there, but I didn’t even hear about the ballet then. But when my mother brought me to the dance club, I immediately decided to become the best dancer, just as I once wanted to become the best in gymnastics. I studied there for three years, and then entered the Kiev Choreographic School.”

Sergei, how did you, a boy from Kherson, end up in London?

“This is also thanks to my mother and her faith in my success. Mom does not know the answer “no”, she always achieves everything. In Kiev, everyone said to her: “The boy is only 13 years old, why are you taking him away from regular school?  He won’t receive an education. He will remain uneducated and will not be accepted to any company”.  And so, I had nothing, no papers, not even a high school diploma.  However, London is different. There, if a person is talented, they will take him in to the company without any papers.”

Was it possible suddenly, for no reason at all to leave Kiev for London to study ballet? How did all this happen?

“Mom called dad in Portugal. She said it would be good if he moved to work in London, then we would move there too – there is a good ballet school there. That is the idea she had. But he couldn’t.  He called a friend … Dad had a friend, also a builder, who moved from Portugal to London. So, this friend went to the ballet school, talked to the director and found out what was needed for admission. We prepared a CD, recorded a part of the lesson, a part of the dances and sent it there. They liked it, and I was sent an invitation to interview. My mother and I arrived, I spoke to the commission, and they took me. It would be easier, of course, to go to regular school. It is less expensive and less years of study. But everyone comes to London to dance at the school where  I was accepted. I was one of the younger ones there. Training there is three times more expensive – thirty two thousand pounds a year. And in the same place, on the school grounds, you live. You can go to the park in the evening. The school is located in a closed park, there are deer, huge parrots.”

Did you know English?

“No, I did not know. At first, I remember, it was difficult to guess what they wanted from me. But after six months, I slowly learned to talk and understand.”

Did you miss Ukraine? Being in your own house?

“Only in the early days. After a week it passed. I have long wanted to escape from the life of Kiev. In Kiev, I lived with my mother in the same room for four years. Our beds were very close. In Kherson, everything happened in front of each other. It bothered me to be with my mother constantly, under her pressure. I wanted to break free. Now, I have my own life, and my mother has hers.”

2013 ok! magazine article
Photo: Mikhail Kharlamov

Tell me, did you have any success in England from the very beginning? Did you lead there?

“Yes. In Kiev, I was the best in class. Although in London the guys at school were two years older than me, I, at the age of 13, was even with them in terms of their level of training. Their school begins rather weakly. Children are not forced at all. Fortunately, I do not need to force, do not need control, I do not need to hear “pull the foot.” When children are not pulled along, nothing is molded out of them.  Without force, you need perseverance to develop your talent. So I persevered. That is why now I can work with any teacher and in any atmosphere.”

Were you been accepted to the Royal Ballet company automatically?

“The Royal Ballet company takes from the school very rarely. They may not take anyone at all, or they may take one or two people out of 24 graduates. They took me and a girl. And that’s all. Because of this, it is difficult when you enter the company. You don’t know anyone, nobody supports you.”

That is how you fell into extreme conditions?

“Yes. Firstly, people in the company are much older than you. Secondly, the company has traditionally a poor attitude to beginners. You have no right to talk either with soloists or with principals. Such rules… these are not literal rules but the atmosphere nevertheless remains. When I came to the company, I had no friends. And because I immediately danced good parts, it was difficult for me to find one…”

To be so good right at the start, who would like it except yourself and the theater management, right?

“That’s it. After the first year, I had already made soloist. The other soloists there were thirty years old. A principal in the company would be thirty-two.”

But it could have happened even faster?

“At first there was the corps de ballet, I stood in the last line, I knew my place. My teacher in class said… you are dancing here, and in the company… but you must always know your place. It’s as if they are trying to break a person so that he does not have the desire to ask for, or want, anything.  In the company, when I first came and started dancing in the studio, a teacher would often come up to me and say: “Do not jump higher than the principals”. Can you imagine?”

Got it… do not speak with the principals, do not dance in the same row as the principals, and do worse than the principals!

“Yes. Yes. Yes. They said the corps de ballet is useful to you, you learn acting skills.”

Did your nature rebel against such rigid rules?

“I did not rebel, on the contrary, I lost interest. When you are not given roles for a long time … In the first month of work, they gave me the Golden God to dance in La Bayadere. Everything went well, but after that, six months nothing at all.  I almost ceased to appear in the theater. I was sitting at home, watching TV, I went to parties, I didn’t know what to do. It was quite difficult for me then. Until I was again given a good role – I danced the pas-de-trois in Sleeping Beauty. It somehow spurred me, raised my self-esteem.”

So after a year in the company you became a soloist.

“When I was made a soloist, I was very surprised: why? I have not done anything that brilliant I thought. But I think they saw my potential.  Therefore, in the first year, they did not particularly engage me. There was no point in learning small roles with me, sewing costumes on me if I still would not be dancing this role in a year.”

You also did become a principal with the Royal Ballet.

“Yes. In the history of the Royal Ballet there was no example for someone to get this title at that age. The second year was already very promising. I was given the main role in Bayadere. Critics were thrilled. From this moment I had no downtime. Started hard work. At first it was very interesting. While you are not yet principal, there is still something to strive for, to fight for. Then at some point the director calls me and says: “We are making you a principal dancer.”  Like an everyday thing, no celebration, nothing.”

After that, probably, everything in your life changed?

“You move to another floor and get a place in the changing room of the principals. Now there are only two people in the room with you … But here is another extreme. Previously, if you, for example, were late, always someone would argue or complain about you. But when you are a principal, do what you want, no one has the right to even say a word to you. I liked it: nobody makes you nervous, you work calmly.”

In the theater, everything went perfectly: you danced all the main parts, the press wrote about you in the most enthusiastic tones. And what happened, why did you decide to leave the theater at twenty-one?

“Indeed, everything was very stable. They even put a ballet on me, which is also rare. But something I did not like. I didn’t like that they don’t give freedom of expression. You are forced to perform everything exactly as the choreographer wanted, even if this choreographer has not been alive for a hundred years. I wanted some new achievements, I wanted free creativity. And I began to think about moving to New York, to the American Ballet Theater, who I had been constantly called by for five years. In addition, I had a row with my girlfriend, also a ballerina. We had been together for three years. Now nothing kept me in London.”

How long had you had the desire to leave the Royal Ballet?

“I had one attempt, a year before leaving. I then dropped everything, took off my costume (there was a dress rehearsal for the new performance) and went to the deputy director. I talked to him for a long time. I said that it was not enough for me only to dance in the company, that I, as an artist, would like to be listened to. Dancers have no authority. “

They calmed you then? They said, everything will be fine with you, just stay?

“Yes, they promised a lot. Gave more money. Although I did not ask for money. I became one of the highest paid artists in the theater. I was told that they would talk with producers, maybe some films would be offered. And as a result, I was persuaded to stay. But nothing has changed. There was more money, but with creativity, everything is the same. The same routine: getting up, rehearsing … boring.  I left the company. Ratmansky called me and I was going to fly to ABT, to New York.”

I will clarify. Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky – artistic director of ABT.

“Yes. He wrote to me that he was waiting, would help, if necessary, that he would very much like me to come. And suddenly, boom, something else happened. Ralph Fiennes, a Hollywood actor, comes up to me and says he wants to make a movie about Nureyev with me in the lead role. Then, the producers of a musical call me, they offer a role. Not to sing, of course, but to dance the whole musical.  I am mentioned for the show “Stars on the Island,” one of the most popular TV shows in England. The celebrity life I dreamed of began. And I thought: why should I now go to America, look for musicals, films, when I, here in England, I am offered all this. And I lingered a little…”

Sergei, what was your tattoo salon all about? I read that at some point you decided to stop ballet completely.

“I opened the tattoo parlor with a friend about three months before I left the company.”

Why did you need it?

“I do not know, I like boyish parties. I had the happiest life when I was five or six years old, even before gymnastics, when the boys and I ran along the street with machine guns, when I belonged to ourselves and was not attached to anything. From the shop came the same feeling. Different people came there, they didn’t have a job, and they did what they wanted all day long – they did tattoos, played consoles, drank, and smoked. There was a completely different atmosphere, as opposed to theatrical, where everyone builds something of himself. They were simple, free, strong guys, I really liked to communicate with them. I made tattoos for myself. I have thirteen of them.”

And ballet?

“The night before, I did not concentrate on ballet at all. Until four in the morning I was sitting in the tattoo parlor (it did not close for the night). In the morning I went to rehearsal as usual, but then, just walked out. And when I left the Royal Ballet, I quit everything: the tattoo parlor, and the girl — everything.”

In the company, probably, it was a shock when you announced your final decision?

“Yes, I was told that the director was crying. There was a concert in the theater that evening, the colleagues saw that the leadership was mourning, everyone was sitting, they did not know what to say.”

So what’s next? You talked about the mass of attractive offers. What of this come true?

“Since the shooting of the film about Nureyev slowed down, I decided to continue my career as a dancer in order to earn some money. I finally decided to go to New York. Flew with one bag at thirteen kilograms. These were all my things. And when I flew in and talked to the director of ABT, it became clear to me that he was afraid to take me, that he had heard from the press …”

… about your complex, unpredictable character?

“I think yes.”

So, you became persona non grata in the ballet world.

“Yes. All those who previously made me an offer, began to slowly leave, and this, of course, is terrible when everyone crawls away from you. You go on the internet – but there are no offers.”

Moreover, you are only twenty-two years old.

“At that moment, only twenty-one.”

I understand you’re a sensitive person. Has depression or something similar started?

“How to say … I was advised to talk again with Kevin, the director of ABT. They said that Kevin is just afraid of newcomers. They advised me to go to Russia, to the Mariinsky Theater, to start dancing there, and then to return to New York later.”

2013 ok! magazine article
Sergey Polunin and Vadim Wernik

Amazingly, you, a world-famous dancer, had to start everything from scratch.

“It was hard, yes. For four months I didn’t study, the body lost its shape, I couldn’t even show how I was, what I could do, what I learned. Nerves were on edge. I went to Peter (St. Petersburg) with the same thirteen kilogram bag. In St. Petersburg, I did not even discuss the money, nor where I would live, nor anything to dance – nothing at all. I was given a hostel where there was an empty room and a TV in it. And I started going to the theater just to practice, not rehearsing anything. I thought then: why all this? In London, I had a two-story two-room apartment, and I chose this closet. Peter is not much different from London, the same weather … No change was felt, there was no clarity with the work either. All friends stayed in London, here I had no one to communicate with, and some spiritual purification began.”

“I spent two months without work, waiting. Before, I had two performances a week in London, and here I am sitting and sitting. I was in no mood. And at this moment Igor Zelensky appears …”

… the head of the ballet troupe of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater.

“He wrote to me, offered to meet. We met, we decided to have lunch together, and during lunch I understand that this person is very interesting to me as a person. I still do not know what company he has, what repertoire, but he is interesting to me – he is a charismatic man, reliable as a wall. He called me to see the company. I came, looked and decided to move to Moscow.”

So what? Has stability appeared in Moscow?

“At first there was depression. But I slowly got used to it, and Igor Zelensky supported me – he constantly called me, never left me alone with myself. And as a result, my soul calmed down, I began to get in shape and move forward.”

Where is your home today, how do you feel?

“There is no house yet. I do not acquire households, things, because I am sure that I will relocate many times. I recently flew to Novosibirsk to perform, in New York, in London I will fly for several months. I would like, of course, to return home from a tour, to a pleasant homey atmosphere. And that a girlfriend was there. But I think I will not soon have such a house.”

You are only twenty two years old? We are now talking with you about your life, and I have a feeling that it does not fit into the framework of your age. Have you thought about it yourself?

“I always felt much older than my peers. I went to school before others, I started dancing earlier, before others I became principal. Somehow, everything happens very quickly for me, and this makes life interesting. I do not like to think in advance what will happen next – then it becomes boring to live.”


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