Articles – Sergei Polunin

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Sergei Underwater

Sergei Underwater

Beauty In The Deep

Lorenzo Agius photographs the “bad boy of ballet” underwater

July 2017 | Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

An underwater shoot had been on Lorenzo Agius’ to-do list for some time, but the right moment had never come up. Until he had the chance to photograph Sergei Polunin for the November 2017 issue of Italian Vanity Fair, that is. Even if you’re not into ballet, you’ve probably heard of Sergei Polunin. He was the rising star of the scene who, at 19, became the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal dancer in 2010. But the pressure proved too much and he resigned from the company two years later, though not before earning a reputation as the ‘bad boy of ballet’ for his tattoo-covered torso and hard partying. Today, he’s a permanent guest artist for the German ballet company Bayerisches Staatsballett.

“I thought, ‘If I’m ever going to be able to do this shoot, it’s with him,’” says Lorenzo, who’s photographed some of the biggest names in entertainment – Beyoncé, Tom Cruise, Ewan McGregor, Cara Delevingne and Madonna – for leading film companies, magazines, and commercial clients. “What an amazing mover. If you see any photograph of him dancing, you see he’s perfect in his pose,” Lorenzo adds. “He has this incredible, sinewy body and he’s very much a tortured soul. There are all sorts of metaphors to do with darkness, beauty drifting away, and sinking into water.” Sergei also had the necessary discipline. “A dancer is trained from a young age and it’s all about having control of your body and breath, so he just seemed to be a natural fit.”

The shoot took place over three hours in July 2017, using a tank on an industrial estate in Croydon, South London. Around this time Sergei was preparing for his film debut in the period piece Murder on the Orient Express. “We decided to put him in a suit, because for Vanity Fair there needs to be that fashion element. For me this was really a portrait shoot, though. I wanted to focus on the beauty of his body and what he does, to freeze it and slow it right down – hence the water.” In addition to the underwater work, Lorenzo took some portraits of Sergei sitting on the side with his wet shirt clinging to his chest and droplets falling from his eyelashes, all of which continued the watery theme.

sergei underwater sergei polunin graceful beast
The dancer was dressed in a suit to provide the “fashion element” for Vanity Fair, but Lorenzo’s emphasis was on the “beauty of his body.” Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS. © Lorenzo Agius 
sergei underwater sergei polunin graceful beast
Once the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal dancer, Sergei Polunin made his film debut in Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 take on Murder on the Orient Express. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS. © Lorenzo Agius

Owned by one of the UK’s top cameramen, the tank – which is used primarily for underwater filming – is “like a mini swimming pool,” Lorenzo explains, 4.5m by 6m and around 8ft deep, with special glass to film through. To avoid reflections, Lorenzo put his tripod-mounted cameras right up to the glass, and draped black velvet around himself. He was working with his camera of choice – a Canon EOS 5D Mark III – for the full-length shots, switching to a Canon EOS 5DS for close-ups. “I wanted maximum detail so you could see the bubbles on his skin,” he says. Also in his kit bag was a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM and a Canon EF 28–70mm f/2.8L lens. “If he was turning in the water, they allowed me to just get in there quickly and capture the top half of the body,” Lorenzo says. The 35mm worked well, with its natural wide-angle view, and a large maximum aperture allowing for fast shutter speeds in low light.

He chose to line the tank with black tarpaulin to create the sense of an abyss. Although he had the option of using underwater lights, Lorenzo decided against this. Instead he positioned a single light directly above Sergei, which he coloured with blue gels. “I didn’t want people to think it was a tank. I wanted people to think he was in the dark ocean.” The fact that the water was constantly moving as Sergei moved, refracting light and creating hot spots, made lighting tricky, but Lorenzo embraced the randomness. “I wanted those shafts of light on him and on the background – I wanted it to look real.”

sergei underwater sergei polunin graceful beast
Portraits were also taken posed on the side of the tank, Sergei’s sodden shirt clinging to his chest. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS. © Lorenzo Agius
sergei underwater sergei polunin graceful beast
“I wanted to focus on what his body does, to freeze it and slow it down – hence the water,” says Lorenzo, on his underwater shots of Sergei Polunin. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS. © Lorenzo Agius

There were some challenges, however, that Lorenzo didn’t anticipate. He wasn’t aware that some people are naturally more buoyant than others, due to their relative density to water (muscle is denser than body fat) and the amount of air in their lungs. “It’s really bizarre – it’s not about whether they look fat or thin, it’s just that some people naturally float. In that case you have to weigh them down, but I didn’t want to [with Sergei] because you would see the weights.” Instead, after discussing poses with Lorenzo, Sergei would expel every last puff of air before sinking down in the water for 30-50 seconds at a time. The lower he went, the more painful it was, which is where his stamina and persistence came to the fore. “An actor wouldn’t have that staying power,” says Lorenzo. “He was able to go back in over and over and over again. He was pushing himself more than I was pushing him.”

Sometimes Lorenzo would get five good frames when Sergei was submerged, at other times more. Technically, it was a case of trial and error. “You have to trust the focusing and exposure systems to do their work – one minute it would be bright, the next minute dark, because you’re effectively creating little waves,” he says. “I knew with the equipment and the file sizes, you’ve got about a stop and a half of latitude – in a worst-case scenario I’d be able to pull it back, but you don’t want to lose detail, so it was a case of underexposing. That was weird because it almost looked too dark, except in the spots of light that were hitting him.”

sergei underwater sergei polunin graceful beast
Sergei seemed the perfect fit for the challenging shoot, says Lorenzo: “He’s an amazing mover, has this incredible, sinewy body and he’s very much a tortured soul.” Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS. © Lorenzo Agius
sergei underwater sergei polunin graceful beast
The dancer and actor’s distinctive tattoos across his torso, back and arms, formed a focal point of the portrait series. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS. © Lorenzo Agius

Although “a slow process”, the experience is one that Lorenzo is eager to repeat. Next time, he says, he’d go for a bigger tank and he’d like to get in too, experimenting with different underwater housings available for the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Not only would being in the water give him an advantage – being free to shoot in the environment, instead of being positioned behind glass – it would also help him to relate to his subject. “For me, most of a shoot is about communication,” he says. “As a portrait photographer, I have to really connect to my subjects to get the shots. That’s the most important thing. Sure, I photograph celebrities, but who cares? It’s about capturing something people connect to.”


– Lorenzo Agius

Lorenzo’s advice for underwater shoots

“You need to be clear with your subject, and have trust in your equipment. Talk things through with your subject, clearly and honestly. If you can convey your needs, your subject will give you what you want. If you know and trust your equipment, you can then be bold enough to go for it. For me, it was a steep learning curve and it would be for anyone doing an underwater shoot for the first time. Next time, I’ll have more confidence and understand the lighting and technical issues involved. Shooting through 2.5m of water, you get refraction and distortion and all sorts of things, but the camera handled that really well. I use the Canon EOS 5D Mark III all the time – it’s brilliant, it’s never let me down.”

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.”

Stunning Pics Of Sergei By Alessia Santambrogio

Stunning Pics Of Sergei By Alessia Santambrogio

Stunning pics of Sergei by Alessia Santambrogio

On Saturday, February 3, 2018 the famous dancer Sergei Polunin and company inaugurated the new edition of ParmaDanza at the Teatro Regio.  Natalia Osipova and soloists from some of Russia’s most prestigious theaters joined Polunin onstage.  A highlight of the performance was the national debut of Polunin’s work, Sartori.

The idea comes from Project Polunin , an artistic project that aims to produce new choreographic creations thanks to the collaboration between dancers, choreographers, musicians and artists from different fields.

For Sergei Polunin, Satori represents his own path of reunion with love for dance and passion for art.  It is the culmination of a personal journey.  He brought together a group of artists with whom he created a program that consists of three parts, including two new productions.

project_polunin_ © alessia-santambrogio-1

Sergei’s solo

On the stage of the Teatro Regio the program opened with First Solo , performed by Sergei Polunin.  It was created by the award-winning choreographer Andrey Kaydanovskiy.  First Solo tells of a man’s search for freedom through that same dance that makes him a slave.  It is profoundly personal for Polunin.  Its focus is the dualism between an artist’s life of commitment and his desire for freedom of thought and movement.

A rare treat

The show continued with Skriabiniana, a rare treat.  It is among the very few choreographies left completely intact by the great choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky.  Finally, the evening ended with Satori, choreographed by Polunin himself.  Sartori is directed by Gabriel Marcel del Vecchio and boasts an original soundtrack by the award-winning composer Lorenz Dangel.  The production features scenes from works by photographer David Lachapelle.  Angelina Atlagic designed the costumes.

The public delirious for a chance to see Polunin brought about an immediate sell out.  The excellence of these international artists did not disappoint.  With their dance, they involved and excited the audience of the Regio di Parma.

Photographer Alessia Santambrogio

“My vision of the scene photographer is that of a silent and discreet presence that fits into the dynamics of the show, without interfering with them, but becoming an integral part of them. It is having its own artistic vision and being able to transmit it, knowing, however, to know and listen to the needs of those who create and put on show the show.”  – Alessia Santambrogio

A professional photographer, Alessia Santambrogio was born in Monza.  She was artistically and professionally trained at the Accademia Teatro alla Scala.  Alessia, graduating in 2011, immediately made an impact on the arts community.

She has photographed important productions and personalities of the national and international panorama of opera, ballet and theater.

Co-founder of the industry magazine Kairós Magazine , she actively collaborates as a photographer, author, copy editor and archivist. There are numerous publications in national newspapers such as Il Corriere della Sera , La Repubblica , Il Giorno and others.

She has participated in countless exhibitions, such as Birthday Album and La Scuola di Ballo of the Accademia Teatro alla Scala.  These works were promoted by the Bracco Foundation and the Accademia Teatro alla Scala.

All photos by Alessia Santambrogio.


Sergei Listed To Appear On Andrea Bocelli Charity Show

Sergei Listed To Appear On Andrea Bocelli Charity Show

Sergei listed!

The evening of La Betta by Andrea Bocelli will be broadcast on Rai Uno, a show for charity that will be held by the famous tenor on September 8th 2018 at the Arena di Verona.

Among the television events that Rai has announced for the upcoming 2018/2019 television season is the second edition of the show starring Andrea Bocelli entitled The Night by Andrea Bocelli . A great evening dedicated to music and to one of the most extraordinary Italian performers, with an adjoining beneficial collection destined, among other things, to the reconstruction of the territories hit by the earthquake and to the support of the populations of Haiti. A show that will be broadcast on September 8th at 9:25 pm conducted by Milly Carlucci.

Tickets are already available

The pre-sale for this important charity concert, led by renowned tenor accompanied by a long line of international guests and an orchestra of over 400, have already started. The event will be held in the spectacular Arena di Verona and will be able to count on unique plays of light and scenography. Andrea Bocelli’s Night will be the spearhead of the charity event in Italy, a philanthropic marathon supported originally by the Bocelli family and now in its fifth edition in 2018.

sergei listed

As previously mentioned, the proceeds from ticket sales will be used to finance the projects of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center. The theater chosen for the event is a symbolic place for the Tuscan tenor, who a few weeks ago declared: ” The most important memory I have of the Arena dates back to 2000, when I sang Verdi’s Requiem here in Verona, a few months ago from the loss of my father “.

Invited guests… Sergei listed.

Andrea Bocelli’s Night will be able to count on a large group of guests , many of whom have not yet been confirmed. In the past, people like Sofia Loren, George Clooney, Sharon Stone, José Carreras and Queen Rania of Jordan took part in the event.  For 2018, the names announced so far are those of the etoile of the dance Carla Fracci , of the dancer and actor Sergei Polunin , and other performers such as mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard , soprano Aida Garifullina and baritone Leo Nucci.

To watch the show also a series of famous people who will populate the audience of the Arena of Verona, including at the moment are confirmed Kristin Chenoweth , Reba McEntire, producer David Foster, Smokey Robinson and Brian McKnight.

Mayerling “Love Deaths” Still Haunt

Mayerling “Love Deaths” Still Haunt

Mayerling Lodge as it appeared in 1889. Photo: Public Domain

One of Sergei Polunin’s greatest roles is that of Crown Prince Rudolf in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling.”  He drew rave reviews for his pristine ballet technique and innate talent, but even more so for his emotional torching of the stage.  Many fans, while adoring the ballet “Mayerling,” are a bit lost when it comes to understanding the story.  It is a tragic tale that is based in fact.  The Mayerling deaths were real, and happened to real people.  

The Mayerling deaths

For more than 100 years, the mysterious “love deaths” at Mayerling, a village just southwest of Vienna.  They have gripped the imagination of the world and provided the raw material for many a play, film and even a ballet by Sir Kenneth MacMillan for The Royal Ballet.
The year 1989 marked the centennial of the Mayerling tragedy.  It was observed with the publication of books and articles analyzing the incident, the details of which were purposely obscured at the time the events occurred.

On Jan. 30, 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf, archduke of Austria-Hungary and heir to the Hapsburg crown, was found dead in the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, in the Vienna Woods, about 15 miles from the capital. Beside the body of the 30-year-old prince lay that of his mistress, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, 17.  Both had been shot.


Prince Rudolf

Rudolf was the son of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and the famously beautiful and infamously melancholy Empress Elisabeth. Young Rudolf seemed to be a very different type than his cold and calculating father.  He developed an early passion for the natural sciences, liberal politics, and a somewhat more delicate sensibility in general.

By the time Rudolf was wed to Princess Stephanie of Belgium in 1881, he had already established the other habit that would appear to be his undoing.  He had a certain weakness for the ladies.  In fact, he allegedly brought a lover with him to his wedding.

Within a few short years, the marriage devolved into a relationship of mutual tolerance. Rudolf’s womanizing, drinking, and more recently acquired drug habit took over his life, apparently leading him in a downward spiral.

Seventeen year old Mary

Mary Vetsara on the other hand, appeared to be a young woman very much smitten with the prince. The 17 year old baroness, however, was not Rudolf’s first choice for his suicide pact. He actually attempted to convince another woman, a prostitute named Mitzi Caspar, to die with him. She declined his offer.

Mary and Rudolf left Vienna for the hunting lodge in Mayerling on January 29th, 1889.  The prince claimed he wanted to do a bit of hunting the following morning. Sometime in the night, Rudolf shot and killed Mary, and then turned the gun on himself. When the staff came to the door in the morning, the bodies were discovered.

A massive cover-up operation followed.  The royal family attempted to pass off Rudolf’s death as one of natural causes.  They tried to hide Mary’s body entirely.


A finding of murder was out of the question.  Rudolf, after all, was heir to the throne. At first there was even no mention of suicide, out of fear that the church would not permit a proper burial. Rudolf’s death was attributed to poison at the hands of his enemies, or to natural causes.

Because Rudolf was unhappily married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, no public mention was made of the teen-age baroness. Her body was spirited away and secretly buried.

Finally, the emperor informed the Pope that Rudolf had committed suicide in a “deranged state of mind.”  The Pope then allowed Rudolf a Catholic burial in the imperial vault in Vienna.

Mayerling mystery

The mystery gave rise to much speculation about the circumstances surrounding the deaths. Much of it emphasized the romantic aspects of Mayerling. Not until years later did the details became widely known.  But because the incident had been so shrouded in secrecy and deceit, conflicting versions endure.

For instance, Clemens M. Gruber, an author and opera archivist, published an account called “The Fateful Days of Mayerling.”  In Gruber’s view, Mary’s angry relatives forced their way into the lodge and Rudolf drew a revolver, accidentally shooting the baroness. He is then said to have been killed by one of her enraged relatives.

Another writer, Gerd Holler, who is also a physician, says in his book, “Mayerling–New Documents on the Tragedy 100 Years Afterward,” that Rudolf had arranged an abortion for Mary, who was reputedly three months pregnant. Holler contends that she died in the process and that Rudolf committed suicide.

Attempts to exhume the body of the baroness for examination have been blocked by members of her family.


Empress Zita, who died at the age of 96 in a Swiss convent, argued that Rudolf was murdered by French political enemies of his father. She was the consort of Karl I, the last emperor and grand nephew of Franz Joseph.

Most scholars now prefer the version offered by historian Brigitte Hamann in her book, “Rudolf, Crown Prince and Rebel.” Hamann, who took part in a recent international conference on the incident at Mayerling, said in an interview:

“He was a poetic young man and brooded a lot. He was ill with syphilis and felt guilty that he had infected his wife. They had no children. The reason for all the confusion was the cover-up by the Imperial Court…  The fact is that Rudolf was a very nervous, sensitive man who flirted with suicide more than once.”

According to Hamann, the Baroness Vetsera, who was in love with the increasingly despondent Rudolf, was more susceptible to the love-death idea.

“There is no question,” she said. “Rudolf shot the girl and then himself.”

Their end brought about the end

Rudolf is buried in the Habsburg family crypt in Vienna, and Mary’s body lies in a modest grave in Heiligenkreuz, Austria.

Rudolf’s death left Franz Josef I without an heir, leading to the succession of Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 kicked off the hostilities of WWI, and effectively led to the end of the Hapsburg dynasty.

After the deaths, the emperor ordered the hunting lodge at Mayerling razed, and the area was transformed into a Carmelite church.  A small museum houses artifacts related to the deaths.  The Carmelite nuns there still pray for the souls of Rudolf and Mary.

This is a blog post by Pam Boehme Simon that includes excerpts from a March 19, 1989 article by William Tuohy, a Times staff writer, and a atlas travel article featuring the Mayerling Hunting Lodge.

Ralph Fiennes Presents To Berlin Buyers

Ralph Fiennes Presents To Berlin Buyers

Ralph Fiennes Presents Rudolf Nureyev Movie ‘The White Crow’ to Berlin Buyers (EXCLUSIVE)

Ralph Fiennes is in Berlin Thursday to present first footage to buyers from his latest directorial venture, “The White Crow,” which HanWay is selling at the European Film Market. Fiennes spoke to Variety about the project, which centers on the defection to the West of Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev in 1961.Fiennes first considered the story as a subject for a movie almost 20 years ago when he read Julie Kavanagh’s biography of the dancer, but the project was driven into production thanks to the work of producer Gabrielle Tana, who also produced Fiennes’ first two films as a director.What drew Fiennes to Nureyev’s story was “the force of a young performer, with a hunger to realize who he is as an artist and a person … the force of his spirit, his determination, that was the thing that really moved me.”

He added: “Nureyev doesn’t really want to come to terms with anything. He is constantly pushing himself, constantly hungry. There’s a line in the film: You have to aim higher, always higher.”

David Hare, the film’s screenwriter, is “very good at writing high-definition, provocative characters,” Fiennes said. “He is very good at writing what you might call impossible people, their temperament and attitude, but you need to sympathize with them as well, and see who they are inside. Also his sense of period and the political context is very acute.”

He added: “I believe David is one of the best writers we have for writing multi-faceted characters, with interior contradictions. In Rudolf Nureyev’s case, [he accurately portrayed] a temperament, an attitude, an ambition, a charm, a vulnerability, an intelligence and an alertness, going hand-in-hand with someone who can be abrasive and quite angry.”

The dance sequences were challenging, Fiennes said, but he was guided by Igor Zelensky, the former principal dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet and now artistic director at the Novosibirsk Theater of Opera and Ballet, and Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

Casting a young dancer, Oleg Ivenko, with no experience as an actor in front of the camera, in the lead role was also a challenge, Fiennes said, but Ivenko has got “a wonderful talent, a wonderful charisma,” he said. He was joined in the cast by Adele Exarchopoulos, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin and Fiennes himself.

Another challenge was that Fiennes “wanted it always to be as authentic as possible,” which led him to seek out such locations as St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum and Mariinsky Theater, and Paris’ Crazy Horse. Interiors for other settings, such as the rehearsal rooms at Paris’ Palais Garnier and Le Bourget Airport, were re-created at studios in Serbia.

Project Polunin Donation

Project Polunin Donation


David Begbie - Project Polunin donation

Contini Art UK

News – 8 March 2017

David Begbie MRBS has donated his sculpture “CZIN”, 2016, to a silent auction in aid of Project Polunin, a new production that will premiere at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. Taking place at the Project Polunin gala dinner, proceeds from the artist’s donation will help to support Sergei Polunin’s upcoming program. The unique sculpture is one of a recent series of figurative forms, both male and female, whose subjects are contemporary archetypal expressions of masculine and feminine where each contains aspects of the other. “CZIN” has a particular stance and posture expressing fitness, strength and balance; often witnessed within the discipline of contemporary dance and ballet.


project polunin donation


David Begbie is renowned for his figurative steel mesh sculptures and his work is exhibited and collected worldwide. His evocative, sensual and optically dynamic sculpture often comprise images of fine human physique, ‘CZIN’ 2016 being an excellent example of this. His rendition of a male dancer is poised in a way which implies, rather than describes, dramatic movement as it is a sculptural description of muscular tension, elegance and control. The artist’s intention is to place emphasis on the male dancer’s physique whereby the dancer’s body has become a finely tuned instrument or medium for creative artistic expression and quite literally as a creative physical force. Begbie’s transparent sculpture encapsulates an enigmatic and elegantly poised figure, captured as a timeless moment of three-dimensional suspended animation. The meticulously shaped metallic membrane absolutely convinces the viewer that a living, breathing human presence occupies the space, delineated by Begbie’s sculptural skin. Using strategic lighting a compositional fusion of sculpture and projected shadow transforms the stoic image into a dynamic and dazzling optical celebration of human physical form.

The Project Polunin Gala Dinner took place on the 23rd of Ferbruary 2017 at the Banqueting House, London. The artist’s donation was a part of a silent auction; bids were being placed on Givergy tablets throughout the evening, while there was also a live auction conducted by Peer MacDonald, a raffle draw and a live performance by Lisa Friend and Sergei Polunin.


project polunin donation


Sergei Polunin is a prestigious Ukranian ballet dancer, seen by many as the natural heir to Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Sergei enrolled in the Royal Ballet School at the age of 13, in 2003. He became a first soloist at the Royal Ballet in 2009 – and in June 2010, the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever Principal Dancer. Sergei left the Royal Ballet in 2012 and went to Russia at the invitation of Igor Zelensky, to dance with the Stanislavsky Music Theatre in Moscow and the Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and in 2014. Sergei started his collaboration with the famed American photographer and music director, David LaChapelle, starring in the stunning dance video of Hozier’s Take Me to Church. Sergei achieved global recognition when Take Me To Church went viral, receiving more than 16 million hits; the video proved to be the seminal change in Sergei’s career aspirations when it formed the center piece in “Dancer”, a highly acclaimed documentary, created by Gabrielle Tana.



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.

Danciest Movies Of 2018

Danciest Movies Of 2018

Dance Magazine – Dance in Pop Culture

From JLaw to Ralph Fiennes, Here Are the Danciest Movies in the Works for 2018

danciest movies 2018
Oleg Ivenko and Ralph Fiennes on the set of The White Crow, an upcoming feature film dramatizing Rudolf Nureyev’s defection. Photo via

Oh, Hollywood. In any given year, Tinseltown’s use of dance in film veers from the woefully disappointing to the surprisingly delightful, but one thing’s for certain: It’s rarely boring. Here’s our not-at-all-comprehensive and completely-subject-to-change list of the new dance-related movies coming soon to a theater (or laptop screen) near you.

Red Sparrow

Based on Jason Matthews’ novel of the same name, the feature film tells the story of an ex-ballerina-turned-Russian-spy (Jennifer Lawrence) and her entanglement with a CIA agent. Crosses, double-crosses and an ill-timed romance ensue, but the real excitement comes from the ballet talent in the cast and crew: Sergei Polunin has a role, Isabella Boylston is Lawrence’s dance double and Justin Peck was brought on to choreograph. In theaters March 2.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

We aren’t sure how much dancing will be in the final cut of this live-action take on the E.T.A. Hoffmann story that inspired the ubiquitous ballet, but amongst the Hollywood A-listers are a couple of very familiar names: Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin. She’ll lead what may well be the only major dance sequence in the movie, with choreography by Liam Scarlett. In theaters Nov. 2.


A fan-made trailer for the 1977 original

A remake of the 1977 horror movie of the same name, it follows a young American dancer (Dakota Johnson) who travels to Berlin to study at a prestigious academy where things quickly take a dark turn. Johnson trained in dance in preparation for her role, but we’re expecting more emphasis on terror than technique. Tentatively slated for a 2018 release.

The White Crow

Oleg Ivenko stars as Rudolf Nureyev in The White Crow. Photo by Jessica Forde, Courtesy Premier

Based on Julie Kavanagh’s Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, the Ralph Fiennes–directed drama focuses on the circumstances surrounding the dance legend’s 1961 defection. Gabrielle Tana, who produced the Sergei Polunin documentary DANCER, developed and is co-producing the project. The cast includes Russian dancer Oleg Ivenko (as Nureyev) as well as Polunin, with choreography by Johan Kobborg. Tentatively slated for a 2018 release.

Untitled Tiler Peck documentary

A new documentary on NYCB star Tiler Peck is in production. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

Directed by Steven Cantor (who previously directed DANCER) and with actress Elisabeth Moss as an executive producer, the documentary will follow the New York City Ballet star as she prepares for her curatorial debut with BalletNOW, which took place at The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles last July. The program’s cast was ridiculously star-studded, with dancers from NYCB, American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opéra Ballet, The Royal Ballet and Dorrance Dance joining Peck. We can’t wait to see the backstage shenanigans. Slated for release on Hulu in 2018.


A dance-centric biopic based on Carlos Acosta’s memoir—and starring Acosta and his company—is in production. Photo by Kristie Kahns

Carlos Acosta will star in this biopic, produced by BBC Films and inspired by his memoir No Way Home, charting his rise to the top of the ballet world. The film’s script is from Paul Laverty, best known for his searing, socially conscious work with British director Kenneth Loach. Acosta Danza will also appear in dance sequences choreographed by Acosta. Release date TBA.

Benjamin Millepied is making his feature-film directorial debut with a new Carmen. Photo by Agathe Poupeney, Courtesy Paris Opéra Ballet

Benjamin Millepied’s directorial debut for a feature-length film will be a contemporary musical drama inspired by the iconic opera. Millepied will once again choreograph for the big screen (having previously done so for Black Swan) and is working with a creative team that includes composer Nicholas Britell (Moonlight). Filming will begin early this year. Release date TBA.

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