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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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Polunin “Miracle” in Ashton with Ananiashvili

Polunin “Miracle” in Ashton with Ananiashvili

Polunin Miracle in Ashton ballet with Nina Ananiashvili

Excerpts from a November 2015 review by Tatiana Kuznetsova

Frederick Ashton’s increasing popularity in Russia is shown in a new triple bill at the Stanislavsky Ballet, directed by Igor Zelensky, and starring Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody and Marguerite and Armand with Nina Ananiashvili. Tatiana Kuznetsova of Kommersant was swept away by the Marguerite and Armand, which she says has never before been so miraculously intimate in a Russian performance. It was like spying on the lovers through a keyhole, she says.

The artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theatre’s ballet company, Igor Zelensky, was at one time principal dancer simultaneously of three theatres, the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and the Balanchine company New York City Ballet. Since then his love for English-language classicism has only grown. He has regularly staged signature ballets of England and America on the Stasik stage, trying with mixed success to extract the right choreographic pronunciation out of Muscovite dancers.

Following on from the monumental dramas of the Scot [Kenneth] MacMillan, and the one-act lyricism and comic sketches of the American [Jerome] Robbins, we are now offered a group of the romantic poems of Frederick Ashton – the UK’s first and chief national choreographer.

One should add that the artistic director’s Anglomania is fuelled by the presence in his troupe of Sergei Polunin, with his immaculate English style: before he became the Stasik’s guest star, the young Polunin graduated from the Royal Ballet’s school and successfully danced with the company for several seasons, becoming the youngest male principal in Covent Garden’s history.

The choice of Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, was targeted on Polunin, with its hellishly tricky male lead role: Frederick Ashton, captivated by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s academic virtuosity and Soviet athleticism, made the ballet in 1980 specially for him.

“On a theme by Paganini” is dropped from the title with good reason – there is none of the agony of creativity or the battle against obscurantism in this optimistic work (unlike the ballet Paganini that the Soviet classicism Leonic Lavrovsky choreographed long before Ashton). The protagonist’s profession is indicated only by the lightest gesture (just a couple of times stroking an imaginary bow across an imaginary violin), and perhaps too in his romantic quest for his one muse – the ballerina, hidden among six coryphees.

But Polunin had not forgotten Paganini; he performed the pirouettes and entrechats, the explosive, whipping turns and slides with a psychological subtext that hinted at some circumstantial challenge, which actually cannot be found in this radiant choreography.

La Valse is a well-populated, opulent victory ball: the men in frock coats, the women in full dresses and tiaras, chandeliers, liveried footmen, the riotous crescendo of the finale in which the swirling of the couples, the surrendering jumps and high lifts, all reach an ecstatic climax.

In Moscow the grand triumphalism was turned into a feverish pursuit of the music’s tempi, especially as young conductor Zangiev was getting carried away by Ravelian contrasts, making the brass roared like a military band, letting the strings spread into a lyrical intimacy. The frock-coated men coped elegantly with the music’s heedless turns, but the women were noticeably panicking, spraying out obviously strained arms and frantically bobbing on the simplest balances.

So it turned out that the highlight of the “Ballets of Frederick Ashton” evening was not the premieres but the ballet in repertoire, Marguerite and Armand, on Lizst’s music, which the Stanislavsky has had in its repertoire for several seasons.

Then the miracle happened…

This time artistic director Zelensky’s choice of Marguerite was Nina Ananiashvili, former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi and many other international companies, and currently artistic director of the National Ballet of Georgia. She is 52 years old while her partner, Sergei Polunin, is 25. Yet the age difference was no problem: at the end of the day, this ballet was created by Ashton in 1964 for 25-year-old Nureyev and 44-year-old Fonteyn, taking into account the capabilities of an older ballerina.

The first thing has to be that notorious question: ‘chemistry’. If the players can’t be convincing in conveying fateful passion, the ballet is exposed as a set of stilted tableaux and some more or less striking lifts. So far, no one on any Russian stage has managed to transmit the magic of this archaic ballet.

polunin miracle

At the Stasik the miracle happened. This Marguerite and Armand forced one to forget everything about the old-fashioned direction, the naivety of the choreography, and the technical performance. It was as if it was not of the slightest importance whether the ballerina’s back was so flexible, or her legs went so high, or she had a wasp waist or not, if the love story of a selfless, tender courtesan and an ungovernable young aristocrat mesmerised you as if you were watching them through a keyhole.

polunin miracle

Photo Credit:  Kommersant

Very Detailed Article of the “Departure” 2012

Very Detailed Article of the “Departure” 2012

The Economist | 1843 | The Economist Unwinds

COVER STORY

A DANCER’S DEMONS

Why did Sergei Polunin walk out on a golden career with the Royal Ballet? Julie Kavanagh goes to Kiev and Moscow to talk to him, his parents and his mentors

JULIE KAVANAGH | SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2012

ON JANUARY 24TH this year Sergei Polunin “woke up fine” and went to work. He was to spend most of the day at the Royal Opera House, rehearsing the climactic duet in “The Dream” in which he was to make his debut as Oberon. Anthony Dowell, who created the role, was coaching Polunin, and his Titania was the Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru—an exquisite artist whose harebell delicacy on stage belies a ferociously exacting temperament in the studio. Polunin was in an unreceptive mood. He had just left his first serious girlfriend, the Royal Ballet soloist Helen Crawford. “This was the second day and it suddenly hit me. Two years we were together and I’d really got used to her.” Cojocaru was not happy either. Frederick Ashton’s Nocturne pas de deux is a masterly rendition of the battle of the sexes, the new accord between the Fairy King and Queen enacted in mirror-image movements in which the two dancers must find total reciprocity of technique and emotion. There is also a notorious stumbling block when the ballerina is rotated by her partner like an open compass as her torso jack-knifes under her extended leg. Cojocaru made it clear to Polunin that he was not helping.

“I thought one more word and that’s it. I held tight, trying not to cry. And then my head flew off.”

He announced that he was leaving, which Dowell took to mean leaving the room for a few minutes. But Polunin meant for good.

For the Royal Ballet his sudden defection was something of a backhander. After nurturing this extraordinarily gifted Ukrainian boy through both its junior and senior schools, the company made him a principal at 19 and gave him roles which most of his colleagues could only dream of. Oberon was to be followed a few weeks later by his Romeo debut, beamed live to cinemas around the world. The main impact, though, was a sense of loss. A dancer like Polunin comes along once every two or three decades; at 13 his potential was so evident that his teacher would pull up a chair and study him during class. “He’d say, ‘Sergei, show them how to do a rond de jambe.’” To see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection. Watching him back then at the junior school, where my son was a pupil, I was reminded of home footage I had come across while researching my biography of Nureyev. It was of the teenage Baryshnikov, who was also a living lexicon of classical ballet, articulating academic steps in ways which could hardly if ever be improved. Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars, adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity, while introducing a youthful masculinity of his own.

The 13-year-old boy I remember being touchingly grateful when we took him out for a pizza was now, at 22, the youngest-ever star of one of the world’s great ballet companies. And yet he was ricocheting out of control. It was partly the usual rebelliousness you expect at this age, combined with the accelerated trajectory of his career. But you could sense something more, some other motor for his behaviour, that lay beyond the arcane world of balletomanes. That was one reason why, within days of his departure, the story went global, picked up in America by the Huffington Post, the New York Times and the Daily Beast.

Polunin went to the dressing room he shared with two principals. “Just sitting. Hiding.” He kept ringing the administrator’s office to ask to see the director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, but got no reply. “I was there maybe three hours. Nobody came.” The idea of leaving the company had been preoccupying him for months, and the management was aware of “rumblings”. His mother had told him that if the Royal Ballet valued him they would have given him a permanent visa and an apartment; he was always being invited to guest abroad but not given permission because he was leading the repertory in London. He had even given in his notice a year earlier—also following a break-up with Helen Crawford. “They promised a lot of things, raised my salary. It was a really, really big jump. I told them I wanted to do movies, and they said they’d sort it out. But there wasn’t much of a change. So now, with situation in life not good, I thought it was the perfect time to go. This time I hoped they’d let me.”

In the end he headed along the corridor to Monica Mason’s office, suddenly feeling frightened. “He was very emotional when he first came in,” she says. “But as we spoke he quietened down.” Polunin thought it would be easier for her to accept his resignation if he said he wanted to give up dancing altogether. He told her he had been pushed into ballet from the age of three and had no real passion for it. “Is there anything we can do to keep you?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

Mason had championed him, but their rapport was professional. She wasn’t aware of the latest break-up with Helen Crawford, and this meeting—which he recalls lasting 20 minutes, she double that—was the longest they had ever spoken. “Sergei can be very restless. I’d known him come in and talk for ten minutes and then stand up and go. He’s quite mysterious and unfathomable. He doesn’t seek advice or let people get close to him, and yet he’s adorable. He’s never rude, and he has a kindness and gentleness in him. It’s very easy to get very fond of him.”

As Mason talked, she could not help wishing that she could tie him to a chair and keep him in her office for 24 hours until he had calmed down and realised what he would be losing. “His talent is so rare that one would have done anything to keep him. But he was adamant. I said, ‘Well, darling, where are you going now?’”

“I don’t know.”

“Sergei, please let’s talk again tomorrow.”

“No, no, please. I’ve decided.”

“Are you going to pack up your things?”

“No, I’ll do that another time.”

HE WALKED OUT of the Royal Opera House feeling an intense “breeze of freedom”. And he did have a plan—to go to New York. He reckoned he would be paid far more as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), whose short seasons would free him to earn more around the world; in rehearsals he had encouraged Anthony Dowell to talk about his own ABT break from the Royal Ballet (“I was researching”). He went back to Archway, the corner of north London where he had been sharing a room with a schoolfriend, the dancer Jade Hale-Christofi. He sat on the bed. “I thought, ‘So, now what? Call ABT?’”

Insecurity was setting in, but not for long. Two hours after the company’s announcement (“Principal Sergei Polunin has resigned from the Royal Ballet with immediate effect”), there was a message on his mobile from Alexei Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi, now resident choreographer at ABT. It was a week before Polunin returned his call: he was keeping his options open. That night his mobile kept ringing and he received hundreds of texts, tweets and e-mails.

One of the few calls he took was from another Ukrainian former Royal Ballet principal, Ivan Putrov. He was organising a “Men in Motion” programme at Sadler’s Wells in which Polunin was due to appear three days later. Ten years older and trained at the same Kiev school, Putrov had been something of a mentor to him, and when Polunin went back to Kiev in school holidays he would often spend evenings with Putrov and his mother Natalia Berezina-Putrova, a ballerina turned teacher. “He liked my cooking,” she told me. “Vanya would go somewhere, and Serezha would stay and talk, or watch videos I showed him of dancers. When he came to rehearse at Sadler’s Wells I asked how he was feeling. ‘Harasho,’ he said. He was ‘fine’, like he always was. I thought he was making a big mistake, but he was happy because he was free.”

The Royal Ballet made it known that Polunin would now be performing without a work permit—a situation which again made news. While he went to dance in Japan for a week, Sadler’s Wells stepped in to help, securing an “Exceptional Talent” visa which allowed him back into Britain. In return, he agreed to a second “Men in Motion” programme on March 13th, and to help Putrov publicise the next programme in a series of interviews—or at least that was the intention. Putrov’s attempts to limit journalists’ questions to “Men in Motion” failed: all anyone wanted to know was “what made the ballet dancer jump” (Huffington Post).

After one such interview, I went with the two dancers to get something to eat. Instinctively solicitous, Polunin offered to carry my bag. With their long unruly hair, expansive Slavic posture and ten-to-two ballet walk, they made quite an impact, and a trio of girls turned round and giggled as we reached the restaurant. When Putrov ordered pasta and a glass of wine, and Polunin chose ginger ale and a chocolate brownie, there seemed far more than a decade between them. As there did again when they talked about the role of Romeo. Polunin was relieved not to be dancing him: “He’s not me. He’s romantic, insipid.”

“I think he’s very strong,” said Putrov. “Maybe he’s searching for something he can’t yet find.” Unlike Polunin, Putrov was mature enough to realise that a performer can change the interpretation of a role to suit himself. He has a voracious appetite for books and London culture, but Polunin, despite every encouragement, has never taken an interest in much except Hollywood movies and the music of Jay-Z. Another striking difference is their attitude to their families in Ukraine. Both are the only children of divorced parents. Putrov is in almost daily contact with his mother, even taking his laptop into the studio when he rehearses so that she can give him corrections via Skype. Polunin’s mother has not seen him on stage since he was a child, and keeps up with what he’s doing through his fan sites.

They are in regular contact, though, and Polunin had arranged for me to see his mother in Kiev. As her birthday was the day after our meeting, I was surprised he had no present for me to pass on. He did peel off several £50 notes from a slab of cash—for his mother and also some for his father, who lives in Kherson, south-eastern Ukraine, where Sergei spent his early years. What about getting her a card to put the money in? He shook his head. “When I was a child, she would force me to hand-make cards, so there’s no way I’m going to make an effort now.” I thought of the moment in Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” when she gets a birthday card from her daughter—a folded paper with a drawing of a smiley face—and tears it up, telling her it’s not good enough. Polunin says of his mother: “She was always criticising me, and so when I came here I decided, ‘Never again are you going to watch me.’”

WITH HER GENTLE manner and strained, desolate face, Galina Polunina seems about as fearsome as Dasha, her son’s elderly Persian cat. They share a room in an ugly, Khrushchev-era concrete block, a long metro-ride from central Kiev. There is a double bed, an exercise bike, a huge flat-screen television, a display of ornaments and pictures, but no books. I sit on the sofabed where Sergei sleeps when he visits. After he left to train in England in 2003, Galina, who was only 35, fell into a long depression. Gradually, she made a life for herself in Kiev, where she now works as a wardrobe mistress at the opera house. She is not bitter about being unable to share Sergei’s success, knowing that her dreams for him have rebounded on her, but her eyes fill with tears when she says, “He keeps the memory of my strictness.” Her consolation is a trove of memories—a rich archive of photographs and videos recording every stage of Sergei Polunin’s young life.

He was born in Kherson in 1989, an energetic baby, so pliable that the midwife who delivered him exclaimed with alarm when she manipulated his limbs. He was walking at ten months, sleeping very little, and always on the move. “Serezha was like Spiderman,” says Galina. “He’d climb up the wall of the corridor and do somersaults over the sofa.” Her husband, Vladimir, was away in Moscow earning money, so it was left to Galina to find some kind of physical outlet for Sergei. He took his first dancing classes at three, but lasted only a few weeks as it was winter and he caught cold waiting for the trolley bus home. A year later, he was picked to join an afternoon gymnastics club. Galina tutored him herself for the entrance exam to a school renowned for its high standards—but he had not long been accepted when his gym coach told her that pupils wanting to advance would have to go to a nearby school, where the timetable was synchronised.

Academically, it was far inferior, but she made the decision to move him. “His teacher said to me, ‘You’re crazy—why?’ But this was a hard time for Ukraine. Conditions were horrible. It was hard to find nourishing food and there were problems with electricity and hot water. In the evenings we used to wash in the water I kept in a bowl on the stove. Even a good education couldn’t help you to make your way unless you had important government links. As a professional sportsman he stood a better chance.”

Between 8am and noon the six-year-old Sergei would attend School No 16 in a pedestrian street in an old part of the city, and then he would walk through Lenin Park to the gymnasium where he trained until 6pm. “I don’t remember eating.” In the evening he caught the tram home on his own, passing St Catherine’s Cathedral, where Potemkin is buried. Kherson’s football stadium is behind the gym, but Sergei never watched a match or even kicked a ball with the boys in the yard. There was no time and he had no energy. “Sometimes when he got back, he’d just fall down from exhaustion,” says Vladimir. “We’d help him undress and put him to bed. Galya was buying red caviar, just for Serezha, to make him special sandwiches for strength.”

Video footage of him at the gym shows a skinny seven-year-old whose innate dancer’s posture makes him stand out in a line of 25 boys. As he exercises on the double bars, his knees touch his nose, and he slides into 180-degree splits. His remarkable plasticity had particularly impressed his coach. “He was very good at stretching and did things very clearly,” says Anatoly Nikolaevich Yarushev, a short, wiry man with glinting gold fillings. “He has light bones, so he was a jumping boy and he loved taking risks.” Yarushev claims that only 3% of pupils go on to make a career as gymnasts, and at the time he reckoned Sergei could become what he calls an “international master of sport”. Galina was more ambitious still. “This is the mother of a future Olympic champion,” a smiling Vladimir remarks on camera, which was exactly what she had in mind.

The battle began. “Serezha’s first word to any suggestion was ‘Niet’. I would try to explain why he needed to do something, but he always fought back.” He was 12 when she began entering him in fortnightly competitions. “I hated them. The feeling of pressure, and my mum there watching and telling me off afterwards for not being serious enough.” Yarushev became the dominant male figure in Sergei’s life. When Vladimir returned home from Moscow, his son greeted him by saying, “Mama says that Anatoly Nikolaevich is my father now.”

The Polunins’ marriage had never been stable. They were both 20 when they met: she was a pretty blonde seamstress who had left technical school at 16, and Vladimir, romantically good-looking with ice-blue eyes, was a porter in a bread factory. Galina was his first girlfriend, and when she fell pregnant he agreed to marry her. With a baby to look after and hardly any money, they divided their time between their two families, but living with in-laws proved too much of a strain, and when Sergei was three they divorced. “I can remember my father saying goodbye as if he’d never see me again.”

A couple of years later they remarried, but with Vladimir returning from Moscow for only a few days every four months, life for Galina was far from easy. “Volodya was very soft and didn’t support me. If Serezha was naughty and I said, ‘I’ll tell your father’ he’d just laugh. As a partner, husband and father, Volodya wasn’t the man I needed. He was always sweet to Serezha and would give him money, which we didn’t have, to get a taxi instead of the tram. It was their little secret, and I was the bad one.” Again, Amy Chua’s book comes to mind. “I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore,” Chua told her mild-mannered American husband, who believed that their daughters’ childhood should be fun. Galina saw it as her duty to prepare their son for a brilliant future—even at the cost of forfeiting his love.

When Sergei was nearly eight, he caught pneumonia and one of his lungs stopped working. Three months of summer holidays and six weeks in hospital failed to cure him. “The hospital told me there was nothing more they could do,” says Galina, who was so frightened that she took him to a healer—an ex-tractor driver, said to have acquired psychic powers after being struck by lightning. “He took eggs from a bin and rolled them around my body,” Sergei remembers. “I guess he was taking the bad energy away.”

Two weeks later (“ten times of rolling eggs”) his health was restored and he returned to the gym. Young gymnasts who had been inferior to him were now far better, which demoralised him so much that his mother decided to give ballet another try. “When he came the second time, it was very different,” says his teacher, Galina Ivanova. “I could see what sports training had done for him—the incredible looseness, wonderful jump and strong feet. It was obvious that he’d had a male coach because it had given him character. He was also really disciplined.”

Galina was determined to get Sergei out of Kherson. “I saw that most of the kids spent their time on the street. The older ones would teach the little ones to smoke and do bad things. That was the lifestyle.” Both she and her friend Ludmilla, whose son Arthur was in Sergei’s dance class, wanted their boys to audition for the ballet school in Kiev; and Galina Ivanova, who would be entering her adopted son Erick, volunteered to prepare and chaperone them. “The night before the final round I couldn’t get Serezha to bed,” Galina Ivanova remembers. “While the other two slept, he kept practising a clapping sequence over and over again. It was fanaticism.”

Among the staff on the audition panel was Tatyana Mihailovna Martynenka. “Usually in the third round when the children improvise a piece, you still see very simple things, but when Sergei began dancing to a Pavarotti aria it was something truly outstanding. He had an extraordinary feeling for music and such rare natural co-ordination. It was the first time I’d ever seen a boy with such gifts and I had tears in my eyes as I watched him.”

The Kiev school accepted all three Kherson boys. Erick would become a boarder, while Sergei’s mother, Galina, agreed to take a room in Kiev to look after both Sergei and Arthur. Their husbands volunteered to pay for their keep by finding better jobs. On August 30th 1999 Galina arrived in Kiev, knowing nobody, with just $50 to last the first term. She had found a room on the 15th floor of a tenement block near the school, where for six months they had no television or washing-machine. Slowly money began arriving from Portugal, where the two fathers had moved to work on construction sites. For the next ten years Vladimir sent his wife and son cash he earned as a builder during the week and as a gardener at weekends. Galina’s mother also sent money from Greece, where she had found a job as a carer for an old woman.

Kiev’s State Choreographic Institute is a 1960s eyesore stuck way out in a rough suburb. Galina rarely took the boys into the centre—“We had no money to do anything”—and Sergei spent evenings in their one room with his toy soldiers and PlayStation. After a year, Ludmilla moved to Kiev to make a home for Arthur, and for the next four years Sergei was alone with his mother. Galina would walk him to and from school along a busy road and through a park notorious for its muggings; accompany him to extracurricular music and drawing lessons; tidy up after him in the boys’ changing room. “As soon as he arrived, he’d drop his bag, jacket, jeans on the floor. He’s always been very disorganised. The teachers didn’t like me being there, but I told them, ‘I’ve come to help you.’”

She often watched rehearsals and while knowing little about ballet, could tell when he wasn’t doing his best, and would lecture him afterwards. His old teacher, Galina Ivanova, believes her presence was reason in itself for Sergei’s half-heartedness. “All kids lose 50% of their performing qualities when the mother is in the audience,” she says. “But I never thought of Galina as a despot. She could tune Serezha like a violin.” He remembers only the hostility, particularly during homework sessions, when he claims his mother would cuff him on the head to get him to focus. “I think I may be dyslexic or have ADD or something, because I could never concentrate. I loved history—wars and Caesar and the Mongolians—but I never took schoolwork seriously, and my mum got called in lots of times. I was always the joker in class.”

In the studio he was the star. His teacher, Eduard Borisovich, would tell the boys, “ballet’s not a man’s job if you’re not a principal”, and anyone who wasn’t good enough would have to inform his parents that there was no point carrying on. Borisovich’s strictness bordered on sadism, his physical discipline brutish. “I was all right because I was the best,” says Sergei, the only pupil to whom Borisovich had ever given five marks out of five.

He was continually picked by the girls’ teacher, Tatyana Mihailovna, to partner her prize students in school performances, and she arranged extra coaching for him with a former principal, Nicolai Priadchenko. “He was beautiful on stage,” says Mihailovna. “Very sophisticated, very elegant, and he was passing this on to Sergei. He gave him a sense of characters with real emotions.” They worked together on classical variations, sometimes until ten at night; in Galina’s home videos you can see that Sergei was partnering girls on stage with convincing danseur noble decorum and the arrogance of a ruttish young stag. When he was chosen to dance the virtuoso showpiece “The Forest Song”, he was approached afterwards by Ivan Putrov’s father, a ballet photographer, who told him that his son had danced the solo ten years ago and was now performing at Covent Garden. “I think that’s what gave my mum the idea.” Galina sent photographs and a videotape of Sergei to the Royal Ballet School, and in the winter of 2003 he received an invitation to the final audition in London. In his case the test class was just a formality. “I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions,” says the director, Gailene Stock. “Before he’d even done a plié I thought, ‘That’s it.’”

AFTER THE DILAPIDATION of the Kiev institute, White Lodge, the Royal Ballet Lower School in Richmond Park, must have seemed like the palace it almost is—it started life as a hunting lodge built for King George II, and has a view extending over the formal gardens to Queens Ride, Pen Ponds and beyond. It was not beauty, though, that first impressed Sergei, but the camaraderie of the dorm. “The last book I read was Harry Potter, and it was like a scene from that.” Galina had accompanied him to London for three days in March 2004, but from the start of term in late August, Sergei was on his own. Because of the standard of his dancing he had been put in a class of pupils two years older, and he was let off academic work as he didn’t speak enough English, doing twice as much ballet instead. Left on his own for hours with English linguaphone cds, he could have felt alienated, but Pippa Hogg-Andrews, the Lower School principal, does not recall him being homesick: “he fitted in beautifully.”

Sergei told Galina how tame the boys were—in Kiev he was often involved in fights—but he was determined to behave well. “Any mistakes and I thought I’d be out of the country. This was too good an opportunity to miss. I did a lot of extra work on my own. When the others went to eat, I’d practise splits and stretching and watch ballet videos—Baryshnikov in “Don Q”, Vassiliev in “Spartacus”—I learnt the steps by freezing the frames.” He thought the others must hate him for being constantly singled out in class, but my own son was at White Lodge at the time and insists that all they felt was pride. “Everyone looked up to Sergei. His dancing was insane.” Pippa Hogg-Andrews says much the same. “There was a unanimous realisation that someone with prodigious ability was in our midst, and he didn’t strut about as though he knew that.” Polite with the staff, easygoing with his peers, Sergei also had a soft spot for insects and rodents. He would rescue a wasp that someone was trying to kill, resuscitate a mouse caught in a trap or take a beetle to the safety of a tree in Richmond Park. “I believe that if you’re good to nature, then nature will protect you back.”

In autumn 2004, when he moved to the Upper School in Covent Garden, he was told that he had to spend two and a half years living in residence, instead of the usual one, because he was under-age. There was still an adolescent gangliness about him, and he had so little strength for pas de deux that girls dreaded being partnered by him. He struggled with the speed of the steps—especially the intricate footwork at which English dancers excel—and showed no enthusiasm for contemporary dance. He was told how important this was, how it would help to give him more freedom of movement, but he was only interested in classical variations, which he practised alone for hours after everyone had gone home. “The janitor used to tell me off. He’d say, ‘Sergei, I need to go. I’ll miss my train.’ Finally he complained.” When Sergei was 15, he was told that his parents had divorced for the second time. “I cried for two days. After that I decided never to let them or anyone else hurt me again.”

For his final six months at school, Sergei was allowed to move out into shared digs, where he found himself living in impressive squalor. There were plates of congealed leftovers moving with maggots; mice and the odd Chinatown rat skittering round at night; floors dotted with upturned mugs to trap cockroaches. “Two boys left because they couldn’t stand it. I love nature, so I didn’t care.” Polunin admits he went “a little crazy” at this time, experimenting with drugs and missing morning class. “Gailene told me, ‘You can leave now, or behave and stay for graduation.’” Which he did. There was no visible effect on his dancing, and at the student matinée Sergei was the figurehead, performing the Nureyev signature solo and duet from “Le Corsaire”. His schoolmate Valentino Zucchetti had 22 relatives from Italy watching the show, but no one came from the Ukraine to see Sergei. It would have meant him arranging visas for his parents, and finding separate places for them to stay. He says he didn’t care that none of his family was there, but that night he took too much ketamine, a horse tranquilliser known to ravers as Special K. “Falling into a K-hole” can leave the user not only emotionally numb, but incapable of movement—a dancer’s nightmare.

ONCE HE HAD joined the company in 2007, Polunin was fast-tracked through the ranks. He made his debut on the Covent Garden stage holding a spear in “La Bayadère”, but within weeks he was performing the show-stopping Bronze Idol solo, and a little over a year later was dancing the lead. By now, with newly acquired muscular heft and strength, Polunin had such physical force on stage that he could trigger goose-bumps even when standing still. Although he did his share of corps de ballet roles—footman, cavalier, fairy escort, Prince’s friend—by August 2009 he had been promoted to first soloist, and to principal a year later. In 2011 he was given six major new roles. It was too much too soon, leaving him no time to explore a character or discover nuances in the steps. When I saw him dance “Rhapsody”, created by Frederick Ashton to showcase Baryshnikov’s brilliance, all the crazily off-kilter tricks were there, but none of the impish grace notes. Des Grieux in “Manon” was a part he wished had been saved for later, but Monica Mason is convinced that Polunin would not have been happy if she’d held him back. “Talent must out. It was a no-win situation.” Confirming this, Polunin says that he could have done it all a year earlier, and in a four-month period when he was cast in “a lot of rubbish”, he fell into a slump. “I played games all night with Jade. I never slept and I never worked.”

But carrying the show meant that he could not have a youth. His happiest memories are of being wheeled about in his buggy, aged two, by the teenagers in the yard, who let him play with their guns. Now he began recapturing Kherson’s delinquent culture in north London’s underworld, staying up all night at “epic parties” and putting money into a tattoo parlour run by a new friend, a young man with a complex past called Anthony Lammin. Polunin’s torso is scored with tattoos from this period: references to died-young role models James Dean and Heath Ledger; random words and phrases (“I am not a Human/I am not a God/I am hwo [sic] I am”); a crucifix; a howling wolf. More unsettling, though, are the wide, red stripes of scarification that he calls “tiger scratches”. He incised these himself. “Tattoo was bad orange colour, so I cut to take the colour out.”

With no inclination to attend company class, Polunin often warmed up in a disabled lavatory at the Opera House, as this bought him an extra half an hour in bed. “There was nothing we could do,” says Mason. “They’re young adults: we don’t take a register, and we trust them to do the right thing for their physical health.” In the final two years at the Royal Ballet, he rarely bothered to jump in class, turned up late for rehearsals—“It was fine because it was me”—and gave only 20% of himself in the studio. Some partners were more understanding than others. “I have to say it’s really hard to work with Sergei,” Tamara Rojo told me. “He’s unreliable. You never know if he’s going to appear. He doesn’t sleep and so often he’s really tired. But then on stage it’s worth it. That’s where it all happens for him.”

By 21 Polunin had reached the pinnacle of his career; and it was not what he expected. “You think you’re going to be on top of the world but it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, is this it?’ There was nothing else to prove.” He began looking for ways to augment the rush of performing, relying on stimulants such as Guarana Ginseng—or stronger. “Lots of times I performed on coke. You have unlimited energy. You don’t get tired and you don’t get bored.” Colleagues turned a blind eye, because Polunin’s performances were always exciting and he filled the house, but news of his cockily provocative tweets—such as “Does anybody sell heroin? Need to bring my mood up”—had reached and alarmed his family. (He meant it as a joke, and showed it by adding another tweet 20 minutes later saying “pizza will probably do for now”.)

His upside-down clock was also taxing his home life. Until Helen Crawford, he had not sought out the company of girls. “I’m more of a guy’s guy, but she was the first girl I respected as a person, as a friend. She became bigger than family, in a way.” Nine years older, Crawford had begun thinking about having children, which was out of the question for Polunin. He decided to end things in time for her to find somebody else. “I split up because I thought it would be better for her, but I also wanted to be free.” Picturing his life in ten years’ time, he could see only domestic and professional stagnation.

“I thought if I do my best in Royal Ballet, then maybe I’ll be as successful as Anthony Dowell, which isn’t good enough for me. Because my goal is not to become millionaire, but multi-multi-millionaire. It’s why I pushed myself so hard. I always wanted to buy my family each a house, and have a street of houses which I could give to my friends. I want to help people that I like. I got involved with the tattoo parlour just to help Anthony [Lammin], because I really like him. He did bad things, but I always look at people and find like a soft side to them. My grandmother’s coming back from Greece and I need money to give her; I want to help my gymnastics teacher; I have a wish to go to Ukraine and take a boy like I was and give him a start. To achieve all this, you need money. Money is what gives you power and freedom.”

He had adopted “the Apple guy’s remark” as his motto: Steve Jobs said that if you think of each morning as the last day of your life, and don’t like what you’re doing, then you should give up now. Which Polunin did—and all in one week. As he put it: “Girlfriend, Royal Ballet, tattoo parlour: deleted.”

THERE WAS A buzz of anticipation in the foyer at Sadler’s Wells for the second “Men in Motion” programme on March 13th, and not just because Kate Winslet was in the crowd. Once again Polunin had filled the house, but he was on poor form. A new solo had been inspired by James Franco playing James Dean, and Polunin certainly looked the part in a tight white t-shirt and second-skin denims. But ten minutes of soulful emoting mixed with Soviet bravura did not merit the bombastic billing of “a world premiere”, and he messed up the ending, prompting nervous titters in the auditorium. He laughed about it in his dressing room afterwards, clearly unconcerned. “You’ll meet Anthony,” he said as we made our way to the stage door, where a good-looking black guy in his late 20s was standing apart from a cluster of fans who had waited over an hour for Polunin. After an exchange of teasing banter, Lammin went off into the night. “Did you see his scar?” Polunin asked.

Over dinner and a couple of beers, he talked about his immediate plans. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of him: there was an offer of a Nijinsky play, a new musical choreographed by Gillian Lynne, an invitation to appear on “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”. Not having an agent or manager (by choice), Polunin was making every decision himself. He was already caught up on the gala circuit, with one performance scheduled in Georgia, followed by two in New York. But what he wanted more than anything was to star in a movie, and he was thinking of asking Baryshnikov’s advice about combining the two careers.

Over the next couple of months, with no company behind him, Polunin had become more conscientious about doing class. But it was on his own terms, and he would work alone in a Sadler’s Wells studio between eight and ten at night. His tweets, though, did not bode well: “Today is big party night!!! As long as my heart doesn’t give up on me.” “Charlie Sheen wish to party like us. Only gods can survive amount I take!!!!!!!! That makes me closer to a god.”

At the end of March, he called me to say that he wanted to go to Kherson. The healer who cured his pneumonia had been in touch with Vladimir and told him, “Your son should be in America.” Polunin needed to hear this for himself. It had been a decade since he had last been to his home town, and he was much missed by his family. (When I was in Kherson and showed Vladimir’s mother a picture of Sergei on my iPhone, she kissed the screen.) In his absence, Kherson had begun to flourish: there is a new four-star hotel, a pseudo Emporio Armani boutique, and on the bank of the River Dnieper, where he swam as a boy, there is a billionaire’s mansion opposite the wooden shanties of the docks. Polunin found everything else as he remembered it—even the same simmering borscht smell as he walked into his babushka’s house. He and Vladimir took a boat out on the river, and he visited the gymnasium, where he posed for photographs with Anatoly Yarushev and his pupils. When one boy arrived too late for the group shot, Sergei had a picture taken of them together, which he posted on Twitter. The point of the visit, though, was to consult the psychic. “He told me that I would get two contracts in America.” He laughs. “But I didn’t.”

It was not pre-destiny, but the Euro crisis, that decided Polunin’s fate. He was due to guest in Spain with Tamara Rojo but the performances were cancelled because of lack of funds, and so instead he went to St Petersburg. His idea after that was to go to ABT, even though the director, Kevin McKenzie, had made it clear that he did not want him full-time. “Because of reputation,” Polunin presumes. “But money wasn’t good. He didn’t say a price, but I knew they didn’t have money.” Intent on making a new start, he had cancelled his Twitter account. But things weren’t going well; Polunin was unimpressed by St Petersburg, and edgy about having to wait to perform with the Mariinsky in June. “It was way more boring than when I was bored in London. It was a new city for me and I wasn’t excited by anything, really.” But while he was there, he got a call from Igor Zelensky, the new artistic director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre, who suggested they meet for a drink.

All his life—from the teenagers he played with as a toddler, to Anatoly Yarushev, his gym coach—Polunin has tended to hero-worship older males. Zelensky, a magnetic Georgian and former principal with the Kirov, New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet, was one of the models Polunin had studied on video at school. They had spoken briefly two years earlier after Polunin appeared in a gala in Paris, but he, like many young dancers, had felt intimidated by Zelensky, a man who is reputed to be in Vladimir Putin’s orbit and has powerful oligarch friends. “He was such a huge thing for me.”

When they met in a St Petersburg bar, Zelensky’s aim was for them to establish a rapport. “He didn’t really say anything but he knew I was going to like him,” Polunin says. “As a father figure. And he was right. That’s what really convinced me. It’s him.” There were promises too. If Polunin remained with the Stanislavsky for four years, the company would buy him a million-dollar apartment; he could form a new partnership with Kristina Shapran, last year’s star graduate of the Vaganova Academy; there would be time to guest abroad; and in Moscow he would be given his own European repertory, with works such as Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand”, Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling” and Roland Petit’s “Jeune Homme et la Mort”. “We made big plans,” Polunin says.

ON A HOT July evening, I met him in a Moscow café near the theatre. Denis Simachev Shop & Bar is a favourite Zelensky haunt, a weird place with props that include an authentic American electric chair. We sat at a table on Stoleshnikov’s pedestrian street of designer shops, watching Muscovite girls circumventing its cobbles in their Louboutin heels, as Polunin joked about their “walk of shame” outfits. He ordered Tarhun, a Georgian green fruit drink, a caesar salad and a steak, and as he tucked in, I was struck not only by his physical transformation—luminous skin, shining eyes—but by how grounded he’d become. He had never thought of Russia as an option, but what needed to happen had happened. In Zelensky he has found not only a friend and mentor, but someone with a wild reputation of his own, who is nevertheless fanatically serious about his career. Polunin has also been embraced by Zelensky’s family, and would be staying with them in St Tropez in August. “Always what I needed was a person who believed in me. Like a teacher. I don’t need them to say anything. I just need their support.”

Ballet thrives on baton-passing from one generation to another. Zelensky was guided first by Chabukiani, the embodiment of heroic Soviet virility, and then by Nureyev, who called him his “little brother”. Zelensky knew all about the talented Ukrainian kid on the brink of self-destruction, and he was determined to do something about it. We met at Denis Simachev, sitting beneath a vintage lavatory cistern in one of the booths, as it was too sunny outside for Zelensky. From his gruff telephone manner I’d envisaged a swarthy, macho figure, but his hair is gingery, his complexion almost albino-pale. “I hear from people all these things about Sergei, but I don’t want to know what went on before,” he told me. “Someone like him can be ripped apart if doesn’t concentrate all his energy, emotion and testosterone in one direction. I told him, ‘In our business you really have to be disciplined. There’s nobody who parties and improves.’” Their white nights together are different, he says—“higher-quality, healthy”, by which he means fine wines and no drugs. “I can party worse than Sergei, but the next day I work.”

On July 8th, Polunin made his Moscow debut as Franz in a new production of Petit’s “Coppélia”. With its fake wood and velour seats, the Stanislavsky has none of the opulence of the Mariinsky or Bolshoi theatres, but the house was sold out and extra seats had been added in the aisles. Kristina Shapran, a lyrical ballerina with long slim limbs, was miscast in the soubrette role of Coppélia, and she is hardly a dream partner for Polunin as she towers above him en pointe. This, though, was his night. Never had he danced with such playful bravado, and there was something else—a heart-bursting elation so catching that the audience, craving more, was still applauding long after the house lights had come up.

demons

Zelensky told me that the Russian minister of culture had been amazed that he managed to get Polunin. “I said it had taken money, and it will take a lot more if we want to hold young talent in this country.” But it’s still early days and he’s careful not to exploit his new star. He knows that Sergei has a good relationship with the Royal Ballet’s new director, Kevin O’Hare, who has signed him up to return as a guest next March, reprising “Marguerite and Armand” with Tamara Rojo as she leaves the company. “Of course,” Zelensky says, “he must dance round the world, but not waste energy on galas for money.” Zelensky’s priority is to make Polunin’s name in Russia, which should happen during the six-month transmission of a weekly television dance programme featuring six young couples from leading companies. “Sergei is going to be very famous here—he’s already famous from last night. And that was nothing to what he can do.”

It’s no exaggeration. After “Coppélia”, he appeared on chat shows and was praised by an eminent Russian actor, Konstantin Raikin, who said on television how articulate he was. “So at last I can speak my own language.” He had also had an offer from the Bolshoi. “Amaizing [sic] conditions, but not going to take.” he texted. “My salary got twice up as well.”

ON MY LAST evening in Moscow, I walked with Polunin to his flat. He had gone from sharing a bed in Archway to borrowing an oligarch’s cavernous, three-bathroom apartment with a security guard at the door. It’s a soulless place, but he could take his pick of the bedrooms, and the one he chose was uncharacteristically tidy, his clothes still stored in a suitcase topped with boxes of new designer shoes. Galina would be impressed. Sergei had asked her not to come to Moscow for his first performance, but she had read about his success on Google News. “I spoke by telephone with him and I feel that he is happy now and I am very glad. I love Zelensky—he saved Serezha.”

After one more performance of “Coppélia” on July 27th, he would be going to Kherson, and this time it would be different, with his mother, father, uncle and both grandmothers there. “Finally, all family together,” he told me. In Kherson, Vladimir had spoken wistfully to me about being reunited with Galina—“I see her in my dreams all the time”—and now it seemed that this could well happen. They were planning a holiday together on the Black Sea. “We know how happy it will make Serezha,” he said, “but we’re not doing it just for him.” Wouldn’t it be great, I asked Sergei, if his parents, who had married, divorced, married, divorced, were now to marry again? “Yeah,” he said with a grin. “Third time lucky, maybe.”

At his suggestion we went to dinner at the Pavilion, a restaurant on a lake renowned for adventurous Russian cuisine. After drinking several bottles of first-growth claret with Zelensky—“You get no headache, nothing”—Sergei had
developed an interest in wine, and he sniffed the cork of the bottle we ordered, detecting a whiff of cocoa. The two of them had stayed up most of the night before, sitting talking until Sergei’s energy subsided.

I told him that I’d never seen such euphoria on stage. “Please tell me that wasn’t ginseng, or worse!”

“No, no. It was me.”

“But you hate ‘cheerful ballets’. So what’s different?”

“Stage been taken away. Three months I’m without adrenalin. You get hungry for that.”

“But Sergei, in January you were thinking of giving up.”

“Yeah.” A giggle. “Yeah.”

“So this is fabulous, isn’t it?”

“Oh yeah. Definitely. I think what you saw was just hunger of person who wants to dance.”

Julie Kavanaghis the author of “The Girl Who Loved Camellias”, which won the Premio Comisso prize in Italy, and biographies of Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev


 Additional reading by Julie Kavanagh

BALLET’S BRIGHTEST STAR

JULIE KAVANAGH | APRIL/MAY 2016

Why Natalia Osipova is the world’s most exciting ballerina

Dream Becomes A Nightmare, Polunin Quits Royal Ballet

Dream Becomes A Nightmare, Polunin Quits Royal Ballet

The Dream becomes a nightmare: Royal Ballet’s youngest ever Principal quits a week ahead of show

 

The youngest male dancer ever to be made a principal with the Royal Ballet, abruptly quit the company.

Ukrainian Sergei Polunin, still only 21, rose rapidly through ranks within two years of joining the Royal Ballet from the Royal Ballet School and was promoted to top rank in 2010 aged only 19.

The sudden departure of the man labeled ‘Covent Garden’s most remarkable male discovery for years’ has shocked observers.

dream becomes nightmare
Resigned: Sergei Polunin, 21, makes his first appearance on stage after resigning from the Royal Ballet earlier this week

dream becomes nightmare
Statement: Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet

Dame Monica Mason, the director of the Royal Ballet, said in a press statement:

‘This has obviously come as a huge shock. Sergei is a wonderful dancer, and I have enjoyed watching him tremendously, both on stage and in the studio, over the past few years. I wish him every success in the future.’

A source at the Royal Opera House, where he had been due to star in The Dream, added:

‘This is a total bolt out of the blue. Sergei was rehearsing right up until today. We are upset, but more than anything we are shocked.  He has never suggested that he was unhappy. Today he spoke to Monica Mason and simply said that he wanted to resign.  He just said he didn’t want to dance here any more.’

Polunin had given no indication in rehearsals that anything was amiss.

This week the dancer wrote on his Twitter page: ‘Just have to go through one night!!! then will make my next moves.’

In recent interviews the young star has indicated that he wants to do more dancing around the world and has been feeling constricted by his London timetable.

He has said that world galas are where the money is – and has also revealed that he is both tattooed and the co-owner of a tattoo parlour.

He was also due to dance two full-length ballets with the rising British ballet star Lauren Cuthbertson, as Romeo and the Jack of Hearts in a production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

He also had leadroles scheduled in all the remaining programmes of the season, notably La Sylphide with Sarah Lamb and a much-anticipated debut with Cojocaru in Ashton’s delicate Russian tragedy A Month in the Country.

dream becomes nightmare
Shock: Sergei Polunin announced his resignation from the Royal Ballet Company this week

dream becomes nightmare
Prodigy: After a recent performance of Ashton’s Rhapsody The Arts Desk’s critic Judith Flanders wrote that he might be even better than Baryshnikov, for whom the ballet was created

Born into a poor family in Kherson, Ukraine, Polunin joined the Royal Ballet School at the age of 13, sponsored by the Nureyev Foundation.

A talented gymnast who originally dreamed of entering the Olympics, he swiftly proved to be outstanding in ballet and joined the Royal Ballet at only 17.

‘Attending the Royal Ballet School was a big escape for me,’ he said in The Telegraph.

‘I didn’t miss home at all. In Kiev I shared a room with my mum for four years; suddenly I was in a dorm with six other boys at White Lodge in Richmond Park – I felt like I was in Harry Potter.’

All the top roles have been laid at his feet by Dame Monica, but it was evidently not enough to retain his interest.

dream becomes nightmare
Mystery departure: Sergei Polunin with Laura Morera at the Royal Ballet Triple Rhapsody at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden

His departure will be a bitter pill to swallow for the Dame, since this is her farewell season as director, and Polunin was probably the biggest new star discovered in her era.

This Friday Polunin joins another Royal Ballet rebel, Ivan Putrov, in an evening featuring male ballet at Sadler’s Wells.

Putrov, 31, a fellow Ukrainian, who was also considered a leading stylist, left the Royal Ballet in 2010 and hooked up with the controversial modern choreographer Javier de Frutos and the Pet Shop Boys for an ambitious Sadler’s Wells creation, The Most Incredible Thing, last year.


Parties, Tattoos, Depression, Dance.

Parties, Tattoos, Depression, Dance.

Parties, tattoos, depression, dance: the film “Dancer” about Sergei Polunin

Text:  NASTYA POLETAEVA for Blueprint

May 18, 2016

Sergei Polunin, compared with Baryshnikov, called the new Nureyev, and on the impact on the fans, he can compete with Louis Garrel.  Today the film company “Pioneer” releases a tape “Dancer”, telling the story of the pop star of ballet.  We watched the movie and recommend it for viewing, regardless of your thoughts on its subject.

 

The documentary film “Dancer” is about the life of the ballet prodigy Sergei Polunin.  Here in Russia, ballet is very revered – perhaps even more so than in the UK, where Polunin became a star.  The “rock prince of the ballet” formulations are not applicable to the audience here (in Russia), and quotes from the interview with Sergei saying “classical ballet is dead” rather irritate us.

parties tattoos depression dance
Photo: RICK GUEST

 

Inner drama

After the movie “Dancer” we questioned “Why is Polunin so popular?”  He is an ideal Lermontov hero.  His childhood was spent in Kherson.  He studied in the Kiev ballet school, where for the sake of payment, his father Sergei had to go to Portugal and work there at the construction site.  His grandmother moved to Greece, where she was a nurse.  Viewing a tape of him at the Royal Academy of Ballet in London resulted in Polunin getting a grant.  He worked hard, even staying after classes were dismissed.  He hoped to meet expectations and reunite the family, however his parents’ relationship finally succumbed to divorce.  Admission to the Royal Ballet troupe as principal dancer at age 19 only led to nervous breakdowns, parties, tattoos, and depression.  Upon leaving the theater, Polunin took on advertising contracts, bought a tattoo parlor, and achieved fame as the “enfant terrible.”  It’s hard to believe that this cinematic story is a chronicle of just 22 years of a real person’s life.  Complex character in combination with charisma, choreographic gift, and physical beauty interested the ballet community and the press.  And, participation in the viral Hozier clip created Sergei fanatics and fans all over the world. 
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance

Command

In January of 2012, Sergei Polunin, with a scandal and the phrase “I’m tired of receiving orders,” left the Royal Ballet troupe, where he was the youngest soloist in history.  Just at the moment when the whole world press began to write about Polunin, the British producer Gabriela Tana suggested that he become the main character of the documentary about himself.  Later, Sergei will say for that the frankness of the tape and the credibility of the crew, the merit is all Gaby’s.
parties tattoos depression dance

Stephen Cantor, the director of “Dancer”, and Gabriela Tann are both Oscar nominees.  Together Tana and Kantor filmed with the support of the BBC, and participated in its production in general.  All the familiar and people close to Polunin participated, from the famous choreographer and former classmate Jade Hale-Christopher, to his mother Galina, and choreographer Igor Zelensky.  Polunin, at the time of the decision to start filming, was only 22 years of age.

parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance

New Rudolf Nureyev?

Before leaving the Royal Ballet and covering his body with tattoos, Sergei Polunin was simply immersed in ballet.  He danced better than anyone else – so much that he was immediately transferred to the third year at a London school, and at the age of 17 he began to perform as a member of the troupe.  Polunin’s fellow students remember that he was always the best, and the ex-director of the Royal Ballet says in the film: “He was too big for supporting roles like the bronze idol. People did not look at the soloists, but at him.”  Thanks to the phenomenal technique, excellent jumps, the ideal physical form and charisma, Sergei received an offer to become a leading soloist in just 19 years.  British newspapers rattled.  After the premiere of “Giselle” they came out with headlines like “Who danced Giselle?” – Polunin so eclipsed the title performer of the ballet.
parties tattoos depression dance

People booked tickets for Sergei’s performances in two years in advance, applauded for double digit curtain calls, and waited for him at the exit from the theater.  Considering that after Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov there was not a single ballet dancer of this scale from Russia and the countries of the former USSR, Polunin was immediately dubbed their successor.  And even in a video for Dior, he appeared with a portrait of Nureyev in his hands.

parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance

parties tattoos depression dance

 parties tattoos depression dance

Take Me To Church

A sun-drenched building, talc on the floor, a tattooed Sergei Polunin in beige tights dances to “Take Me To Church” by Hozier.  At the time of this publication, the video has 19 million hits, it was viral.  When Sergei realized that he was not cramped in the Royal Theater, but in classical ballet in general, he decided he could no longer live like that.  He no longer had unconquered peaks, and he decided to end his career. To put an end to the most significant part of his life, Polunin asked friend Jade Hale-Christopher to give him a farewell dance.  Kiev, then London, then Moscow – no theater in the world gave Sergei what those four minutes uploaded to YouTube did.  Contracts (including ballet) were poured on him, people wrote letters to him and begged him to continue to dance – all this inspired him to continue his career.

parties tattoos depression dance

 

Sergei Polunin and the popularization of the ballet

Like Polunin or not, the fact remains: his name on the poster “sells” the performance better than almost any other and attracts to the theater even those who have never before been there.  Before leaving the classical choreography (which the ballet community still mourns about), he was a real rock star in the classical scene – and people reacted to him like Iggy Pop.  Polunin’s active participation in related projects – glossy filming, fashion shows, advertising premium marks, filming the same “Take Me To Church” – is what he is scolded for the most.  Things were said like, “narcissism can ruin,” and “not such a talent,” “the main thing is ballet,” and so on.  But in fact, we will never know if the Royal Theater in London would have made such a ticket, and many other theaters, if they had not danced the “pop star” Polunin. 

parties tattoos depression dance

The concept of “I’m tired, I’m leaving” in classical art

“I wanted to go to America, but nobody would take me – they thought I was crazy,” Sergei says in the film about the consequences of his abrupt departure from the Royal Ballet.  According to rumors, indeed, Polunin broke several negotiations with American theaters because of his reputation as an unreliable member of the corps.  The fact is that ballet is a very conservative environment.  Dancers very rarely move from one theater to another and certainly do not break the contract, being 22-year-old principal: this is a professional suicide.  After these antics, a “bad boy” label was glued to Polunin, and he himself began to think what he could do besides the ballet.  While out of plans – to open an agency whose managers would protect the interests of ballet artists, open several schools, film (two Hollywood tapes are already out this fall), and continue to dance, if there is enough time.  The only big ballet Project Polunin, was very coldly received by critics, but, obviously, Sergei now has a completely different life and other priorities.

parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance

Why the history of Polunin has been controversial for nearly ten years

Firstly, because Sergei turned his life into a reality show – he honestly tells what he thinks about the classical ballet and what his plans for life are, in front of the fans.  He leaves choreography and returns to it.  We observe the process of an important life choice of an exceptionally talented person in real time.  Secondly, because many are worried about whether Polunin will enter kitsch (Nikolai Baskov was once a promising opera singer, and Anastasia Volochkova, a good ballerina).  Already now in an interview Sergei, jokingly or not, calls himself “the best dancer in the world.” A great talent combined with youth, fame and the desire to make revolution can be a dangerous combination.  Do spectators have the right to condemn Sergei, even if tomorrow he decides to take part in the show “The Voice”?  There are no answers, but it will be interesting to follow future development.
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance
parties tattoos depression dance

 

Yuri Soloviev, the real-life dancer Sergei will reportedly portray in “White Crow”

Yuri Soloviev, the real-life dancer Sergei will reportedly portray in “White Crow”

The following is a brief biography of the real-life dancer Sergei Polunin will reportedly be portraying in the upcoming film “White Crow,” a bio pic about Rudolf Nureyev.

Yuri Soloviev

The mention of the name of Yuri Soloviev arouses great excitement from those who were fortunate enough to see him on stage.  He was a premier danseur of the Kirov Ballet.  A contemporary of Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Yuri partnered Natalia MakarovaAlla Sizova, among others.

Yuri Vladimirovich Soloviev was born in Leningrad on August 10, 1940. He entered the Vaganova Choreographic School at the age of 9 in his hometown in 1949. His talent was recognised very early on at the school.

He was in the same graduating class at the Vaganova Academy as Rudolf Nureyev. Initially, Soloviev joined the Kirov as a corps member but quickly rose to the rank of soloist. He was Rudolf Nureyev’s roommate during the company’s tour to Paris when that dancer defected to the west during which Soloviev also received rave reviews from the French and British dance critics. In later years Nureyev would often express admiration for Soloviev’s dancing, despite their rivalry.

Soloviev made his debut at the Kirov in the pas de trois from Swan Lake (with Alla Sizova and Natalia Makarova) at a pregraduate performance. Following his performance of the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty at his graduation in 1958, which caused a sensation and would remain of one his finest achievements, he was immediately accepted into the Kirov Theatre.

He was known as Cosmic Yuri by Western and Soviet audiences for his soaring leaps and Slavic-featured resemblance to Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. He was compared to Vaslav Nijinsky for his technique, particularly his elevation. In 1961 and 1964, he toured the US and Europe with the Kirov Ballet. His most famous roles were the Bluebird and Prince in The Sleeping Beauty and Solor in La Bayadère. He also originated several roles in new ballets including “Icarus” in the ballet of the same name.

Yuri Soloviev’s mastery was genuinely unique. He had perhaps the most remarkable elevation of any dancer of his generation, but more than the sheer height of these flights, they were combined with a softness, clarity, and ballon seemingly defying gravity.  There seemed to be no technical difficulty he was unable to master completely. Soloviev was a sensitive and gifted actor, a master of understatement and taste. 

Fortunately his dancing is well preserved on film. There are many archive films of his work in Russia but to most people he will be familiar in the film of The Sleeping Beauty with Alla Sizova, which provides an excellent record of his dance accomplishments, the delicacy of his manner, and a wonderful souvenir of a great ballet partnership.

***STOP***SPOILERS BELOW***  DO NOT READ THE REST IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING UNTIL THE FILM COMES OUT.

 

 

In 1963 he was awarded the Nijinsky Prize by the Paris Academy of Dance. He was a Gold Medal winner at the Paris International Dance Competition in 1965, and was made a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1973. Despite considerable pressure from the KGB and Kirov management, Soloviev never joined the Communist Party.

He was an intensely private and reserved individual. After Nureyev defected, the pressure on Yuri escalated.  He was interrogated by the Soviet authorities numerous times as they figured that he had information concerning the exact circumstances of the defection.

On January 12, 1977 he was found dead from a shotgun wound to his head, presumably self-inflicted. His death, ruled a suicide, devastated his colleagues at the Kirov. He was survived by his wife, ballerina Tatiana Legat and their daughter, dancer Elena Solovieva.

 

Reflex (Czech Republic) Article 2017

Reflex (Czech Republic) Article 2017

The famous dancer Sergei Polunin: “I ripped off the Russian coat of arms on the arm shortly before the annexation of the Crimea”

Marek Gregor

Sergei Polunin (27 years old) is today a world superstar. At the age of 19 he became the premier of the Royal Ballet in London, but left this famous scene in less than three years. Despite the fact that Polunin limited his performances to the public to a minimum, he still races over the stage with such ease that the audience grows numb with delight. He deserved a lot of nicknames: Bad guy, James Dean of the ballet, Embodiment of the jump beyond the edge. Recently, he begins to embody one more of his dreams – to become an actor. Recently, the shooting of the film “Murder in the Orient Express” was directed by Kenneth Bran, where Polunin played along with Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Penelope Cruz.

The general public noticed Polunin at the end of 2014 in a video for the song of the Irish singer Hosier Take Me To Church, shot by photographer David Lachapelle.Stunning jumps and pirouettes of the then 24-year-old dancer, covered with tattoos and scars, today scored 20 million views on YouTube. Paradoxically, Polunin was also attracted by the Air Force channel, which co-produced the biographical documentary “Dancer”. At the end of May, the film will be shown in Czech cinemas.

Polunin was born in 1989 in the Ukrainian city of Kherson on the Black Sea coast in a Russian-speaking family. At the age of 13, he was accepted into a ballet studio at the Royal Academy in London, and almost immediately began talking about him as a future star. At the age of 19 he became the premier of the Royal Ballet, the youngest in its history. But less than three years later he left this scene, and the media began to write about his unbridled lifestyle full of parties, alcohol and cocaine. He himself admits that he often reinforces the strength of various substances before the speeches: “Then I do not feel pain, I get drunk, and often I do not even remember how the speech went,” says Polunin in artlessly in a documentary film shot in 2012-2016.Two months ago in the British capital the premiere of a large-scale performance Project Polunin was held, on which Sergei Polunin worked together with his girlfriend Natalia Osipova. The dancer appeared before the Prague public on May 1 at the National Theater in the Dancer Live program.

Reflex: You are from Ukraine, lived and worked in London for a long time, and then performed in Russia. You spend a lot of time in Los Angeles and just returned from a tour of Japan. Where do you feel at home?

Sergei Polunin: I often return to London, and despite the fact that this city I like and every time amazes me, I do not consider it my home. So, if you are asking about this, Ukraine is probably the closest thing to me.

– After in 2012 you left the Royal Ballet in London, a year and a half you danced in Moscow and Novosibirsk. Finally, shortly before the annexation of the Crimea by Russian troops, you left. On the hand of one of your hands you have a tattoo in the form of a coat of arms of Russia, on the other – of Ukraine …

– I ripped off the Russian coat of arms shortly before what happened, as if I had a premonition of what would happen. I put the Ukrainian coat of arms later. Anyway, I think that it’s time for these two countries to get closer again.

“It will probably take some time …”

– You’re right. I would like to help to establish contacts. In Russia I am familiar with influential people. In Novosibirsk, where I lived for a while, people of art, especially ballet, have the privilege: they meet people who usually do not intersect with each other. You talk with the head of the police, the head of the mafia, the head of the largest company – in general, with all who have power … In Ukraine, I especially do not have dating, so long … So I’m going there to return.

– On the Russian expansion, Czechs, we also left quite fresh memories. It has not even been a hundred years since the troops of the Warsaw Treaty countries occupied us under the Soviet leadership. Were you horrified when the war started in the east of Ukraine?
– I’m from the Russian-speaking part of the country, and there are absolutely the same people as those who live in Russia. In addition, I think that, for example, even between Russia and America there are no special differences. I am firmly convinced that we must cancel the borders. I’m tired of showing visas everywhere, and when I’m somewhere I do not care how it’s called: Europe, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine or the USA …

– You say that you do not feel at home in London, but you live there with your girlfriend – the soloist of the Royal Ballet Natalia Osipova. What do you think about Braxit?

“It’s not what I wanted again.” In general, everyone in my environment is unhappy with this.

– Could you compare the conditions created for the art of ballet in different parts of the world? In the documentary film Air Force “Dancer” you say that dancers in London can not afford to rent an apartment, and that they live four or five together in one apartment …

– When I danced in London, none of us could afford even a normal dinner. I plowed like a horse. I was a soloist, but I could not buy a car, not to mention extravagant things. The same thing begins in Russia. Previously, it was customary to give an apartment to those who are part of the troupe. However, they renounce unlimited contracts, and the contracts are prolonged for a year, including at the Bolshoi Theater and Stanislavsky Theater. It is not easy for a person to live in Russia. In the same way as the dancer of the Royal Ballet. In my time dancers there received a thousand pounds a month, and the first year as a soloist I was paid two and a half thousand.

“Was that the main reason for leaving the Royal Ballet?”

– Yes and no. Money did not interest me so much, I was young and did not need them especially. But it seemed strange to me that dancers are rarely seen on TV. I asked myself why they do not appear, for example, in advertising? I think that this is due to the ballet policy. We were constantly told that agents are bad people, that they will only suck money out of us. Today in the world of ballet, several directors of ballet scenes decide everything. And who else should protect our interests, if not our agents? If you can not be seen in the media, you do not earn enough money, then you can easily be manipulated. I think that dancers (not only considering the time spent on training) deserve the same recognition as, for example, actors, not to mention athletes. So it seems to me a long time ago, but the idea that I should change everything, came to me only after talking with David Lashapel. He asked me: “How is it possible that you do not have your own manager? For example, opera singers have their agents in different countries, then why should not they have the stars of dance? “So recently I created my own project …

– Do you mean Project Polunin?

– Yes. I even came into conflict with my own employees. They told me: “What are you doing? Why do you want to pay more for the dancers, although they usually get paid 300 pounds a week? “Yes, that’s the standard, but that’s why none of the star dancers even can afford to buy their own apartment even at the end of their career.

– The premiere of Project Polunin was held in London two months ago. You returned to the London ballet scene after five years. When you left, they wrote about you that you behave riotously, that you can not be relied on. How did they receive you now?

 

– I was personally helped by the video Take Me To Church. Before that, strange rumors were circulating about me.

– It is known that people of art can behave wildly, and promoters and the public are attracted.

“But this does not apply to the ballet world.” If you behave this way, then you go against the system. People who organize ballet events, that is directors of theaters, do what is beneficial to them, and not what is good for speakers. Two hours after I spoke with the director of the Royal Ballet, he made a statement that I was an unreliable dancer, and yet I did not even realize at the time that I was leaving … In addition, after many years in the UK, they canceled my visa, that to me, a foreigner not from the European Union, has created great problems. Suddenly I was in the country without a residence permit, although I lived there for almost ten years. I thought that I would go to New York, but there were afraid of fairy tales about me, so in the end I was delighted when I received an invitation from Russia. Recently in Japan they asked me about this again, saying: “You are a real professional.” This is a strange “half light.”

– In the final part of Project Polunin, you dance with Natalia Osipova in a composition called Narcissus and Echo. Is this about you?

“That’s what London criticism thought. Honestly, it was not even my idea. The play is based on the idea that different artists fulfill their own desires. As for the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo, this desire was fulfilled by Ilan Eshkery (a London composer who collaborated with David Gilmour, Annie Lennox and Amon Tobin, for example, is the author of music for David Attenborough’s documentary films, and now he is preparing a large-scale ballet project with Polunin and Lashapel – Ed. Ed.) . Eshkery has long wanted to write music on this topic. My project was born quite difficult, because I had to work together several “ego” together. Yes, do not laugh, to unite so many personalities so that together they work very well – this is probably the most difficult thing that I had to organize.

– Does David Lachapelle have a big “ego”?

“Perhaps you will not believe me, but he did not seem to me” egomaniac “, although everyone around him was terribly afraid. Our cooperation was born thanks to the manager Gabriel Tana and David Lachapelle’s assistant Milošu Garajde, who in 2014 on the opening day of David in London, it occurred to make a video together for the song Take Me To Church.
– The moment when at the London hotel Claridge’s Lachapelle offered you cooperation, you described it as follows: “I was completely at the bottom and lost. Then there was a dark streak in my life. I hated the ballet and knew that this would be my last dance. There was no doubt about that. “ And suddenly the world famous photographer invited you to take part in the Hawaiian island of Maui …

“He’s a great person, and working with him was incredibly easy.” He could listen well to the needs of the dancer. We still keep in touch. And we value each other’s opinion.

– Did Lachapelle become the man who opened the door to you in Los Angeles for Hollywood film producers?

– Rather, I was approached by the fact that he took a video for Take Me To Church with me. This video really helped me. At parties in Hollywood, it happened that I was approached by some famous director or actor and said: “I’m incredibly glad to see you, my wife told me about your video.” It was the same way in London, where I suddenly began to be taken again. Representatives of the Air Force wanted to participate in the already created film “Dancer”. In fact, it’s incredible: one such insignificant thing, like a four-minute clip, and all of a sudden there’s so much …

– Recently you starred in the movie with Johnny Depp. What is it like to change the ballet scene to the world of movie cameras?

– Movies are a wonderful environment. When I left the Royal Ballet, I asked myself a natural question: what next? I did not want to be just a dancer. Five years ago, Gabriela, the producer of the film Dancer, offered me to study at an acting school, but then I still did not want to completely abandon the dance career. And now, about six months ago, there was such a chance, literally from nowhere … I even acted in two American films at once. It’s hard to say which one is better. In the first, in the “Red Sparrow” with Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, I played a dancer. At the same time, I was approached by Kenneth Branagh with the proposal to star in the film “Murder in the Orient Express” (a new version of the many-time filmed detective Agatha Christie, with the release of the film scheduled for the fall of this year-Ed.) Along with Johnny Depp. I was a man who really wanted to be an actor but did not have any training.On the first day I came to the playground and already in the first scene that was filmed on the train opposite Willem Dafoe, and next to Derek Jacoby, Pfeiffer, and for me –Penelope Cruz, they did not know that this was the first real movie scene for me, such legends! Kenneth simply said: “We’ve started!” And I played without preparation, as if they were thrown into the water like a four-year old child and said: Swim! “Only then did I realize the huge difference between ballet and actor’s acting in the cinema, where every slightest movement means incredibly much.

– Probably the only famous dancer who achieved success on the screen is Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“But he was still a dancer.” I want, that someday I was considered not a dancer who plays, but a real actor … I already received the following excellent proposal. Acting makes me happy and helps to develop in ballet – I hope you will not be indignant, if I say so – to the industry.

– You say that acting makes you happy. And what makes you unhappy?

– When nothing happens. It’s horrible. When one day I have nothing to do, I’m depressed. I need to be constantly busy, fighting for something …

The Independent Culture, an article from November 2011

The Independent Culture, an article from November 2011

Sergei Polunin: One giant leap for British ballet

Sergei Polunin makes his debut in Manon. The Ukrainian also explains how he combines dance stardom with plans to open a celebrity tattoo parlour.

By Jessica Duchen

Tuesday 8 November 2011 00:00 GMT

He’s 21, he’s been called “better than Baryshnikov” and he has tiger scratches tattooed into his torso. Sergei Polunin, the youngest star of the Royal Ballet, makes his debut tonight as Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon. His extraordinary roller-coaster of a story, from rags to incipient riches, as told to me a couple of weeks ago by the lad himself, is in today’s Independent.

He’s rather lovely – intelligent and self-aware, under that youthful bravado – and I couldn’t help teasing him a little when he started talking about how he envies the street life of his former school friend back in Kherson, Ukraine, whom he encountered “walking around in a gang, looking cool”. I asked where he lives and he named a reasonably rough bit of north London. Plenty of gangs there, I said. I’m sure they’d have you, what with the tattoos and all. Fortunately he recognises that he can’t risk breaking a leg. Still, he’s already seen more of real life in his 21 short years than many of ballet (and music)’s practitioners will experience in twice that.

Stage lights, says Sergei Polunin, can conceal as much as they illuminate. Perhaps it’s just as well, because among this youthful Ukrainian’s ventures into body art beyond ballet is a simulation of tiger scratches on his torso. “Nobody really noticed my tattoos,” he remarks. “I put Sellotape or pancake make-up over them, but you’d be surprised how much you can’t see when the lights hit.”

What you can see of Polunin, the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal dancer, is mightily impressive. Long-limbed, with a radiant openness about his upper body, a spacious musicality and an apparently weightless, stratospheric jump, at only 21 he’s a persuasive candidate to be British ballet’s biggest hope. One bedazzled critic, reviewing him in Rhapsody earlier this year, even declared him “better than Baryshnikov” – praise indeed.

This season is packed with vital landmarks and debuts for him: tonight, he makes his debut in Manon as Des Grieux, the luxury-seeking heroine’s unfortunate lover. Soon there’s his first Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and an international cinecast of The Sleeping Beauty in which he is the Prince.

Polunin looks like a young man in a hurry, but in fact he is lucky to be alive. Aged eight, he contracted pneumonia; one of his lungs stopped working and the local hospital sent him home still ill after six weeks. The condition lasted a year. “My mum tried everything,” Polunin remembers. “Eventually, I ended up seeing this guy who heals with his hands.” After 10 sessions, by hook, crook or miracle, he was better.

He was born in Kherson, close to the Black Sea in Ukraine, where initially he joined a sports school to learn gymnastics. Pneumonia ended that: “I couldn’t come back to gymnastics because the floors were too dusty for my health.” The alternative was ballet. “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.

“I’d always been one of the best in my gymnastics school, so I transferred to trying to be the best dancer, without knowing anything about ballet. I learned it as a routine. And even in Kherson, which had nothing like a ballet company, they respected dancers. It was so rare for a boy to be a dancer that everyone was impressed, even street kids.”

Kherson, he adds, was desperately poor: “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. We moved to Kiev with $10 in my mum’s pocket; that was all. My dad went to work as a builder in Portugal and my grandmother went to Greece to support my mum and me.” He and his mother lived in one room for four years in Kiev.

Next Sergei auditioned for the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg. It wasn’t for him, nor he for it. “They were quite excited when they saw me dance but when they heard I was Ukrainian, not Russian, they backed off,” he says. He speculates that this might be due to the school’s funding set-up. “Besides, the whole city felt wrong for me. It was very cold and, in St Petersburg general, schooling is more important than dancing. I hated school.” He is dyslexic, he says: “Homework was torture.”

Now his mother suggested London and the Royal Ballet School. His father called an acquaintance in the UK who told them how to apply. Sergei was soon invited to audition but when the letter of acceptance arrived, it was in English and they could not understand it. “We thought it said we would have to pay £32,000 a year in fees, so we decided to forget the whole thing.”

If his ballet teacher’s dog had not played with another dog during a walk soon afterwards, he might not be here now. The two dog owners talked and became friends. “This friend knew English, looked at our letter and said: ‘no, you need a sponsor, but you don’t need to pay anything yourself’.” The same friend put the Polunins in touch with UK contacts to help find Sergei sponsorship from the Nureyev Foundation.

Aged 13, he arrived at the Royal Ballet’s junior school, White Lodge, in Richmond Park. “I’d read the Harry Potter books,” he laughs, “and it felt just like that!” His fate seemed assured when he won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in 2006; and at last he entered the Royal Ballet itself, having graduated from its school two years ahead of his age group.

Now he’s relishing the high demands of his biggest season so far. Des Grieux is a big challenge, he adds, for peculiar reasons: “I like strong characters, big steps and jumps. This role is a weak character, he’s insecure and it’s all adagio! It’s very pure. I think my dancing comes over as a bit wild, even if I’m thinking ‘pure’. The challenge is to make him interesting, without putting across the wrong type of character.”

His Manon is Lauren Cuthbertson; together they created the leading roles in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland earlier this year and their partnership has attracted much enthusiasm. “I think our lines complement each other – we both look quite long,” Polunin suggests. “And she’s very spontaneous, which makes it exciting to dance with her.”

Nevertheless, there’s a sense that Polunin is champing at the bit. He’s had invitations to make guest appearances with American Ballet Theatre and in Russia, and wasn’t pleased to find that his Royal Ballet duties would not allow him to go. But he managed some moonlighting closer to home: last month he danced in The Phantom of the Opera when it was cinecast to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

His dream roles, he says, are “manly” characters that require immense drama; long-term, he has his eye on two MacMillan masterpieces, Mayerling’s crazed Prince Rudolf, and the dark and devastating The Judas Tree. But he loves dancing Albrecht in Giselle: “The second act is so cleverly choreographed that when you’re supposed to be at the point of death, you feel you really are.”

He’s hungry for life and experience. “I’m not good!” he declares. “I don’t do many classes. Sometimes I don’t eat all day, then have four meals between 8pm and 4am. I go to bed really late – if I just sleep I won’t have a life outside ballet. And I have this idea to open a tattoo place. I’d like to create something classy, with open windows, maybe some celebrities coming in…” He is not joking. “It’ll be 50-50 with this American guy who’s a former gangster and learned tattooing in jail. I’m fascinated by that life. Once I went back to my old city and saw my best friend from childhood walking around with a gang, looking cool. I think I missed out by never having that street life doing stupid things.”

There’s another tattoo on his lower back, he says, in glass letters: “It represents my memories being washed away by rain.” His parents broke up when he was 14. “I was very upset,” he says. “After that I decided I was never going to think about anything bad again.”

His life is literally inked into his body. Perhaps it is inked likewise into the power of his dancing.

Sergei Polunin dances Des Grieux in ‘Manon’ on 8 and 15 November, Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000)




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