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His Own Words – Sergei Polunin

His Own Words – Sergei Polunin

His Own Words – Sergei Polunin

Sergei Polunin is a Ukrainian ballet dancer and a former principal dancer with the British Royal Ballet, before suddenly resigning in 2012, after only two years in the position. Polunin has a reputation for wild behavior, earning the nickname the “Bad Boy of Ballet.” He has recently gained more popularity following his performance in a music video choreographed to Hozier‘s hit single “Take Me To Church.” The music video was part of a larger Steven Cantor documentary on Polunin, Dancer, which premiered in 2016.

SERGEI POLUNIN BIO: EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION

Polunin was born Sergei Vladimirovich Polunin on November 20, 1989 (Sergei Polunin age: 27) in Kherson, Ukrainian SSR, to Galina Polunina and Vladimir PoluninFrom the age of four, the future dancer excelled in gymnastics classes. At age eight, his studies shifted towards dance, and he spent four years at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute. Polunina, in an interview with the New Yorker, suggests that pushing her son towards dance was his best shot for a better life. “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.” The extent to which she wanted her son to succeed was so extreme that she moved with Polunin to Kiev, causing the family to split up in order to make ends meet. Polunin’s father sought work in Portugal, while his grandmother became a maid in Greece, all to support his growing career.

In 2013, Polunin was accepted to the White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s junior school in London, at the age of thirteen. At first devastated that they would not be able to afford the tuition, Polunin still attended largely in part from a grant given by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Unfortunately, this meant that Polunina had to stay in the Ukraine, leaving behind her teenage son. Faced with his family’s sacrifices and the mounting pressure to succeed, Polunin became a star pupil. “In school, I knew I could not fight, could not mess up, because I would be thrown out,” he told Uinterview. “And then when I was twenty-one, I wanted to do all the things I missed out on.” He did enjoy the freedom of the two thousand acres of parkland surrounding the school, saying he felt like he, “Was in Harry Potter.” Polunin’s success was such that his teachers advanced him a full two school years ahead.

SERGEI POLUNIN BIO: THE ROYAL BALLET AND RESIGNATION

Once in the senior school, Polunin’s discipline began to dissolve. While still excelling in his studies, the rising start experimented with drugs. By 2009, he was the first soloist at the Royal Ballet; by 2010, he came principal dancer, the youngest ever in the company’s history. He also earned his title of “Bad Boy” at this time, using cocaine to heighten his adrenaline rush and tweeting about late night parties and tattoos. In an interview with Uinterview, Polunin talked about his experience of getting a tattoo, which was strictly forbidden by the Royal Ballet. “Oh you think I’m bad, I’m going to prove [to] you I’m the baddest [sic],” he recalled. “I always drew on myself, always knew I was going to have a tattoo, and tattoos represented freedom to me.” He was forced to cover his new tattoos with makeup. On January 24, 2012, after growing dissatisfaction with his career, Polunin stepped down from the principal position, telling BBC that he felt, “the artist in me was dying.” Looking back on the dancer’s decision, documentarian Steven Cantor offered his thoughts to the New York Times about Polunin’s motivations. “It became clear that he was dancing as hard as he could to get his family back together. Then his parents got divorced, and I think he felt, what am I dancing for? He just lost his will and went off the rails.” Polunin only recently allowed his mother to see his performances in person; he originally forbade her to do so.

SERGEI POLUNIN BIO: IGOR ZELENSKY

As a result of his bad reputation, Polunin had difficulty finding work with other companies. However, in the summer of 2012, he was invited to Russia by famous dancer Igor Zelensky, under whom he would train and become the principal dancer for The Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. On Zelensky, Polunin has referred to him as a surrogate father. “Nobody would listen to me, there wasn’t any real conversation going on,” Polunin told Uinterview. “And that’s when Igor appeared.” Polunin reveres Zelensky so much that he has gone as far as to tattoo the name of the artistic director on his shoulder.

His time with Zelensky was not without controversy, however. In April 2013, after preparing for the principal dance role in director Peter Schaufuss’s Midnight Express, Polunin, along with Zelensky, quit days before opening night. Despite his superior also leaving the troubled production, many considered Polunin to be “depressed” again.

SERGEI POLUNIN BIO: HOZIER AND DANCER

Still frustrated at the seemingly dead-end to which his dance career had led him, Polunin encountered film producer Gabrielle Tana, who at the time had optioned Julie Kavanagh’s (the author behind his New Yorker profile) biography of Nureyev to be turned into a biopic. Polunin was not chosen for the role, but Tana pushed him to seek further collaborations in film. “I thought it was not just a compelling narrative but also the opportunity to capture someone brilliant in the prime of their career,” Ms. Tana said in an interview with The New York Times. “We didn’t really know what it would be, and Sergei was very wary at first. We were scared we would lose him.”

Tana suggested he work with American photographer and dance documentarian, David LaChapelle. Polunin ultimately decided to use the collaboration as his farewell performance to the dance world. LaChapelle suggested the then-relatively-unknown song “Take Me To Church,” by Hozier. Polunin would then fly down to shoot the music video in the empty chapel-like filmmaker’s studio in Hawaii. A longtime friend and fellow dancer, Jade Hale-Christofi, choreographed the piece. The music video would later become the centerpiece of large documentary work, Dancer, started in 2014 when Tana approached filmmaker Stephen Cantor. Dancer premiered in the Fall of 2016.

Following the worldwide success of Polunin’s Take Me To Church video, he has since decided to return to dancing. He continues to dance with Stanislavsky company and the Novosibirsk Ballet.

SERGEI POLUNIN BIO: PERSONAL LIFE

Polunin has been dating ballerina Natalia Osipova, who is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, since mid-2015. The pair has performed together in Russell Maliphant‘s Silent Echo, as part of a program of contemporary works. He has received numerous accolades for his performances, including the Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix in 2006. He was named Young British Dancer of the Year in 2007.  In 2014 he was shortlisted as the best male dancer at the National Dance Awards in the U.K.

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This article was published by Uinterview on December 19, 2016.
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Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin, A 2016 Interview

Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin, A 2016 Interview

Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin

An Interview With Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin 

By Lauren Sanderson

 

Throughout Sergei Polunin’s career he has been branded a rebel, compared to James Dean and been nicknamed the ‘bad boy’ of ballet but who is this legendary dancer?  We grab five minutes with the dance sensation to find out.

How did you feel when you were first approached to do Steven Cantor’s documentary Dancer?
I didn’t really know how it would turn out. At the beginning I knew I wanted to film in different countries and show the beauty of different cultures, but I honestly didn’t know where it would lead.

Did you expect the documentary to receive such a big reaction?
I had no idea.  I was so surprised how well people reacted and I’m really happy how it turned out. It was all down to an incredible team and an incredible producer, Gabrielle Tana, who became my guardian angel.

The dance you performed to Hozier’s Take Me to Church was supposed to be your final dance, what made you continue?
The dance went on for nine hours and during this time I had a lot to think about and I was sure I was going to give it up. I knew I wanted to stop dance and do something else but Take Me to Church was extremely emotional and I began to think about what and who I’d be leaving behind. I started to think that maybe I’m missing something, maybe there is still something left to explore. Afterwards I went back to Russia and danced for free for a couple of months to remind myself of the reason I’m dancing.

Dancers are seen to have a clean body image but you have a lot of tattoos. What was the influence behind them?
When I was a kid I always used to draw on myself and I knew I was going to have tattoos. I liked and respected people with tattoos especially people who had them on their face or their hands because they represent freedom to me. They’re not the type of people who would judge others. In ballet school there are really strict rules and one of those rules was no tattoos so I guess I’m breaking the dance norms but it feels right to me.

When you were younger what did you aspire to be?
I always wanted to be a boxer.

You’re seen as the ‘bad boy’ of ballet, did you set out to create this image to defy the norms?
I definitely played on it. It was more for the media and I decided to play along with it but it actually made my life more difficult because nobody wanted to work with me afterwards. It was difficult because the big companies would rather work with someone safe and predictable. I was essentially digging my own grave.

Do you feel like the media has played a big part in where you are today?
Definitely. Especially the internet and YouTube.

What’s been your biggest challenge to date?
I have so many goals. It’s hard sometimes because I still want to dance, I still take class’s everyday but I also want to study acting and I want to choreograph work. I’m creating my own company called ‘Project Polunin’, to help dancers with their careers and hopefully help to move dance forward.  I’m also going to be in a movie. It’s a challenge because there is so much I want to do but it’s extremely exciting.

In the documentary you mentioned that while at the Royal Ballet you felt you’d reached your potential with the company and always strived for more, is that still the case?
Right now I’m in the position where I wanted to be when I was 19. Back then it was the media that made me out to be a bad guy instead of listening to what I was really saying. I also forgot to listen to myself about what I had originally set out to do, but now I’m back doing what I intended to do and believed in. Creation stimulates me and there are so many exciting things to look forward to as an artist. I’m in a good place; I just wish I didn’t have to go through such a long journey to get to it.

You mentioned you are going to be in a movie, that’s exciting! What type of movie is it?
It’s a big Hollywood movie, but I can’t give too much away. It’s going to be very interesting!

Do you see yourself heading for Hollywood?
If it was my choice yes! It’s definitely where I want to go.

What things other than dance inspire you?
At the moment movies really inspire me. Mickey Rourke is a big inspiration in my life and I also love Johnny Depp. It’s more about who they are in real life than who they are on the screen.

Are you looking forward to your trip to New Zealand next year?
I’m coming over to dance with Natalia Osipova who is a Principal at the Royal Ballet. I’m so excited! I also love nature, I think it’s one of the most important things in our lives and I’ve heard that New Zealand is a beautiful country.

Do you have any advice for any budding dancers out there?
I’d say get a manager or an agent and I’d also say work really hard but make sure you experience life.

What do you think the future holds for Ballet?
Dance is so important to everyone because it’s an international language, every country understands it. I think a big change is coming. I’m hoping that the industry will reach the same level as sport or cinema and it’s definitely possible! Football wasn’t at the level it’s at now 15 years ago. Watch out for something big!


Thanks to Vendetta Films and 818 Entertainment for making this interview possible!
Dancer is out now, screening at selected cinemas.

Another Man

Another Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except it wasn’t.

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vogue Rogue

Vogue Rogue

Vogue Rogue, A Gallery

Never takes a bad picture!

Here is a collection of stills pulled from a Vogue Russia interview with Sergei Polunin.  The conversation took place in May of 2017.  As usual, there’s not a bad one in the bunch!  Most folks, if you freeze frame video, you end up with many odd, unattractive expressions, or otherwise goofy faces lol… not with Sergei.  It’s uncanny!

Bad Boy Days Are Behind Him

Bad Boy Days Are Behind Him

Bad boy days?

Not so bad at all…

All the World’s a Stage

All the World’s a Stage

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

The Wall Street Journal
Sarah Frater
October 29, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergei Talks on “The Talks”

Sergei Talks on “The Talks”

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

ANA BOGDAN

 

sergei talks
Photo by Rankin

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

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

Does that really matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that why you recently turned to acting?

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

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

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

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

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


January 1, 2018 Interview

January 1, 2018 Interview

What do Kolobok and Sergei have in common?

Turlyan premiere. Sergei Polunin about the death of classical ballet

The ballet dancer Sergei Polunin told Fokus about the road not upwards, but downwards, what he and the hero of the fairy tale Kolobok had in common, and about his desire to combine dance and theater

At four years – gymnastics in his native Kherson. At nine – moving with his mother to the capital and studying at the Kiev Choreographic School. To give Sergei a chance to break through, his father goes to work in Portugal and gets a gardener from a wealthy family, and the grandmother finds a job as a nurse in Greece. At the age of 13, the future world ballet star is sent to study in London. At 17 he joined the Royal Ballet Company, and at 19 he became the youngest principal in the history of the troupe.

In the conservative world of ballet, Polunin quickly gained fame as a violator of foundations. Outside the scene, the young star coped with stress through parties, alcohol, drugs and new tattoos. His then nicknames are The Bad Guy, James Dean of Ballet and the Embodiment of Jumping Outside the Line. The name of the premiere rebel began to appear not only in enthusiastic reviews, but also in the yellow press, who did not miss the opportunity to publish reports with details of his next “release.”

While society was wondering whether the search for young talent was a successful PR move, Polunin announced his departure from the Royal Ballet. When two years ago the Ukrainian decided to say goodbye to the stage, his swan song, With the track Take Me To Church, it scored 21 million views on YouTube. “Obviously, the laws of gravitation for Mr. Polunin act differently,” one of the commentators wrote. “He moves as if he has wings,” others agreed.

WHO IS HE


He was born in Kherson. He studied at the Kiev Choreography School. At the age of 19 he became the premiere of the London Royal Ballet. Since 2016, the invited soloist of the Bavarian Ballet, author and soloist Project Polunin.  In 2017, a Ukrainian documentary film “Dancer” on the career of 27-year-old Sergei Polunin.


Forward to the past, and Kolobok?

What kind of eyes do you now look at yourself, a 6-year-old boy on video, in a T-shirt and shorts? What would you like to say to this boy now?

– “I would say to him: “Be yourself, listen to yourself and your intuition.” Now I’m trying to restore the internal state in which I was then. This is the most correct perception of the world and the most organic state of man.

Recently I had an interesting event. For filming in the film, I for a while became a blonde. And then a couple of days ago, when I had my hair dyed black, I looked in the mirror and suddenly I saw myself as small. It’s great. We must not forget how you were in childhood.

By the way, before the age of 13 I was the same as in 6-7. But just at 13-14 years has changed, unfortunately. I forgot myself a little. And about 25 again began to recover.”

What happens to a person who by the age of 19, when his peers are just starting a career, is on a professional peak? Feeling like a superman?

– “It was disappointing: you are achieving what you were going for, but it does not give you the satisfaction that you expected. For me it was a road not up, but down.”

Did it ever occur to you that the family paid too high a price, putting everything on you?

– “Speaking about the fact that the family broke up, – yes, probably. But if one day I decide to give birth to a child, I will do everything so that he, like me, will get a chance.”

And the right to choose? 

– “Yes, it must be. The child knows what he wants, it’s already laid. Parents can reveal his talent, give the opportunity to try everything and help him see what he can.”

Speaking on stage in the framework of Project Polunin, you stopped masking your tattoos. In one of the interviews, they were called what you associate with free people.

–  “You achieve what you came for, but it does not give you the satisfaction you expected, for me it was not a way up, but down.”

– “At first it was so. In London, I was an immigrant with a work visa. One mistake my colleagues did not like or a fight in the street – and I would be kicked out of the country. The visa was extended for a year. Every time for a year.

I experienced constant pressure and an absolute sense of unfreedom. And yes, I could not do tattoos. In the ballet, this is not accepted. And in the offices, by and large, this was unacceptable. Probably, that’s why I liked the people they had. I thought: Here they are, free people who do not depend on their work, they have complete freedom. They do what they want.

When I filled the first tattoo, the leadership gathered the whole theater and officially banned them. Later tattoos became the norm, and David Beckham made them more popular.”

Two Plains

Which of the children’s fairy tales is closest to your story?

– “The Gingerbread Man,” remember “I left my grandmother and left grandfather. And *Kolobok, which is rolling somewhere ( laughs ).”

*Kolobok is the main character of an East Slavic national fairy tale with the same name, represented as a small yellow spherical being. The fairy tale is prevalent in Slavic regions in a number of variations.

He will not be eaten?

– “I do not know. But at some point Kolobok should stop running away. Which I did. All that I knew before was to destroy, leave and rebuild in a new place. I did it once, then again. And I realized that this is a habit. There is a risk to get carried away. Then I realized: you just need to create, build.”

There are at least two Sergei Polunin. One is called a “bad guy in the ballet”, they reproach him for sloppiness, hobby for alcohol and drugs, going beyond what is permissible. Second Polunin is shown in the film “Dancer”: a boy who submitted to the will of his mother, fulfilled the requirements of teachers, showed diligence, which eventually made him the premier of the Royal Ballet in London. Even the temporary break with the ballet, this second Polunin designed stylishly. Which of these two is the real you?

– “There was a time when I read the press and believed in it. And played along. You get used to the image and then forget who you are.

But in what way it was, I love to work, set a goal and achieve it. People are not always ready for this. Many people drop their hands: come what may. You say: “No, it’s probably wrong, let’s think about how to fix it.” And immediately you in the eyes of these people are bad. It is easier for them to decide that something is wrong with you, than to admit that the system can work incorrectly.”

kolobok is sergei polunin

These riotous little

What is the difference between Russian, Ukrainian and British ballet schools?

– “I think the Russian and Ukrainian schools are similar. The initial training in them is stronger than in the West. In ballet, the first four years are very important.”

– “it’s a machine. I was lucky, I had a talented teacher Eduard Borisovich Kostyukov here in the school (Kyiv State Choreographic School .- Focus ). He gave a good school. And after that, it was already easier for me to develop. And the dance was taught to me by Nikolai Danilovich Pryadchenko, the late teacher of the National Opera of Ukraine. He gave me an understanding of how to behave on stage, the artistic part. And with this education I went to the West.

The strength of Western educators is that they pay a lot of attention to acting. Their methodology was built around the Russian school, but with innovations. Which, in my opinion, made the school weaker. But the fact that they made the ballet theatrical, this is a plus. The game added a zest to their ballet. So I took the best and combined it into one: both the game and the pure dance.”

The world of ballet is small, and the competition is high. Over the years of work, you have probably come across not only with recognition and admiration, but also with envy. Was there a case that made you think: “Wow, if someone tries to annoy me so much, then I have already achieved something.”

– “There were no obvious signs of envy. But I remember that when I came to work in the theater, I naively believed that I could make friends with all. At least sincerely tried to do it. I was met rather coldly and firmly pushed. After that I decided to keep my distance. I maintained friendly relations, but I did not really make friends with any of my colleagues.”

What is happening today with the classical ballet? Is it more alive than dead, or vice versa?

–  “The ballet is more dead than alive.” And there is nothing very interesting there. The best managers, the best musicians do not go to work with the ballet – apparently, not a big enough audience for them. They prefer movies, games, musicals, other platforms, where there are more spectators. They say if Mozart were alive today, he would write musicals.

To attract the best people to the ballet, there must be a strong industry. The ballet must be shown on television, in cinemas. Good advertising is needed. Dancers should have agent managers who would popularize them themselves, not the theaters where they perform. Now this is not.

Compare opera and ballet. Opera music works with big labels, it’s a huge turnover of money. The opera part of the theater is very rich, very free. The musicians also have strong professional solidarity. Dancers do not have this. They are defenseless, like children. Dancers from school are used to: they tell you – you do it. Silently. They can not even object if they disagree with something. So taught. This, of course, is very convenient for the theater. But not for the industry. In order for it to grow, you need to unite and defend your rights.

The ballet age is short. Career – 10 years. People are changing. There are no those who would say: “Sorry, it will not work.”

Dancers “write off” to retire at 35 years. Does it frighten you?

–  “No, it does not.” I would like to combine the dance with the theater. Take Mikhail Baryshnikov. I do not know exactly how old he is. In sixty? (Baryshnikov is 69. – Focus ). He combines the dance with the theater. And it’s very interesting. We will get something with amazing energy. I will try to put on performances in a new genre. This will bring the dance to a new level and prolong the career of the dancers.”

You rushed to learn a new skill for yourself, in particular, cinema. In “Listen to the song of the wind,” Murakami has these words: “While you are learning something new, aging is not so painful.” Is not that the reason?

–  “When I left the Royal Ballet, I could say what would happen to me in 15 years.” Because there were examples, and history always repeats itself. I thought: “Yeah, I’ll have this and that, and they’ll do this to me and so on.” Is it nice for me? I realized that I had to find another way. Therefore, when I thought that I would leave the ballet, I asked myself: what could I do and want to do? What would make me happy? The answer came instantly: “Cinema“. I loved cinema from my childhood.”

One step before the end of a career

To put the last dance under Take me to church, being in excellent shape, remaining a favorite of spectators and having at least another ten years of ballet career in reserve, is a decisive act. In such situations, the choice of a song is not accidental. Which line from this composition of the Irish musician Hozier is the most important for you?

– “I do not know. In fact, for me, it’s not the lines that matter. I felt the song intuitively. Caught the emotion. And when I rehearsed, I did not dig into words. But the strongest – the first, with the phrase my lover. And the one in which “amen” is sung.”

In this song there are the words I was born sick, but I love it, command me to be well (“I was born sick, but I like it, but lead me to be healed”). Who or what prevented you from being healed of the ballet?

– “To attract the best people to the ballet, there must be a strong industry. Ballet needs to be shown on television, in cinemas.”

– “Feeling like I’m leaving something. That is, I could do something for people, and I leave them. It was like … ( pause )”

On betrayal?

– “It is possible and so to say. Only the feeling of guilt was not there. Rather regret. I regretted that I let down people who needed dance: spectators, dancers.

Then I had no idea that I could change anything. There were no options. It’s just a pity – before my Kiev teacher Nikolai Pryadchenko, before my parents too: I left them for a long time without support and information about what will happen to me next.

I knew that becoming an actor is a long way. And you can never be sure when you will be given a chance. Parents could not know for eight years what awaits me. It was complicated. And I realized that I could not leave it like that. Perhaps, you correctly noticed: such an act could seem to me a betrayal.”

You still feel responsible to your parents, teachers, spectators.  

– “Yes. But now I see that you can change a lot. And I know how.”

Second wind

On the way to the ballet Olympus, for many years you had to keep yourself in an iron grip. Is there a temptation to let go – just because you can afford it now?

– “Not interested. Now it all depends on me – I can rest at any time. But when you decide what to do, you do not choose rest. Such a strange psychology. The more freedom you have, the more work you gain. Well and when it is necessary to earn, then yes, you try to escape from it.

I can fly, move every day. I’m not tired. Because it is a new energy. And if I sit a week in one place, I start to get tired. He also annoys me when I am doing the same thing for a long time. The routine for me is death.”

Rehearsals are also routine.

– “Yes, that’s why I do not like to rehearse. I’ll keep it to a minimum. But again, I do not rehearse in the usual sense: I’m like, I’ll remember and show the spectator. That is, the first time I dance in public, before people.”

What does the average day of Sergei Polunin look like?

–  “The craziest day happened a week ago.” I have been shooting from 6am to 11pm. Even at this time I need to work out in the ballet class. That is, I did it in the afternoon or in the morning. Has slept, has woken up. They called me, I had to withdraw. I shot, the same day I flew from Serbia to Munich, rehearsed until three o’clock in the morning. I learned a new choreography for the ballet to dance the next day. I do not remember exactly what ballet was. After that, jumped into the car, nine hours I was taken to Serbia, we did not have time to shoot. We arrived at six in the morning, began 15-hour shooting.

This week is also not boring. Yesterday I went to bed at two o’clock in the morning, after hours of filming. I fell asleep at three, At four I woke up, and at seven we already went to the canal. A lot of things, but thanks to the fact that the team is good, everything is thought out, and I just have to gain strength and survive ( laughs ).”

In what language do you think?

– “If we talk about common topics, in English. But now I’m getting used to talking in Russian, so I switch. It takes one and a half to two days. As for the ballet, it works not verbal, but imaginative thinking. I feel music, choreography, partner. I do not think it’s important to know what her name is, what a character is, this is information for the viewer. If they want, they will read it. I rely on intuition.”

Today you do not look like a hostage to your own talent, whose life is dedicated exclusively to classical ballet. You have experience shooting in advertising, the first roles in the movie, Project Polunin. You started talking about your own foundation, which would support talented children. That you have to focus on several projects at the same time, fill you or, conversely, devastate?

– “Do more – more power. Your body produces as much energy as you need. If you do 50 things per day, you will be given energy for 50 things. If you do one – you have exactly that much energy and will allocate. Therefore, the bar should be set high.”

2013 BBC Radio 4 Interview with Sergei

2013 BBC Radio 4 Interview with Sergei

BBC Radio 4 Front Row’s John Wilson interviews ballet superstar Sergei Polunin

BBC Radio 4 Interview from 2013 with ballet dancer Sergei Polunin backstage before Coppelia at the London Coliseum marking a return one of his first returns since leaving the Royal Ballet.
Interviewer: John Wilson
radio 4 sergei polunin interview
Sergei Polunin as Frantz and Kristina Shapran as Swanilda in the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet’s production of Roland Petit’s Coppelia at the London Coliseum.
Sergei Polunin is a Ukrainian ballet dancer famous for his “once every hundred years” talent, his incredulous elevation, his impeccable technique, and glorious dramatic range. He brought an unprecedented new awareness to ballet when he danced in Hozier’s viral video ”Take Me To Church.” He starred in Diesel’s “Make Love Not Walls” campaign, and is a much sought after model and actor. He has appeared in such films as Murder On The Orient Express, Dancer (a documentary of his life), White Crow, and Red Sparrow.
Please consider subscribing to my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/PamBoehmeSi… and “like” my playlist “Sergei Polunin, Graceful Beast” if you were pleased.
For additional videos and more, visit my fan site at https://sergeipoluningracefulbeast.com
This is a ballet | балет iMovie by Pam Boehme Simon.
Thank you for watching.
Telegraph Article, November 30, 2017

Telegraph Article, November 30, 2017

Sergei Polunin: how the bad boy of ballet found salvation from drugs and self-harming

 

By Celia Walden 

 

Sergei Polunin is telling me about pain. There’s the emotional pain ballet dancers grow up with, explains the 28-year-old Ukrainian dancer, actor and model known as “the bad boy of ballet” – “the sense of being imprisoned by your own body” – and the physical pain that’s a daily reality. “Because when you’re not dancing, you’re always in some degree of pain. And I’ve danced since the age of three, so when I’m not exercising my body seizes up. Which means all day is spent wondering when I’ll be able to dance again.”

 

Polunin created a sensation in 2012 when he abruptly quit the Royal Ballet at the age of 21. Hailed as the new Nureyev, he had become the company’s youngest ever principal two years previously and had been a member of the Royal Ballet School since the age of 13. His antics offstage attracted almost as much attention as his sublime performances on stage, with rumours abounding about missed rehearsals and wild partying. When he quit, by walking out of rehearsals one day, he tweeted mysteriously, possibly mischievously, about wanting to buy some heroin and declared he would not be returning to Covent Garden. The dance world was left reeling.

 

Looking back on that period now, Polunin says that pain had acquired an addictive quality that had come to define his life. Most of the 22  million people who watched him dancing to Hozier’s Take Me to Church in a David LaChapelle-directed video that went viral on YouTube two years ago will have noticed that, along with 17 tattoos, his torso is covered with scars, the most prominent of which are a set of wide red stripes he calls his “tiger scratches”. These are a result of a “scarification” the dancer has previously described as a “warrior-like practice”. But today, he sees these as the acts of self-harm that they were – and proof that he was caught in a downward spiral that nearly ended his career.

 

 

salvation sergei polunin
Sergei Polunin quit the Royal Ballet aged 21 CREDIT: RII SCHROER

 

“I’d been carving shapes into myself with razor blades ever since I was a kid,” begins Polunin, who is back in London rehearsing for the world premiere of his own company Project Polunin’s Satori next week: a triple bill that includes a new seven-minute ballet, First Solo, the London premiere of Kasyan Goleizovksy’s Scriabiniana and the world premiere of Satori: “a story of reawakening” co-created by Polunin. He is mild-mannered and courteous with imploring eyes and a wide, frank smile. “When I was 14, I’d draw scorpions on myself, and as I got older I realised that it released endorphins in the same way that having tattoos did – so that the pain would make me feel high for two days afterwards. Acid is the easiest way to do it,” he says blithely. “And it’s actually less painful than using razor blades, because skin is amazing stuff – it’s very hard to scar it – so you cut first and then put acid in the wound.”

 

As a form of rebellion, tattoos are as obvious as it gets (“in my mind they represented free people,” Polunin says poignantly). Ditto the drugs he lost himself in for months: “And I took everything imaginable,” he admits. “Not because I was addicted, but because I was trying to find answers, and I thought the drugs would help.” The cutting, however, was addressing something at the very core of Polunin’s torment: a need for the former infant prodigy from the impoverished Ukrainian town of Kherson, who felt the weight of his entire family’s hopes so acutely, to be more than just “a tool”. “I needed to remind myself that I was alive and here, me: that I exist. But the idea that to feel something you have to cut yourself, that you’re not really existing unless you’re feeling that pain…” He shakes his head. “I was in a very low place.”

 

salvation sergei polunin
‘I was in a very low place’: Polunin in London, 2017 CREDIT: RII SCHROER

 

At first, while at the Royal Ballet, Polunin enjoyed the “bad boy” brand. “I even played up to it. And there were offers coming in from musicals and America.” But soon he was struggling to cope. “Because I didn’t know what to do with the attention, it all started to slip away and that began impacting on me in a negative way.” Now, though, Polunin is shocked by the lack of support he received from his industry.

 

“It’s not like in the sports world, where they have managers and publicists. There isn’t even a union. And we’re not earning anything like the kind of money sportsmen earn – I can tell you for sure that even principal dancers can never stand a chance of buying a property in London,” he assures me, which does seem surprising. “But are we any less talented than sportsmen? Any less impressive to watch?”

 

With no support system to help him out of the hole he had dug, Polunin left the UK in 2012 for Moscow and the Stanislavski Music Theatre. “Doors were being slammed in my face,” he says. Stanislavski was “the only place that would take me”. “And that was the most dangerous point for me,” he goes on. “Because at that age you don’t listen to anybody. But thank God I still had the discipline of going to class, and that gave me the structure I needed to get through. If I hadn’t had that, if I hadn’t had dance…” he shrugs. “Really ballet saved my life.” It wasn’t until 2015 that the fog started to lift, and David LaChapelle’s video is still more powerful when you know that while it was being filmed, Polunin was making one of the biggest decisions of his life: whether or not to leave ballet behind. “It was nine hours of crying. Because for a long time when I asked myself how I would feel if I was told I could never dance again the answer was just ‘relief’. And actually I would sometimes pray that an injury would mean it would all be over.” And yet at the end of those nine hours dancing in an empty barn the sunlight streams through “and I was clear then that I had to come back and dance. Not because anyone was telling me to or because I wanted something in exchange for it, but for the pure joy of it.”

 

salvation sergei polunin
Polunin in Steven Cantor’s 2016 film Dancer

Now that Polunin doesn’t take drugs or drink any more, “I feel so totally, totally… awake,” he says, breaking into his childlike smile. He has dabbled in acting a bit – “It’s like being a child again – and like with sport there is such a team spirit,” he says, and as well as appearing in Steven Cantor’s heartbreaking documentary, Dancer, he has also landed roles in big-budget films like Kenneth Branagh’s current all-star adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express and next year’s spy thriller, Red Sparrow, alongside Jennifer Lawrence.

 

Mainly though it’s all about doing things on his own terms. He wants to use his celebrity “to change things – because it gives you so much more power.” He has also set up a management agency that will enable dancers to work independently of home companies and theatres.

 

But it’s the mixed media Project Polunin that looks set to be his life’s work – even if the first show, which premiered at Sadler’s Wells in March, was a critical flop. “I want to create a platform like YouTube in which artists are given the freedom to create,” he says. “And there should be so many more movies with dancing involved – just look at the success of Bollywood and film La La Land. We need to unite the two mediums.”

 

Project Polunin’s Satori reunites Polunin with Natalia Osipova, the former Bolshoi ballerina. The two have been in an on/off relationship since partnering in Giselle in 2015.  Polunin once tried to remove her tattooed name from his knuckles after a fight. The Brangelina of ballet are very much together now, he tells me – “having someone who has had a similar journey together is so important.”  Although marriage is still an alien concept to him, Polunin lights up at the idea of one day becoming a father. “That would be crazy amazing. And I really hope that kids will be drawn in by Satori, because that’s what it’s about: returning to the purity you have before life breaks you. Kids have that capacity for wonder that we need to try to retain as adults.”

I defy any grown up watching Polunin dance not to feel the most basic, childlike wonder, but as I wish him the best with his project and urge him to maintain spurious “bad boy” elements, if only for the brand, there’s a moment’s awkwardness. “You want me to storm out, don’t you?” he sighs.

 

If he wouldn’t mind…

 


 




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