2015 Sunday Times Article About Sergei and Natalia | Sergei Polunin
2015 Sunday Times Article About Sergei and Natalia

2015 Sunday Times Article About Sergei and Natalia

Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova: A Russian pas de deux mixing love and diva complexes

sergei and natalia

Sergei and Natalia are the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of the ballet world: beautiful, talented and unpredictable. As individuals, Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova are a box-office draw. Together — having just announced they are in love — their move into contemporary dance at Sadler’s Wells promises to be next summer’s hot ticket.

A new piece inspired by Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with Polunin as Stanley Kowalski and Osipova as Blanche DuBois, will be danced by the pair in their first move away from classical ballet. At a press conference last week Polunin, hailed as the greatest dancer of his generation, said modestly that Osipova was the talent. He hoped to be “a good add-on”.

He certainly will be — as long as he turns up. Polunin, 25, famously quit the Royal Ballet three years ago, saying “the artist in me was dying” and later vanished days before he was due to star in a production of Midnight Express. Is Sadler’s Wells brave to be taking him, or bonkers?

“A lot of ballet companies might feel a bit nervous about bringing him in,” admitted David Jays, the ballet critic and editor of Dance Gazette. “There’s always that ‘Will he, won’t he’ frisson. There’ll definitely be a soap-opera pull to the whole event.”

Osipova, 29, has had her own diva moment. In 2011 she resigned as a principal dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet, citing “artistic freedom” as her reason for leaving. She is currently a principal dancer with both the Royal Ballet in London — where she previously danced as a guest artist in Swan Lake — and the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg. She is moving into contemporary dance, she said, because she wants to take on a new challenge while she is at the peak of her career.

“Lots of dancers look outside as they get older because ballet is hard but it’s interesting to see Osipova doing it this early,” said Jays. “Polunin has been restless for a while. He’s experimented with different companies, been talking about breaking into films and has made a short film with David LaChapelle [the American photographer].

“Osipova has danced the big roles with classical companies so I guess she’s looking for creativity and control. It’s becoming a trend among dancers. They’re not waiting to be cast, not waiting for people to come to them. Like film stars they are setting up their own production companies and directing their own careers: with real charisma and the public behind them they can set their own agenda.”

A love affair between Polunin and Osipova can only enhance the mystique that surrounds them both. Polunin is ballet’s rock star, a tattooed, tortured soul who has been trying to “find himself” — sometimes, to his bosses’ dismay, by staying up all night playing computer games — since his stellar career took flight.

sergei and natalia

Osipova has been part of a “Bolshoi love triangle”. Her previous boyfriend, Ivan Vasiliev, the dancer known as “sex on legs”, left her earlier this year for Maria Vinogradova, a rising star. Ballet fans assumed Osipova would be devastated, but her “intimate” performance of Giselle opposite Polunin at La Scala soon after (the ballet blogger Olga Agapova said: “At some moments I felt like a voyeur, watching something very personal”) sparked rumours they were more than dance partners . The speculation was confirmed as they sat happily together in London last week.

Polunin has introduced Osipova to his mother, Galina, which indicates not just his seriousness about her but a thaw in family relationships. It was Galina who recognised her son’s talent but he hasn’t always thanked her: he has sometimes seemed resentful at losing his childhood to the grind of ballet practice.

“I would have liked to behave badly, to play football. I loved sport but my family were working for me to succeed,” he once said.

He was born in Kherson, a port in southern Ukraine, and says his poverty-stricken parents saw his talent as a way of bettering themselves. At first he showed promise as a gymnast but when he contracted pneumonia and had to take an extended break, his mother moved him to ballet classes: “Some of my friends were going to dancing school and, when one of them was auditioning for a ballet school in Kiev, my mother saw an opportunity for me to do that, so we could move to a bigger, better city.”

In Kherson, he recalled: “Everyone was living in the same poverty and there was no hot water or electricity after 6pm. I had pocket money for good marks, but at some point I had to give it away for food.”

His father went to Portugal to work and his grandmother to Greece to help support them. He and his mother lived in one room for four years. London’s Royal Ballet School gave him a place at 13. By 20 he was the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal.

Osipova also showed early promise: aged eight she started her formal training at a leading Moscow ballet school and at 18 joined the Bolshoi. She was named one of “25 to watch” in 2007 by Dance Magazine and became a principal dancer at the Bolshoi in 2010 — then flounced out the following year.

Polunin complained last week that directors were not letting them perform together as he would wish: “For artists it is important to feel real emotions with your partner. It is very important to always feel you see the truth in the performance.

“It is not just with us, it has always been an issue and I do not understand why. When people love to dance together the directors do everything possible to separate them. I guess it’s so you don’t have too much power. It is easier to control people when you are separate.”

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