2017 Article From The Irish Examiner | Sergei Polunin
2017 Article From The Irish Examiner

2017 Article From The Irish Examiner

Dancing to his own tune

He may have had a reputation as the coke-snorting bad boy of ballet, but Helen Barlow found there’s a lot more to Sergei Polunin. He talks about dancing to Hozier and how he came to possess Mickey Rourke’s bloody pants.

A still from Sergei Polunin’s dance to Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’.

When Dancer opened the Cork Film Festival it may have not have been the first time local audiences had laid eyes on the talents of Sergei Polunin. Some audience members undoubtedly had contributed to the viral phenomenon that saw his dance to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ reach almost 19 million views on YouTube.

How the dance came about and what drove the supposed “bad boy of British ballet” to do it is all revealed in the Steven Cantor’s documentary Dancer, a kind of cautionary tale about the sacrifices dancers make from an early age, but also highlighting the talents of this remarkable performer.

Initially sponsored by the Rudolph Nureyev Foundation to study at the British Royal Ballet School at the age of 13 in 2003, the Ukrainian prodigy rose rapidly through the ranks to become their youngest ever principal at age 19, though left the prestigious British company in 2012 amidst scandals of his being a London party boy and his admission of performing while on drugs.

After enduring the strictures of ballet and gymnastics training from the age of three, Polunin yearned for the freedom to choose how to live his life and how to perform — and maybe he could earn a little money along the way.

As Dancer shows, he was also reeling from the divorce of his parents who had sacrificed everything to make his career happen.

A film lover since childhood when his mother, Galina Polunina, recorded so many of his moves, he decided to head for Los Angeles to study acting after leaving the Royal Ballet. He struck out there as well, often feeling too scared to turn up for auditions as the news of his bad boy behaviour in the British media had spread.

Russian home

Polunin would find a huge supporter in Igor Zelensky, a former Russian ballet star and the artistic director at Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre and the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet, who invited him dance with the companies.

“Why I loved Igor is that when I met him I realised he cared about me,” Polunin, 27, recalls. “He was not just going to carry me through my work but he cared about me as a person. I was very lucky to find him.

“I never had a mentor until I went to Russia. I became a westerner in England and I was scared to go to Russia because of what you watch on TV. But when I went there it was the opposite. It was interesting to relearn my own culture and I realised people are the same everywhere.”

“I realised it’s important to have love in your life, it’s important to have friendship, it’s very important to have mentors and family.”

After two years of exclusively dancing the classics, something he had never done, he yearned for the beat of a more modern drum and decided to give up ballet. The four-minute dance he performed for Dancer would be his last—until the David LaChapelle-directed clip almost melted the internet when it was released as a kind of teaser for the film.

Encouraged by LaChapelle’s artistry Polunin would ultimately return to dance with a newfound maturity. “I see David as a visionary for the future of ballet. It was like light though the universe and it was meant to happen.

“He had the chapel in his property in Hawaii, he found Hozier’s song and my friend Jade [Jade Hale-Christofi, his alumnus from the Royal Ballet] helped choreograph.”

Finding love

While Polunin credits LaChapelle for showing him the way forward, most significantly he’s fallen in love with 30 year-old British Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova, an accomplished Russian ballerinawho came to the Royal Ballet after he left.

“Meeting Natasha [as her friends call her] was a very big important step to stabilise me,” Polunin concedes, letting his megawatt smile rip and blushing intensely.

“I realised it’s important to have love in your life, it’s important to have friendship, it’s very important to have mentors and family. So now I’m gathering this group of similar-minded people around me.”

Initially Osipova had been sceptical about the reputed cocaine snorting bad boy taking over as her partner on a production of Giselle, the most romantic ballet in the classical repertory that was staged in Milan in early 2015.

However, she was pleasantly surprised and they fell in love during rehearsals. So that on the opening night as Albrecht knocked at Giselle’s door, Osipova recalls, “I had the feeling I’d been waiting for that knock all my life.”

The two dancers have become close collaborators, with the media, who once scorned the former tattoo parlour owner’s wild ways, embracing them as ballet’s superstar couple.

“Sergei’s ideas are wonderful and I believe it’s very important to make them happen,” Osipova says.

Osipova is referring to Project Polunin, the company her beau kicked off last year at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre with Osipova and Guests, a triple bill of contemporary dance where in two of the three segments he dances with his Russian girlfriend, who also curated the programme.

“We want to have our own foundation, our own money,” he says. “We want to give dancers a creative hub like I did with David. Musicians can come in and collaborative while not competing with the companies, because you can’t compete with the companies.

“In the evening everyone can come in and work on things they want to do and to stimulate them as well. I want to connect with the fashion industry and the movie industry. It’s important to connect to these worlds.”

With his life in order Polunin is finally able to indulge his passion for movies. And it seems Hollywood is taking notice. He will be on screens in two Twentieth Century Fox movies releasing in November, The Red Sparrow starring Jennifer Lawrence and as Count Andrenyi in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express.

“I feel like I’m a kid again,” the 27-year-old told the BBC of his time working on the Lawrence film.

“It’s an amazing industry and it was really one of the best times of my life.”

Mickey Rourke

Incredibly,Polunin tells me he owes a great debt to Mickey Rourke, one of his idols. “An interview came up and they asked who I wanted to be interviewed by and I said Mickey. It was a Skype call.

“Then I bumped into him in a club once by accident in Russia and he came to see my show. I actually stayed in his house in Los Angeles before filming ‘Take Me to Church’ and he told me about acting. I emptied myself out and that’s what Mickey does before roles.

“He gave me his trousers from The Wrestler with blood on them and I was like, ‘F**k, this guy has a big heart to give those away’. I don’t know yet why we met but I believe there is a reason for everything. I believe in our strange connection.”

The pair also share a penchant for tattoos and Polunin even has one devoted to “Mickey”. The former co-owner of a tattoo parlour explains how he has to cover himself in make-up for ballet, and the movie shows the extent of his body art. Most impressive is the circular abdominal tattoo.

“It’s a Slavic swastika, it’s water and fire. When I was in Russia I felt like my energy was draining from my stomach, so I did it to protect myself. I hoped it would give me more power. I mean it’s a very powerful sign.” It seems to have worked.

  • Dancer is in cinemas now

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