Sergei says “ballet must shake off elitist image or die” July 29, 2017 – Sergei Polunin
Sergei says “ballet must shake off elitist image or die” July 29, 2017

Sergei says “ballet must shake off elitist image or die” July 29, 2017

Sergei Polunin says ballet must shake off ‘elitist image’ or die

Controversial Ukrainian star says classical dance must seek out talented directors from the worlds of films and musicals

Sergei Polunin in rehearsals with his own ballet company.
 Sergei Polunin in rehearsals with his own ballet company. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Ballet must get rid of its elitist image, seek larger audiences and woo the best directors from films and musicals, according to Sergei Polunin, one of classical dance’s biggest and most outspoken stars.

The Ukrainian, who controversially quit the Royal Ballet in 2012 aged 21, will return to Britain in December, performing with his own company, Project Polunin,at the London Coliseum.

Polunin, now 27, told the Observer that he feared for the future of his art: “It’s almost died, classical dance. There’s a lot of interest from the public, but if nothing happens from inside… ” Audience numbers were too small to interest the most talented directors, who prefer to work elsewhere, he observed: “There’s no directors. There’s no new music written.”

Dance was a language that everybody understood, he said: “It opens up people’s minds. Unfortunately, in our society, nobody wants people to think. So that’s why it’s kept too elitist, but my goal is to open it for everybody.” The Royal Ballet had “started slowly to open up”, Polunin said: “They have such a great name, they can expand like crazy. They can be the biggest thing in the world. They decide to keep it to themselves, to the small world of those people.”

He added: “They show football every day on TV. You don’t see ballet.”

The Royal Ballet said that the company was “increasingly reaching out to larger audiences”, with live screenings in hundreds of cinemas in the UK and 35 countries and subsidised tickets, among many programmes: “Digital technology has particularly helped us reach new audiences and World Ballet Day, initiated by the Royal Ballet, last year had more than 6.7 million views on Facebook.”

Polunin’s own YouTube video – in which he danced to Hozier’s Take Me to Church – has been viewed more than 20 million times.

As a child prodigy, he studied at the Royal Ballet school. In 2010, aged 19, he became the company’s youngest-ever principal – only to shock the dance world in 2012 with his sudden departure. His future plans include establishing an agency to look after dancers, many of whom receive neither enough money nor recognition, he believes. Ballet was “probably 20 years behind” other industries, he said.

“There’s no agents or managers to represent them. Dancers don’t have any voice. They have nothing.” The pay was particularly shocking as stage careers were so short, he said: “Nobody can afford a flat to live in. They have to share to be able to survive. In a place like the Royal Ballet, that shouldn’t happen.”

“Corps de ballet [dancers] get a monthly salary of [around] £1,800, which is ridiculous… You only have a 10-year career. You don’t have longer. This is it. It’s a very hard profession and you have to go through the longest [training] . It’s like nine years.

“I danced in corps de ballet for 11 hours a day. That was the hardest work I have ever done in my life. I haven’t seen anybody else work more.” These dancers “will be left alone when they’re 35”, he said. “That’s the problem. Nobody will need them.”

He believes one way of furthering careers may be for older dancers to become agents for younger ones: “We need to create this infrastructure for us to exist. Otherwise, there is nothing. There is emptiness. I know dancers who are like tramps now. Most dancers are lost after [their career finishes] because, imagine from age nine, all you did was dance… and suddenly you can’t do that.”At the Royal Opera House (ROH), he said, a “little bit of money from opera advertisements” would enable Royal Ballet dancers to be paid three times as much as they got now. Through Project Polunin, he also wants to extend the working life of dancers by giving them an actual voice in dance-theatre productions.

 Project Polunin, London Coliseum, December 5-10. Public booking opens 10am on Wednesday.


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