Project Polunin Article, Harper’s Bazaar UK, March 2017 – Sergei Polunin
Project Polunin Article, Harper’s Bazaar UK, March 2017

Project Polunin Article, Harper’s Bazaar UK, March 2017


Famous for his prodigal talent and volatile temper, the man behind the headlines speaks with Bazaar

 Of all the dancers in modern history, few have attracted as much attention as the alleged bad boy of ballet, Sergei Polunin; the brooding, temperamental Heathcliff of the dancing world.

His story is well told. At 19, the Ukrainian only child became the Royal Ballet’s youngest-ever male principal. Whether you follow ballet or not, his grace and strength are mind-blowing. Two years later, he quit after allegations of drug-taking and repeated bad behaviour. He covered his body in tattoos and danced while high on cocaine. He told the press that he was desperate to get injured so he would never have to dance again.

“I was upset,” he told us. “I couldn’t believe the industry could have gone so low. I worked 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week and the money was bad. Before dancers were treated well – they were looked after; they could afford houses. Now we live like children. Dancers live in shared houses with three or four others; you don’t have enough money to buy your own flat or to pay for dinner.

“A footballer in three weeks earns what a dancer makes in a year. I wasn’t allowed to work with other dance companies – they were all so competitive with each other and art shouldn’t be,” he continued. “It’s not about who’s better at what; it’s about what you can give people. There was no togetherness. I felt I couldn’t change it, so I quit.”

Sergei Polunin performing at the Ports 1961 show – Getty
 He went to Russia to pursue ballet there, but soon abandoned that too. He ended up taking refuge at a friend’s house where he watched TV, unsure of how to occupy himself.

“I wanted to go into film,” he said. “But the press attention stopped me. I felt lost. I never had any freedom – over my whole life, there had always been people telling me what to do. And when I did finally get that freedom I had no idea what to do with it – that was something I hadn’t been trained for.”

In 2015, he starred in an awe-inspiring video set to Hoziers’ ‘Take Me To Church’, which has since been watched over 18 million times. It has been said Polunin’s breathtaking performance made ballet go viral, and it did go a long way in bringing the medium to a broader audience than ever before. It represented a turning point for Polunin, who worked with the artist and photographer David LaChapelle on the project.

“I wanted to quit ballet altogether,” he said. “But then I worked with David and saw that he chooses to work on what he likes. He gave me freedom – before I was just a ballet dancer. I didn’t want to be one thing; that’s boring. He showed me that actually I can do everything.”

While he has no regrets, Polunin says having a manager during his Royal Ballet years could have averted his crisis.

“I matured in those four years, I don’t think of it as losing time,” he said. “If I’d have had a manager or agent, things might have been different. Good mentoring makes 70 per cent of success. I felt that no one took me seriously or listened.”

Now he is back with a new dance and ballet works at Sadler’s Wells, entitled Project Polunin, which opens tomorrow, 14 March. He hopes that the show will help dancers avoid some of the stresses that he faced during his prodigious rise.

“I want to create a platform where dancers can be creative away from their day jobs,” he said. “I want them to be able to express their joy, their personalities and to have fun.

 Polunin’s large-scale ambitions are driven by the idea of democratising ballet and making it relevant to a new audience. He wants to make films about dance and to host live performances. Then there is his idea of collaborating with a big film studio to push dance. The repressed energy that left him feeling so trapped at the Royal Ballet has finally found an outlet outside of self-destruction.

“We just need to make the whole planet dance,” he said. “When you move, you’re happy. Ballet is so closed – it’s not televised and why shouldn’t it be? We have to open it up. People who can’t afford tickets should be able to watch it. You can’t not like high-quality ballet. Dance is a language that everyone understands. It’s a pure emotion where you don’t have to think. It’s like meditation; your soul feels rested when you watch ballet. We all dance and it always brings us joy. In that way, it’s more important than words. We need to stop fighting and start dancing.”

 Execution is everything to Polunin and every detail of his show has been carefully considered – from his choice of dancers right down to the costumes, which are adorned with 350,000 Swarovski crystals.

“Costumes completely change the way you move on stage,” he said. “The crystals add beauty and when you look beautiful, your energy is beautiful. It is going to look stunning.”

“When LaChapelle approached me about this project I really wanted each of these characters to feel magical and somewhat God-like – that would not have been able to happen without each and every one of these crystals,” said the show’s costume designer Brett Alan Nelson. “Every step and movement now has so much life beyond the dance, they feel un-human.”

Ballet aside, Polunin has two other great passions. The first is film, where he sees his future. Already, he has acted in two movies: the spy thriller Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence and Kenneth Branagh’s forthcoming Murder on the Orient Express alongside Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer.

“I was so scared I wouldn’t be good enough,” he said. “I had a real ego barrier. What if I tried it, failed and my dream was ruined? The unknown is scary, but you have to be brave. I like good quality and there is so much laziness in film. There are these movies that make millions, but why? I want to be in anything where the quality is high. Being an actor is the luckiest thing in the world to do. When I wake up now, I am excited.”

His other significant love is the talented ballet dancer Natalia Osipova, whom he first met in 2015 when they performed opposite one another in Giselle. His relationship with her caused an epiphany for him.

“For me, it was very important,” he said. “Before Natalia, I couldn’t stay longer than three days in one place, but she grounded me. When you love someone – well, it’s the essence of life. I had never had a good grounding before her. Everything else is now secondary.”

The two work together often, which – despite their intoxicating chemistry – he admits isn’t always straightforward.

“When you work with someone so much, you lose that respect,” he said. “When you know someone so well, your boundaries come down and you find yourself telling them to shut up when you shouldn’t. It’s not easy, particularly when it’s so physical and you’re so reliant on each other.”

Natalia Osipova and Polunin on stage as part of Project Polunin wearing Swarovski-embellished costumes © Drew Shearwood

Regardless of how much he clearly loves his girlfriend, if he had 24 hours to spend however he wanted, he would choose to pass them alone. Somewhat tragically, he says such occasions come up only once or twice every year or so.

“Solitude is important,” he said. “Our world is manic – we travel so much, the internet is always there and our phones are always on, so it’s important in life to be alone preferably with nature. If I could spend a day however I wanted I’d go to the ocean – water and fire is always what I need.”

Fire used to be what dominated Polunin and is key to his ambition and incredible talent. But calming, constant water might be just what he needs to survive.

‘Project Polunin’ is at Sadler’s Wells, London EC1R, from 14 to 18 March.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: