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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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Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin, A 2016 Interview

Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin, A 2016 Interview

Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin

An Interview With Ballet Legend Sergei Polunin 

By Lauren Sanderson

 

Throughout Sergei Polunin’s career he has been branded a rebel, compared to James Dean and been nicknamed the ‘bad boy’ of ballet but who is this legendary dancer?  We grab five minutes with the dance sensation to find out.

How did you feel when you were first approached to do Steven Cantor’s documentary Dancer?
I didn’t really know how it would turn out. At the beginning I knew I wanted to film in different countries and show the beauty of different cultures, but I honestly didn’t know where it would lead.

Did you expect the documentary to receive such a big reaction?
I had no idea.  I was so surprised how well people reacted and I’m really happy how it turned out. It was all down to an incredible team and an incredible producer, Gabrielle Tana, who became my guardian angel.

The dance you performed to Hozier’s Take Me to Church was supposed to be your final dance, what made you continue?
The dance went on for nine hours and during this time I had a lot to think about and I was sure I was going to give it up. I knew I wanted to stop dance and do something else but Take Me to Church was extremely emotional and I began to think about what and who I’d be leaving behind. I started to think that maybe I’m missing something, maybe there is still something left to explore. Afterwards I went back to Russia and danced for free for a couple of months to remind myself of the reason I’m dancing.

Dancers are seen to have a clean body image but you have a lot of tattoos. What was the influence behind them?
When I was a kid I always used to draw on myself and I knew I was going to have tattoos. I liked and respected people with tattoos especially people who had them on their face or their hands because they represent freedom to me. They’re not the type of people who would judge others. In ballet school there are really strict rules and one of those rules was no tattoos so I guess I’m breaking the dance norms but it feels right to me.

When you were younger what did you aspire to be?
I always wanted to be a boxer.

You’re seen as the ‘bad boy’ of ballet, did you set out to create this image to defy the norms?
I definitely played on it. It was more for the media and I decided to play along with it but it actually made my life more difficult because nobody wanted to work with me afterwards. It was difficult because the big companies would rather work with someone safe and predictable. I was essentially digging my own grave.

Do you feel like the media has played a big part in where you are today?
Definitely. Especially the internet and YouTube.

What’s been your biggest challenge to date?
I have so many goals. It’s hard sometimes because I still want to dance, I still take class’s everyday but I also want to study acting and I want to choreograph work. I’m creating my own company called ‘Project Polunin’, to help dancers with their careers and hopefully help to move dance forward.  I’m also going to be in a movie. It’s a challenge because there is so much I want to do but it’s extremely exciting.

In the documentary you mentioned that while at the Royal Ballet you felt you’d reached your potential with the company and always strived for more, is that still the case?
Right now I’m in the position where I wanted to be when I was 19. Back then it was the media that made me out to be a bad guy instead of listening to what I was really saying. I also forgot to listen to myself about what I had originally set out to do, but now I’m back doing what I intended to do and believed in. Creation stimulates me and there are so many exciting things to look forward to as an artist. I’m in a good place; I just wish I didn’t have to go through such a long journey to get to it.

You mentioned you are going to be in a movie, that’s exciting! What type of movie is it?
It’s a big Hollywood movie, but I can’t give too much away. It’s going to be very interesting!

Do you see yourself heading for Hollywood?
If it was my choice yes! It’s definitely where I want to go.

What things other than dance inspire you?
At the moment movies really inspire me. Mickey Rourke is a big inspiration in my life and I also love Johnny Depp. It’s more about who they are in real life than who they are on the screen.

Are you looking forward to your trip to New Zealand next year?
I’m coming over to dance with Natalia Osipova who is a Principal at the Royal Ballet. I’m so excited! I also love nature, I think it’s one of the most important things in our lives and I’ve heard that New Zealand is a beautiful country.

Do you have any advice for any budding dancers out there?
I’d say get a manager or an agent and I’d also say work really hard but make sure you experience life.

What do you think the future holds for Ballet?
Dance is so important to everyone because it’s an international language, every country understands it. I think a big change is coming. I’m hoping that the industry will reach the same level as sport or cinema and it’s definitely possible! Football wasn’t at the level it’s at now 15 years ago. Watch out for something big!


Thanks to Vendetta Films and 818 Entertainment for making this interview possible!
Dancer is out now, screening at selected cinemas.

Sergei x Rankin + Freeze Frame

Sergei x Rankin + Freeze Frame

Sergei x Rankin + Freeze Frame

From the moment that Rankin first photographed famous, enigmatic ballet dancer Sergei Polunin he was left wanting more. Enamored by his rock ‘n’ roll, rebellious spirit, extraordinary physical prowess and of course, unbridled talent Rankin set his heart on creating a film that captured all of this. And after months of conversations, brainstorming and scheduling conflicts it has finally come to fruition.

The photographer, who made his name on style magazine Dazed & Confused, said: “I shot him in my studio, so I first met him as he walked on set. I’d heard about him and done my research. But seeing him was a real wow moment.

“He’s so physical, but there’s also a deeply internal thing that really comes through. I got such a buzz that day and I instantly knew I wanted to work with him and feature him on Hunger TV. I think I got a bit of a crush on him.”

Stills Gallery from the video

(To see the actual video, scroll to bottom of article)

​Polunin joined the Royal Ballet in 2007 and was promoted to principal at the end of the 2009-10 season, aged 19, but walked away from the company after only two years. The heavily tattooed star, 28, who owns a tattoo parlor in Camden, still dances in his Project Polunin performances but has moved into the film world, appearing in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express. He also has a role in a forthcoming drama about Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev defecting to the west during the Cold War.

Polunin said the video, which sees him dance to music by art rockers Husky Loops, “captured the feel of a live performance and can create that magic.”

Rankin said: “I would love to work with him again. But I’d like to do something totally different. Maybe along the lines of a comedy. He’s really funny, plus he’s an actor as well as a dancer, and I’d like to bring this out.”

The result is a mesmerizing and powerful collaboration that sees Sergei bring his internal tension to the screen, directed by Rankin and soundtracked by alt-rock trio Husky Loops’ “Tempo”. An assault on the senses the two and a half minute film leaves you breathless, and like Rankin, wanting more. Enjoy!!  Want more Sergei videos?  Find the greatest Sergei playlist on YouTube here.

Text contains excerpts from Hunger TV and Evening Standard

Another Man

Another Man

“RUSSIAN PRODIGY Sergei Polunin HAD SOARED TO THE SCORCHING HEAVENS OF BALLET. BUT, TORMENTED BY ITS SUFFOCATING STRICTURES, HE WALKED AWAY FROM THE WORLD OF DANCE AGED JUST 24. NOW, WITH DEMONS FINALLY CONQUERED AND HIS SIGHTS SET ON CINEMA, THE FIERY PERFORMER IS READY TO RISE AGAIN.” – Another Man magazine, issue #25

Sergei Polunin seems like a creature from another time, an era of fairytale, when the thin silk that separates myth from reality was at its most fragile. It’s as if he has stepped directly through the veil, from a place where darkness is lit by flames and hooves echo across cobblestone.

He seems completely out of place, here, in Los Angeles, in midsummer 2017. He moves like a pale ghost through the sunburnt crowds hunched over their phones along Hollywood Boulevard. Tightly muscled, tall but still delicate somehow, he exudes a romantic, Byronic kind of elegance. He’s beautiful, but in the way of silent movie leading men – Valentino, Keaton – a face of angles and extremes.

It is only when he finally sits down in a red leather booth in the city’s oldest restaurant (Musso and Frank, circa 1919) that he seems to have arrived in the kind of present that suits him. A tuxedoed waiter takes his order; the wood table glows with polish, there are fine linens, real silver. Polunin smiles, looks around and nods approvingly. Then he takes a breath and, in softly accented English, begins to tell his story.

“It started with Take Me to Church,” he says quietly, “suddenly, people’s whole approach, their whole behaviour changed. I realised that maybe… that I can possibly change something. That I shouldn’t be a weak person who quits. And I realised that something might be done that – if I quit – is not going to be done. So that’s how it all began.”

For those who don’t know who Polunin is, there’s a simple introduction. Go to YouTube, type in his name and step back in wonder. At last tally, there were 20,860,577 views of a video, directed by photographer David LaChapelle and backed by Hozier: Take Me to Church captures Polunin’s last dance, his farewell (at age 24) to ballet, an art he’d studied since the age of four, an art to which (as he tells it) he had sacrificed both his childhood and his family. In the video, Polunin takes traditional ballet and turns it into catharsis. He seems to hover in the air, to float, to fly. His body is lean, nearly naked, covered in tattoos. His face shows a mix of emotion: vulnerability, frustration and, finally, elation. It’s intoxicating to watch.

“IT STARTED WITH TAKE ME TO CHURCH…SUDDENLY, PEOPLE’S WHOLE APPROACH, THEIR WHOLE BEHAVIOUR CHANGED” – SERGEI POLUNIN

In the 2016 documentary Dancer, Polunin’s story is chronicled in all its mythic rise-and-fall glory. It goes something like this: born in relative poverty in the Ukraine, he was crowned a ballet prodigy soon after he took his first steps. His mother, father and grandmother did everything in their power to put him in the best schools, offer him the best possibilities.

This meant separation, his parents’ eventual divorce, Polunin on his own in London as a pre-teen onward. He was the top student at the prestigious Royal Ballet Academy and aged 19 selected as the youngest principal dancer ever of the Royal Ballet. He was feted and celebrated, critiqued and acclaimed. His rebellions were tabloid fodder. His victories were breathtaking. To watch Polunin dance is to be awed. But it was all too much, a fast build to a dramatic end.

On 24th January 2012, just two years after joining the company, Polunin announced his resignation, claiming loudly that, “the artist in me was dying”. There was a sojourn to Russia, a series of demeaning TV competitions, and eventual tutelage under renowned artistic director Igor Zelensky. There was success and there was turmoil. Finally in 2014, Polunin decided to call it officially quits. He met up with Chapelle in a sundrenched Hawaiian church to film Take Me to Church and to take what was to be his final bow.

Except it wasn’t.

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

Take Me to Church gave me the opportunity to experience collaboration,” Polunin explains. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what it is. That’s how it should feel.’ And suddenly, I wanted everybody to experience that. I wanted to create movies about dance, and create more pieces like that because I realized that it’s very, very important to crossover, to share ballet with everyone.”

Instead of ending his career, the video ignited it. Polunin found a whole new audience, the vast world watching from their computer screens. The piece went viral – and so did Polunin. “I had quit ballet, but I realised that was weak of me. That what I needed to do was share ballet,” he says.

Polunin became an overnight internet sensation. The comments poured in, people from all over the globe confessing their admiration, thanking him for the inspiration. He and Chapelle had touched something deep. And Polunin began to rethink his retirement. “I started to see that the ballet establishment had to be broken. Ballet is stuck. It’s the only art form which didn’t evolve and it lost a few things – because the best directors, best musicians, they work where the biggest output is, where you can reach bigger audiences. Ballet is very closed and it’s for elitists – it shouldn’t be like that. I think everybody should enjoy it.”

“DANCE IS IMPORTANT. IT’S THAT LANGUAGE THAT EVERYBODY UNDERSTANDS. IT’S A POWERFUL TOOL TO OPEN PEOPLE’S MINDS” – SERGEI POLUNIN

Since the Take Me to Church phenomenon, Sergei has formed his own foundation, the Polunin Project, with an aim to bring ballet to the masses. “It’s a spiritual-like experience,” he says of ballet, “and it’s possible I think to transfer that. I’ve been trying to bring dance closer to people, to wider audiences. That’s why we created this project, to move, in any way possible, dance forward.”

“We have the photographers, the music people to collaborate and to create art. And as well I want to create movies about dance. I think it’s very, very important to crossover. Ultimately, my vision is ballet has to open up to agents, to managers, to TV, to videos, to Netflix, to YouTube. Because I don’t see why people who cannot afford a ticket can’t watch it at home. You watch sport at home. Once a week to watch ballet would be, I think… transcendent.”

Despite this enthusiasm for dance, Polunin is still very much the rebel when it comes to defying the ballet establishment. His much talked about exit from the Royal Ballet still obviously hits a raw nerve. He bristles when talking about his experiences with the more conservative aspects of the art. His voice grows lower, tense.

Dancers work 11 hours a day, six times a week. When I was working as a principal dancer that was the hardest I ever, ever worked. And you will finish your career after 10 years.” Polunin points to his head, smirking, “because after 10 years you might start thinking. And realising that it is maybe the worst job to be in. The money is low. Crew get more money. Musicians get unions. And everywhere dancers get treated with the least respect. I still haven’t worked it out. The approach to dancers is like to kids. I never see stage people talk to musicians that way. But with dancers it’s okay to do that.”

Polunin checks himself and softens. “But ballet itself – it’s important. Dance is important. It’s that language that everybody understands. It’s a powerful tool to open people’s minds. There’s a subconscious thing, a connection we all have. Kids dance before walking. It’s our truest nature of being. It’s true spirit.”

He pauses. “And then, slowly and slowly, as we grow older, we get more and more baggage and life changes you. We are more scared of things, more fearful. So how to eliminate that? We have to go back to how we were as a kid, because that’s our truest nature. And with ballet, that is how I’m trying to come back to this state of mind. Because that’s the purest state. Tribes dance. Every country has a national dance. In the clubs we dance, we dance at weddings. Dance is a language. It’s a language that we need, like music, to survive.”

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

This is how Polunin talks, at 27 years old. In part because he was raised in ballet, amid structure, discipline, beauty and philosophy. He grew up, matured, became a man, within an older art. A more refined one. And despite his issues with the constrictions, the rules, the exhaustion, and the exploitation, ballet has formed and shaped him – not just his body, but also his mind, his way of thinking and being.

The dedication he has to share dance with the world, is also a reflection of the stubborn perseverance he learned from many years and countless hours committed to his craft. It is because of this perseverance that, today, Polunin is not just surviving, he’s thriving. He’s dancing all over the globe, performing just the past evening for thousands at Los Angeles’ legendary Hollywood Bowl.

Now he’s moved into acting as well – he’ll be appearing in not one, but four upcoming films, among them the spy thriller Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence, the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express and in the highly anticipated biopic of legendary ballet bad boy Rudolf Nureyev, White Crow. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, the latter film was rumored to star Polunin as his infamous predecessor, but today Polunin quietly explains there have been some changes in casting. He will say only that, “I’ll do whatever they need me to do for the film, the very best I can do it.”

“I’m learning a completely new skill and that’s very exciting,” he says of acting, “and acting is not just acting. You learn about yourself. That’s what I think is special about it. Before I thought acting was like, ‘Oh, I learned a new skill.’ But no. It requires a much deeper understanding of existence and of being human, what it is to be human. You are really searching through your own memories – you have to really know who you are. Going into childhood memory.”

“I’M PREPARED TO DESTROY EVERYTHING I HAVE TO HAVE THAT OPPORTUNITY TO FEEL FREE” – SERGEI POLUNIN

What Polunin also seems to enjoy about acting is the collaborative nature of it, the family of artists necessary to make a film. “What I really loved is being together,” he admits. “It’s working with others. It’s not like you’re by yourself doing something. You are a team. You’re one with the camera, you’re one with the director, you’re one with your co-worker, so it’s like you are creating together. You feel like you are a part of something, rather than doing it all by yourself.” He pauses and thinks for a moment.

“I want to be able to feel freedom. I never want to be owned by anything and be stuck with anything. It’s like this…” he reaches down and picks up a heavy silver knife in one hand, clutching it tight in his fist and pointing to it. “We think if we let go of a person, let them free, they’re going to disappear. But you don’t need to clench and suffocate people. It’s on many levels – on the parenting level, on working level, on friendship level, on a social level. It’s important to push that boundary. What I’ve found is that by letting go of a person, letting them free, he’s still yours, but there is a still a feeling of freedom.”

Here Polunin stops and turns his fist over, opening his fingers up, slowly, dramatically. The knife rests gently on his open palm. Polunin smiles broadly. “It’s a feeling of freedom,” he says again, “that’s what’s important. That’s what I always fight for and I’m prepared to destroy everything I have to have that opportunity to feel free. Everybody wants to control or own. I’m against that. I felt like I was owned for so long. I was looking to feel freedom. When I quit Royal Ballet… it would be amazing if I could have stayed and found that feeling of freedom. But instead, I destroyed everything and went all the way down, to be able to climb up.”

another man sergei polunin another man sergei polunin

Polunin shakes his head. He looks suddenly older, wiser: “For many years, I had a negativity in me, and I never used to be like that. It’s just that life takes a toll on you and then you start. And it’s comfortable. Being negative is very easy. Being bad is easier. It takes a lot of strength to be on a good path and that, for me, was a conscious decision. Let’s go up. Sometimes I went down and I just had to rebuild, build, build. Slowly regain. With Take Me to Church, kids were watching, were being inspired and I realized that this inspiration I was giving them, this positive message, was a stronger tool than trying to destroy things. I had to learn not to destroy because you’re hurting people around you. Even now I’m always on the verge of destroying things.”

Polunin trails off… a shadow passes his face. Then, he shakes it off, looks up and grins. And he is young again, joyful, the shadow gone.

Spend time with Polunin and you realise what defines him most is this earnestness – emotion and truthfulness always moving across the surface for all to see. He speaks his mind, for better or for worse.  Self-obsessed and self-aware, Polunin, at 27 in 2017 – is beautiful, famous, volatile and complex. And there is more to come. More dance, more art, more self-exploration.

If your spirit is not broken, nothing can take you down

“You always have in life, different paths. And you choose,” he says, “But for me it is always choosing to be an artist before anything.  What is more important than art? Without it, we’d be nothing. We’d have nothing. The artist – he creates a building, he designs a car, a rocket. The world needs an artist’s vision. Who would we be without the artists to design our clothes? Or make music? And the thing is, I think art is in everybody. It’s important for people to be creative. To sing, to dance. You need creativity because creativity gives you confidence.  Confidence is very important, because it gives you spirit, and if your spirit is not broken – nothing can take you down.”

TEXT:  Jessica Hundle
PHOTOGRAPHY:  Collier Schorr
STYLING:  Alister Mackie

Hair Matt Mulhall at Streeters; Make-up Laura Dominique at Streeters; Set design Andrea Cellerino at Streeters; Photographic assistants PJ Spaniol, Will Grundy; Digital technician Stefano Poli; Styling assistants Reuben Esser, Rhys Davies, Steph Francis; Retouching Two Three Two; Production Sylvia Farago Ltd.

Vogue Rogue

Vogue Rogue

Vogue Rogue, A Gallery

Never takes a bad picture!

Here is a collection of stills pulled from a Vogue Russia interview with Sergei Polunin.  The conversation took place in May of 2017.  As usual, there’s not a bad one in the bunch!  Most folks, if you freeze frame video, you end up with many odd, unattractive expressions, or otherwise goofy faces lol… not with Sergei.  It’s uncanny!

Bad Boy Days Are Behind Him

Bad Boy Days Are Behind Him

Bad boy days?

Not so bad at all…

January 1, 2018 Interview

January 1, 2018 Interview

What do Kolobok and Sergei have in common?

Turlyan premiere. Sergei Polunin about the death of classical ballet

The ballet dancer Sergei Polunin told Fokus about the road not upwards, but downwards, what he and the hero of the fairy tale Kolobok had in common, and about his desire to combine dance and theater

At four years – gymnastics in his native Kherson. At nine – moving with his mother to the capital and studying at the Kiev Choreographic School. To give Sergei a chance to break through, his father goes to work in Portugal and gets a gardener from a wealthy family, and the grandmother finds a job as a nurse in Greece. At the age of 13, the future world ballet star is sent to study in London. At 17 he joined the Royal Ballet Company, and at 19 he became the youngest principal in the history of the troupe.

In the conservative world of ballet, Polunin quickly gained fame as a violator of foundations. Outside the scene, the young star coped with stress through parties, alcohol, drugs and new tattoos. His then nicknames are The Bad Guy, James Dean of Ballet and the Embodiment of Jumping Outside the Line. The name of the premiere rebel began to appear not only in enthusiastic reviews, but also in the yellow press, who did not miss the opportunity to publish reports with details of his next “release.”

While society was wondering whether the search for young talent was a successful PR move, Polunin announced his departure from the Royal Ballet. When two years ago the Ukrainian decided to say goodbye to the stage, his swan song, With the track Take Me To Church, it scored 21 million views on YouTube. “Obviously, the laws of gravitation for Mr. Polunin act differently,” one of the commentators wrote. “He moves as if he has wings,” others agreed.

WHO IS HE


He was born in Kherson. He studied at the Kiev Choreography School. At the age of 19 he became the premiere of the London Royal Ballet. Since 2016, the invited soloist of the Bavarian Ballet, author and soloist Project Polunin.  In 2017, a Ukrainian documentary film “Dancer” on the career of 27-year-old Sergei Polunin.


Forward to the past, and Kolobok?

What kind of eyes do you now look at yourself, a 6-year-old boy on video, in a T-shirt and shorts? What would you like to say to this boy now?

– “I would say to him: “Be yourself, listen to yourself and your intuition.” Now I’m trying to restore the internal state in which I was then. This is the most correct perception of the world and the most organic state of man.

Recently I had an interesting event. For filming in the film, I for a while became a blonde. And then a couple of days ago, when I had my hair dyed black, I looked in the mirror and suddenly I saw myself as small. It’s great. We must not forget how you were in childhood.

By the way, before the age of 13 I was the same as in 6-7. But just at 13-14 years has changed, unfortunately. I forgot myself a little. And about 25 again began to recover.”

What happens to a person who by the age of 19, when his peers are just starting a career, is on a professional peak? Feeling like a superman?

– “It was disappointing: you are achieving what you were going for, but it does not give you the satisfaction that you expected. For me it was a road not up, but down.”

Did it ever occur to you that the family paid too high a price, putting everything on you?

– “Speaking about the fact that the family broke up, – yes, probably. But if one day I decide to give birth to a child, I will do everything so that he, like me, will get a chance.”

And the right to choose? 

– “Yes, it must be. The child knows what he wants, it’s already laid. Parents can reveal his talent, give the opportunity to try everything and help him see what he can.”

Speaking on stage in the framework of Project Polunin, you stopped masking your tattoos. In one of the interviews, they were called what you associate with free people.

–  “You achieve what you came for, but it does not give you the satisfaction you expected, for me it was not a way up, but down.”

– “At first it was so. In London, I was an immigrant with a work visa. One mistake my colleagues did not like or a fight in the street – and I would be kicked out of the country. The visa was extended for a year. Every time for a year.

I experienced constant pressure and an absolute sense of unfreedom. And yes, I could not do tattoos. In the ballet, this is not accepted. And in the offices, by and large, this was unacceptable. Probably, that’s why I liked the people they had. I thought: Here they are, free people who do not depend on their work, they have complete freedom. They do what they want.

When I filled the first tattoo, the leadership gathered the whole theater and officially banned them. Later tattoos became the norm, and David Beckham made them more popular.”

Two Plains

Which of the children’s fairy tales is closest to your story?

– “The Gingerbread Man,” remember “I left my grandmother and left grandfather. And *Kolobok, which is rolling somewhere ( laughs ).”

*Kolobok is the main character of an East Slavic national fairy tale with the same name, represented as a small yellow spherical being. The fairy tale is prevalent in Slavic regions in a number of variations.

He will not be eaten?

– “I do not know. But at some point Kolobok should stop running away. Which I did. All that I knew before was to destroy, leave and rebuild in a new place. I did it once, then again. And I realized that this is a habit. There is a risk to get carried away. Then I realized: you just need to create, build.”

There are at least two Sergei Polunin. One is called a “bad guy in the ballet”, they reproach him for sloppiness, hobby for alcohol and drugs, going beyond what is permissible. Second Polunin is shown in the film “Dancer”: a boy who submitted to the will of his mother, fulfilled the requirements of teachers, showed diligence, which eventually made him the premier of the Royal Ballet in London. Even the temporary break with the ballet, this second Polunin designed stylishly. Which of these two is the real you?

– “There was a time when I read the press and believed in it. And played along. You get used to the image and then forget who you are.

But in what way it was, I love to work, set a goal and achieve it. People are not always ready for this. Many people drop their hands: come what may. You say: “No, it’s probably wrong, let’s think about how to fix it.” And immediately you in the eyes of these people are bad. It is easier for them to decide that something is wrong with you, than to admit that the system can work incorrectly.”

kolobok is sergei polunin

These riotous little

What is the difference between Russian, Ukrainian and British ballet schools?

– “I think the Russian and Ukrainian schools are similar. The initial training in them is stronger than in the West. In ballet, the first four years are very important.”

– “it’s a machine. I was lucky, I had a talented teacher Eduard Borisovich Kostyukov here in the school (Kyiv State Choreographic School .- Focus ). He gave a good school. And after that, it was already easier for me to develop. And the dance was taught to me by Nikolai Danilovich Pryadchenko, the late teacher of the National Opera of Ukraine. He gave me an understanding of how to behave on stage, the artistic part. And with this education I went to the West.

The strength of Western educators is that they pay a lot of attention to acting. Their methodology was built around the Russian school, but with innovations. Which, in my opinion, made the school weaker. But the fact that they made the ballet theatrical, this is a plus. The game added a zest to their ballet. So I took the best and combined it into one: both the game and the pure dance.”

The world of ballet is small, and the competition is high. Over the years of work, you have probably come across not only with recognition and admiration, but also with envy. Was there a case that made you think: “Wow, if someone tries to annoy me so much, then I have already achieved something.”

– “There were no obvious signs of envy. But I remember that when I came to work in the theater, I naively believed that I could make friends with all. At least sincerely tried to do it. I was met rather coldly and firmly pushed. After that I decided to keep my distance. I maintained friendly relations, but I did not really make friends with any of my colleagues.”

What is happening today with the classical ballet? Is it more alive than dead, or vice versa?

–  “The ballet is more dead than alive.” And there is nothing very interesting there. The best managers, the best musicians do not go to work with the ballet – apparently, not a big enough audience for them. They prefer movies, games, musicals, other platforms, where there are more spectators. They say if Mozart were alive today, he would write musicals.

To attract the best people to the ballet, there must be a strong industry. The ballet must be shown on television, in cinemas. Good advertising is needed. Dancers should have agent managers who would popularize them themselves, not the theaters where they perform. Now this is not.

Compare opera and ballet. Opera music works with big labels, it’s a huge turnover of money. The opera part of the theater is very rich, very free. The musicians also have strong professional solidarity. Dancers do not have this. They are defenseless, like children. Dancers from school are used to: they tell you – you do it. Silently. They can not even object if they disagree with something. So taught. This, of course, is very convenient for the theater. But not for the industry. In order for it to grow, you need to unite and defend your rights.

The ballet age is short. Career – 10 years. People are changing. There are no those who would say: “Sorry, it will not work.”

Dancers “write off” to retire at 35 years. Does it frighten you?

–  “No, it does not.” I would like to combine the dance with the theater. Take Mikhail Baryshnikov. I do not know exactly how old he is. In sixty? (Baryshnikov is 69. – Focus ). He combines the dance with the theater. And it’s very interesting. We will get something with amazing energy. I will try to put on performances in a new genre. This will bring the dance to a new level and prolong the career of the dancers.”

You rushed to learn a new skill for yourself, in particular, cinema. In “Listen to the song of the wind,” Murakami has these words: “While you are learning something new, aging is not so painful.” Is not that the reason?

–  “When I left the Royal Ballet, I could say what would happen to me in 15 years.” Because there were examples, and history always repeats itself. I thought: “Yeah, I’ll have this and that, and they’ll do this to me and so on.” Is it nice for me? I realized that I had to find another way. Therefore, when I thought that I would leave the ballet, I asked myself: what could I do and want to do? What would make me happy? The answer came instantly: “Cinema“. I loved cinema from my childhood.”

One step before the end of a career

To put the last dance under Take me to church, being in excellent shape, remaining a favorite of spectators and having at least another ten years of ballet career in reserve, is a decisive act. In such situations, the choice of a song is not accidental. Which line from this composition of the Irish musician Hozier is the most important for you?

– “I do not know. In fact, for me, it’s not the lines that matter. I felt the song intuitively. Caught the emotion. And when I rehearsed, I did not dig into words. But the strongest – the first, with the phrase my lover. And the one in which “amen” is sung.”

In this song there are the words I was born sick, but I love it, command me to be well (“I was born sick, but I like it, but lead me to be healed”). Who or what prevented you from being healed of the ballet?

– “To attract the best people to the ballet, there must be a strong industry. Ballet needs to be shown on television, in cinemas.”

– “Feeling like I’m leaving something. That is, I could do something for people, and I leave them. It was like … ( pause )”

On betrayal?

– “It is possible and so to say. Only the feeling of guilt was not there. Rather regret. I regretted that I let down people who needed dance: spectators, dancers.

Then I had no idea that I could change anything. There were no options. It’s just a pity – before my Kiev teacher Nikolai Pryadchenko, before my parents too: I left them for a long time without support and information about what will happen to me next.

I knew that becoming an actor is a long way. And you can never be sure when you will be given a chance. Parents could not know for eight years what awaits me. It was complicated. And I realized that I could not leave it like that. Perhaps, you correctly noticed: such an act could seem to me a betrayal.”

You still feel responsible to your parents, teachers, spectators.  

– “Yes. But now I see that you can change a lot. And I know how.”

Second wind

On the way to the ballet Olympus, for many years you had to keep yourself in an iron grip. Is there a temptation to let go – just because you can afford it now?

– “Not interested. Now it all depends on me – I can rest at any time. But when you decide what to do, you do not choose rest. Such a strange psychology. The more freedom you have, the more work you gain. Well and when it is necessary to earn, then yes, you try to escape from it.

I can fly, move every day. I’m not tired. Because it is a new energy. And if I sit a week in one place, I start to get tired. He also annoys me when I am doing the same thing for a long time. The routine for me is death.”

Rehearsals are also routine.

– “Yes, that’s why I do not like to rehearse. I’ll keep it to a minimum. But again, I do not rehearse in the usual sense: I’m like, I’ll remember and show the spectator. That is, the first time I dance in public, before people.”

What does the average day of Sergei Polunin look like?

–  “The craziest day happened a week ago.” I have been shooting from 6am to 11pm. Even at this time I need to work out in the ballet class. That is, I did it in the afternoon or in the morning. Has slept, has woken up. They called me, I had to withdraw. I shot, the same day I flew from Serbia to Munich, rehearsed until three o’clock in the morning. I learned a new choreography for the ballet to dance the next day. I do not remember exactly what ballet was. After that, jumped into the car, nine hours I was taken to Serbia, we did not have time to shoot. We arrived at six in the morning, began 15-hour shooting.

This week is also not boring. Yesterday I went to bed at two o’clock in the morning, after hours of filming. I fell asleep at three, At four I woke up, and at seven we already went to the canal. A lot of things, but thanks to the fact that the team is good, everything is thought out, and I just have to gain strength and survive ( laughs ).”

In what language do you think?

– “If we talk about common topics, in English. But now I’m getting used to talking in Russian, so I switch. It takes one and a half to two days. As for the ballet, it works not verbal, but imaginative thinking. I feel music, choreography, partner. I do not think it’s important to know what her name is, what a character is, this is information for the viewer. If they want, they will read it. I rely on intuition.”

Today you do not look like a hostage to your own talent, whose life is dedicated exclusively to classical ballet. You have experience shooting in advertising, the first roles in the movie, Project Polunin. You started talking about your own foundation, which would support talented children. That you have to focus on several projects at the same time, fill you or, conversely, devastate?

– “Do more – more power. Your body produces as much energy as you need. If you do 50 things per day, you will be given energy for 50 things. If you do one – you have exactly that much energy and will allocate. Therefore, the bar should be set high.”

2013 BBC Radio 4 Interview with Sergei

2013 BBC Radio 4 Interview with Sergei

BBC Radio 4 Front Row’s John Wilson interviews ballet superstar Sergei Polunin

BBC Radio 4 Interview from 2013 with ballet dancer Sergei Polunin backstage before Coppelia at the London Coliseum marking a return one of his first returns since leaving the Royal Ballet.
Interviewer: John Wilson
radio 4 sergei polunin interview
Sergei Polunin as Frantz and Kristina Shapran as Swanilda in the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet’s production of Roland Petit’s Coppelia at the London Coliseum.
Sergei Polunin is a Ukrainian ballet dancer famous for his “once every hundred years” talent, his incredulous elevation, his impeccable technique, and glorious dramatic range. He brought an unprecedented new awareness to ballet when he danced in Hozier’s viral video ”Take Me To Church.” He starred in Diesel’s “Make Love Not Walls” campaign, and is a much sought after model and actor. He has appeared in such films as Murder On The Orient Express, Dancer (a documentary of his life), White Crow, and Red Sparrow.
Please consider subscribing to my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/PamBoehmeSi… and “like” my playlist “Sergei Polunin, Graceful Beast” if you were pleased.
For additional videos and more, visit my fan site at https://sergeipoluningracefulbeast.com
This is a ballet | балет iMovie by Pam Boehme Simon.
Thank you for watching.
“Passion De Deux” Natalia And Sergei

“Passion De Deux” Natalia And Sergei

Passion de deux: The explosive chemistry between Royal Ballet superstar Natalia Osipova and ‘bad boy’ dancer Sergei Polunin

passion de deux
Natalia Osipova with Sergei Polunin

My interview with Russian ballet star Natalia Osipova has not got off to the best of starts. 

So guarded is the darling of the Royal Ballet – who has now segued into modern dance with a risqué new show at Sadler’s Wells – about her love affair with Sergei Polunin, the brooding enfant terrible of dance, that I worry their relationship may be on the rocks.

Dubbed ‘the Brangelina of Ballet’, the two have been together for over a year now. They fell in love while dancing Giselle together in Milan, which sounds so sexy and romantic it makes me feel faint.

Their chemistry – on and off stage – seems quite explosive. I imagine they have fiery rows – and even more heated, er, reconciliations. But to my horror, Natalia says at first that she doesn’t ‘want to discuss our feelings for each other in public’. What?

The dancer, who turned 30 in May, is at pains to demonstrate how much she has grown since her relationship with Sergei began last summer – when, clearly in the throes of early passion, she made the gushing admission that they found it hard to be apart for more than two days.

Sergei – who left the Royal Ballet amid drama and allegations of drug-taking just before Natalia joined as a principal, giving their union a star-crossed twist – has said that he never wants to dance with anyone but Natalia again.

But the Natalia I encounter today – busily rehearsing a contemporary dance ensemble specially choreographed for her by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita (Sergei dances the latter two works with her), which will return to Sadler’s Wells later this month after a successful summer run and then transfer to New York – is altogether more composed than she has seemed before.

passion de deux
Natalia and Sergei performing in new dance piece Silent Echo at Sadler’s Wells in June

Despite having made London her home since 2013, Moscow-born Natalia still struggles with the language. ‘This is my biggest challenge. I need to study English and to learn it properly, but there is never the time,’ she sighs.

With the help of a translator, she explains how she has evolved of late. ‘I am a highly emotional person, confident and bold, but ruled by my emotions. I am capable of a sort of madness. If I am feeling emotionally charged, I could buy a ticket and move to another continent!’ she exclaims.

‘I am too spontaneous sometimes. But now that I am 30 I think I am becoming more balanced and getting better at thinking before I speak or act.’

Even just the way Sergei says ‘good luck’ can make me feel much better

Perhaps we can rewind a few months for the sake of this interview, I joke. I am not sure my humour translates. She has previously admitted that, due to their similar temperaments, she and Sergei have been known to clash.

‘We are two strong characters and at times this creates friction, but you learn to make compromises and to find ways of not arguing with your partner,’ she explains. ‘Sergei is a very fiery and emotional person, but he is emotional in a different way to me. I can’t quite explain it. We are different people, of course…’ She trails off, and I get the sense she is wading through verbal quicksand here, resisting the Brangelina-isation of them as a couple, while glorying in the loved-up state she has found herself in.

She doesn’t care what others might make of their relationship, she says. ‘I am sure there were people who had something to say on the matter, but I am not concerned about it.’

And though she is a self-confessed hot-headed leading lady, Natalia reveals that, when dancing with Sergei, she enjoys letting him take control. ‘As a very strong person, I have always tended to take the lead, but with Sergei, it is he who leads.

‘That is the dynamic that works best for the two of us. As a female it’s an interesting feeling and state of mind when the male can take charge on stage. It has been something new for me and I like it.’

passion de deux
 Natalia and Sergei performing in Run Mary Run by Arthur Pita, specially commissioned for them, at Sadler’s Wells in June

‘We are at a different point in our relationship now. We are very solid and open with each other. We understand that work is work and we both have to make professional decisions. We wouldn’t restrict ourselves to only dancing with each other, because it wouldn’t be the best decision for our careers.’

But wouldn’t she feel jealous watching Sergei dance with another? ‘On a personal level, it would be bad to see him with someone else, but professionally, no,’ she insists. ‘I am very lucky that I am not and never have been a jealous person.’

This trait must have come in handy when Natalia’s relationship with her former boyfriend, Russian ballet star Ivan Vasiliev, broke up shortly before she moved to London and took up with Sergei.

The pair had been the golden couple of the Bolshoi, but rumour had it (supported by Vasiliev’s own admission) that he left her for a younger dancer – ballerina Maria Vinogradova, to whom he is now married. (This scandal was referred to as ‘the Bolshoi love triangle’.)

‘I don’t listen to any gossip,’ Natalia says curtly. ‘Ivan and I have a good relationship. We are in close touch. We don’t see each other often, as we live in different places, but when we do it is very warm and fine. We have danced together since we split and I would happily do so again.’

For the moment, though, Natalia remains focused on dancing with Sergei in the independent Sadler’s Wells production, which represents a departure for her as a classically trained ballerina.

Staged in three parts, it involves a lot of strutting and shimmying, with costumes that could not be more unlike the restrictive, conservative ones worn in ballet.

The pair entwine themselves seductively in distressed jeans and T-shirts, perfect for showing off Sergei’s extensive collection of tattoos. ‘The less I wear, the more comfortable I am, so I loved this costume,’ says Natalia.

‘It felt so much lighter and freer than ballet clothes. The best part has been working directly with brilliant choreographers and creating amazing poses together. My body has had to get used to using different muscles, but I am loving it.’

And how does she feel about her paramour’s tattoos? ‘Actually, I like them,’ she giggles. ‘I think they reflect his personality quite organically. I am not planning to get any myself,’ she adds hastily. ‘I don’t think they would be suitable on my body.’

Lovers on stage and off, dancing their hearts out in denim, and a male lead who could be described as ‘a bit of rough’… comparisons to my favourite film, Dirty Dancing, are impossible to ignore.

Does Natalia feel a bit like Jennifer Grey to Sergei’s Patrick Swayze? ‘I love that film. It’s very iconic, but for some reason I never made this association.’

Like Dirty Dancing, Natalia Osipova and Guests, as the performance is titled (I wonder how Sergei feels about that), is about love.

‘It is set in the 1960s and about two people who are in love; the male character dies and she continues loving him [in one scene she tries to pull him from the grave]. It is deeply romantic, about love that surpasses death – not just love, but loyalty; about a woman who thinks she’ll never be able to be with anyone else.’

As a very strong person I tend to take the lead, but with Sergei it is he who leads

Given that Natalia commissioned the three pieces – each one written for her by a top choreographer (such is her star quality, they presumably jumped at the chance) – I can’t help but think that this gives an insight into the depth of her feelings for Sergei.

Having initially said that she didn’t want to discuss him, Natalia has let the word ‘we’ creep into her speech when discussing the man with whom she has shared a stage and now a life and a home.

‘We love Japanese food,’ she says in response to my question about what she likes to eat. ‘We just like to go to small local restaurants, nowhere fancy.’

 On a perfect weekend, ‘we like to walk around the canals in our neighbourhood of Little Venice and maybe visit London Zoo. We spend as much time outdoors as we can. We like to lie in bed as long as possible first, though, to feel fresh. Ideally, I would lie in until about 11am.

‘We like to cook together, although I am not a very good cook. Sergei is much better than me. He cooks mostly.’

It all sounds very domestic. Do they want children? ‘I think that should be the aim for every woman. That’s my point of view,’ says Natalia, somewhat cryptically. ‘We know each other’s families very well now too; there are good relations between the families.’

It was, in fact, through family that the two came together. Natalia is exceptionally close to her parents, who still live in Moscow, and tries to visit as often as her schedule allows.

‘I feel a huge responsibility to make them proud and pay them back for the sacrifices they made to allow my ballet career to happen. They were not well off – my father is an engineer and my mother doesn’t work – but they always found a way to give me opportunities, whether it be taking me to the theatre or finding money for dance lessons.’

Initially, Natalia was not drawn to ballet. She started out as a gymnast and it was her parents – presciently spotting her greater potential for dance – who insisted that she make the transition. ‘I wasn’t happy about it at first,’ she recalls, ‘but gradually I got used to it, and now I am so happy that I made that change and so grateful that they insisted.’

When Natalia was due to appear in Giselle in Milan in 2015 and her partner fell ill, it was her mother’s idea that she contact Sergei to see if he might stand in, so she sent him an email.

passion de deux
 Natalia and Sergei in Run Mary Run

‘He had at the time gone off by himself.’ (In a strop, so it was said, after spiralling into unhappiness and cocaine use, to explore a freelance career as a dancer/actor/model.) ‘My mother had seen him dance and suggested he might be a good pairing for me in this role.

‘That’s how it all started. I knew of his excellent reputation as a dancer. And as to his other reputations…it was his dancing that I chose to focus on and that made me write to him,’ she says diplomatically.

And was it love at first sight? ‘Yes. From the first meeting there were very strong feelings. We both understood there was something special.’

This attraction was palpable – and their performance so widely acclaimed that they will reprise the roles in a production of Giselle in Munich this month.

‘It was very emotional dancing with Sergei that first time,’ Natalia reminisces. ‘We came together as individuals, with our own experiences, and something a bit magic happened. I think the audience could feel it. It was emotionally very charged. I think they had a great time watching us in that show. Giselle is so romantic and will always be my favourite ballet.’

Natalia leads a highly regimented life as a dancer, with long days of rehearsals and few breaks. She has, like most top ballerinas, been dogged by injury. ‘This is part of my professional life and something I have to live with, but my injuries aren’t giving me too much grief at the moment.’

Though only 5ft 5in tall, with tiny bones, she feels that her body is oaf-like by dancing standards. ‘It has been a challenge,’ she sighs. ‘I have to be very strict with what I eat. I have nothing made of flour and no sugar. I eat mostly salads.’

NATALIA LOVES… 

Fashion failsafe For a red-carpet event, it has to be Alexander McQueen.

Film to curl up in front of I love Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather, and Sergei’s favourite actor is Mickey Rourke, so we try to watch anything he is in.

Plan B I would be a painter. I love getting my paints out and am thinking of doing a course soon.

Style inspiration I love the actresses from bygone French cinema; I particularly admire Fanny Ardant.

Listening to Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald and Otis Redding. We have a record player and their songs sound best on vinyl.

Go-to countries Israel was beautiful and fascinating. And Beijing has pandas – my favourite animal – in the zoo. I missed rehearsals to look at them.

Last meal on earth Spaghetti – because that is what I have to deny myself as a dancer.

Alternative dance partner Carlos Acosta is a genius and it is the greatest honour to dance with him. When I first joined the Royal Ballet he took so much time to make me feel welcome. He has a magnetism and a talent that is unsurpassed. 

Having a man in her life who understands the sacrifices required of her must make things easier? ‘I don’t know any different because my boyfriends have only been from the dance world, and it seems to have worked out pretty well so far,’ she says coyly. ‘It’s a nice feeling to be with someone who understands.’

Natalia once said she found pre-performance nerves so bad that she wanted to run away. Having Sergei by her side makes a difference.

‘With age, I have got better at managing the nerves. Now I know how to not let it get to that point. I arrive at the theatre much earlier and spend some time on the stage, living the life of my character before the show. That is really helpful.

‘ It’s such an individual state, so even Sergei can’t always help me, but it is great when he’s there beside me. He can try to calm me down. Even just the way he says “good luck” can make me feel much better.’

When I ask if Sergei would consider a return to the Royal Ballet, as some have speculated he might (it would, after all, make sense with her there), Natalia will only say, ‘I can’t answer that. It is a question for him. But he is an outstanding dancer and I think it would be really interesting if he did decide to.’

Either way, the pair intend to partner on stage as much as possible – even if not exclusively. ‘We want to find a way to do more together,’ Natalia reveals, sounding for a moment a bit too smitten, and then correcting herself.

‘I mean, I would like to think that of course we are professionals, so we would dance our best with anyone. It shouldn’t make a difference, but…it is such a special feeling to dance with the person you love.’

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




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