All the World’s a Stage – Sergei Polunin
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

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