royal ballet – Sergei Polunin

Tag: royal ballet

Bump In The Road…

Bump In The Road…

If you’re missing a few of my videos, they had to be taken down at the request of the Royal Ballet. It seems that even still, they have a hold on Sergei. I had to either delete them from YouTube, or have my account disabled. The videos in question were not being monetized and were originally listed as “acceptable” videos. I had given proper credit to all concerned in the descriptions, never once claiming that the works were my own in any way. I posted the videos for pure enjoyment, to share with other fans, and to try to keep what few samples of his classical ballet performances in existence available for posterity. However, rules are rules, and this is the right thing to do.

bump in the road

I apologize sincerely. It was never my intention to step on anyone’s toes. I have never been one to bend the rules. I truly thought I was acting in accordance with YouTube’s guidelines. Apparently, I misinterpreted a few. I was often greatly concerned about such a thing happening as there are many that are very vague and broad. However, as time passed with no reprimands, I figured everything was okay. It was not. Finally, though I reiterate that this is the right and proper thing to do, it makes me very sad for us all. It is Sergei’s fans (past, present, and future) who are being denied.
Now, all that being said, I shall continue to “play” and “choreograph” and “experiment” with video. Just a bit more carefully! You all have been amazing over the past couple of years. You have changed my life just when I thought it was over (as I knew it for so long). For the warm way you welcomed me… the beautiful new friendships… the endless support and love, I will be eternally grateful. Love to all. – Pam 

Stunning Sergei, Photos From 2008

Stunning Sergei, Photos From 2008

Stunning Sergei

A Blog Post

by Pam Boehme Simon

On July  27, 2008, the fifteenth edition of the Civitanova Danza International Festival was celebrated.  Among the festivities was a dance gala called Italians Dance It Better.  Sergei Polunin performed a Ben Stevenson piece, “End Of Time,” set to music by Sergey Rachmaninov.  His partner was fellow company member and Royal Ballet principal, Mara Galeazzi.  At the time, Sergei was not yet even a soloist, however, his star quality was already very evident.  The performance took place in the Teatro Rossini in Civitanova Danza, Italy.

Photographer Manuel Cafini shot a beautiful collection of Sergei and Mara.  Enjoy!

All photos by Manuel Cafini, 2008.

Royal’s Romeo And Juliet 2011

Royal’s Romeo And Juliet 2011

12,000 pack in to see Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet debut at the O2

Royal’s Romeo and Juliet at London’s O2 arena was a gamble that paid off, finds Louise Levene.

royals romeo
Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet at the O2: Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, Photo: ROH

Covent Garden it ain’t. The crowd is six times the size and a good half of them of them will be munching hot dogs throughout.  However, the Royal Ballet’s debut run at London’s O2 this weekend is a great success nonetheless.

The company’s bold experiment has brought high art at low prices to a whole new demographic, winning thousands of friends (and political brownie points) in the process.

Rock and Romeo

The old Millennium Dome’s hangar-like interior has meant rethinking the presentation.  Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 Romeo and Juliet took on brash, rock concert-like lines.

No pit meant putting Barry Wordsworth and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a narrow glass box above the stage. Their playing has been subtly amplified. Prokofiev’s thundering score floods the great barn of the O2.

Above the orchestra are three huge screens. They highlight important entrances and reaction shots that might easily be missed by a spectator two football pitches away.

The six cameras are coordinated by a nerve centre of screens and headsets in the stalls.  The show is directed by ex-Royal Ballet stars Michael Nunn and William Trevitt.

These one-time Romeos know precisely which moments need to be reinforced but even their best efforts are not always enough. The Royal Ballet has (rather touchingly) assumed that Romeo and Juliet is too well known to need telling.  But, while it is flattering not to be spoon-fed or patronised, I’m not sure the 12,000-strong audience was fully up to speed with characters or plot.

There are two chunks of Shakespearean voice-over but a few surtitles wouldn’t go amiss.  Particularly given that the only synopsis was inside a souvenir programme costing £10 (as much as many of the tickets).

Magic but confusing

The pas de deux worked their usual magic but crowd scenes were confusing. If the experiment is repeated – and I don’t see why not – it might also be an idea to colour code the characters more obviously: black for Tybalt; white for Romeo etc – that or put numbers on their backs.

In interviews before this expertly-hyped event the Royal Ballet’s stars had fretted that their close-ups might seem hammy and exaggerated.  These fears have proved groundless.

The playing was lusty and vivid but none of Friday night’s cast overacted.  Zooming in on the action merely reveals the detail that any balletomane with binoculars has long been aware of.

Rojo and Acosta

Friday night’s cast was led by Tamara Rojo and Cuban superstar Carlos Acosta, who was on superb form (not always the case this late in his 20-year career).

There were traces of the old fire in the great arcing leaps and every lift was a caress. Rojo’s dark expressive eyes were made for the big screen.  The intensity of her acting and the musical sweep of her dancing soon made you forget the venue and concentrate on the art inside it.

And, then there’s Polunin…

Thiago Soares made a dashing and dastardly Tybalt.  The 21 year old Sergei Polunin (doubling as Benvolio and lead Mandolin dancer in a last-minute casting crisis) was the best (and handsomest) dancer on stage.

The gilding and plush of Covent Garden has always been a major part of the Royal Ballet’s appeal but bigger, cheaper, less glamorous venues attract new audiences – the holy grail of every arts establishment.

English National Ballet’s conquest of the Royal Albert Hall proved that widening access needn’t compromise quality and the Royal Ballet was right to join the party.

This month’s O2 project has been the brainchild of the company’s 45-year-old administrative director Kevin O’Hare who has just been anointed as Dame Monica Mason’s successor. Not a bad start.

The final performance is today at 3pm: O2 Box Office 0844 856 0202 or online at

24 Hours With Sergei

24 Hours With Sergei

24 hours with Sergei Polunin

24 hours…

Long days that stretch into the night.  Class, rehearsal, fittings, makeup, performance.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  That is the life of a company dancer.  Follow along.  If you have the energy…

Sergei Polunin / Сергей Полунин “Early Bird / Night Owl”

See behind the scenes at the theater for one day. His day starts early with class and rehearsal, then a performance takes him late into the night. Not much rest for the superstar ballet dancer, Sergei Polunin.

Music: Josh Woodward “Lafayette”

All the World’s a Stage

All the World’s a Stage

A Rising Star at the Royal Ballet, Ukrainian Dancer Sergei Polunin Has a Flare for the Dramatic

The Wall Street Journal
Sarah Frater
October 29, 2010

all the world is a stage
Sergei Polunin in ‘Le Corsaire’ Photo: Johan Persson

Sergei Polunin is unusually candid for a ballet dancer. Most speak with the restraint of their art form and play down the sacrifices it often involves. This tends to make them charming, even beguiling company, but also strangely unreflective on the long years of training ballet demands.

Not so Mr. Polunin, the rapidly rising young Ukrainian star of the Royal Ballet, who speaks revealingly about the hard work of classical dance and his journey from the Ukraine to London’s Royal Opera House.

“It was like something out of Harry Potter,” he says of the Royal Ballet School in southwest London, where he trained. “I’d never seen anything like it. It’s a magical building. We had no money. My father worked in Portugal to support me. I lived in the same room as my mother for four years. When I got the letter offering me a place, I thought I’d have to give it up as we couldn’t afford the fees.”

Mr. Polunin was just 13 years old in 2003, when the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation agreed to sponsor him. The only child of nontheatrical parents had already spent four years at a gymnastics academy, and another four at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute. “He worked hard,” says Sir John Tooley, the former chair of the foundation and the onetime director of London’s Royal Opera House.

“He was an extraordinarily able student with a developed sense of the classical style,” continues Sir John. “There was lots of talk about him, all extremely favorable, and it all turned out to be correct. The Nureyev Foundation didn’t run a competition, but relied on schools to identify the most able and deserving students. The Royal Ballet School asked for our support, and we were only too happy to give it. And Sergei wrote to thank me, which doesn’t happen very often.”

At the school, he was fast-tracked in a class two years above his age. “Sergei was so technically advanced and so physically mature, I knew he would cope,” says the school’s director, Gailene Stock, adding that he quickly learned English and easily made friends. He also won several student prizes, and when he graduated in 2007, several ballet companies offered him contracts, including American Ballet Theatre in New York and Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.

What made him choose the Royal Ballet? “Everybody wants to dance with this company,” he replies. “You don’t know what you’ll get when you arrive, but it has a good reputation.”

Mr. Polunin is sitting in a quiet corner of the Opera House. It is five in the afternoon, and the theater is gearing up for the evening performance. The 20-year-old will be dancing in barely two hours, but he shows no sign of nerves, just a slight impatience to get talking and get away. Despite a reputation for running late (“I leave things to the last minute,” he laughs), he arrives early, and, in informal practice clothes, looks and sounds what he is, which is a young man who is also a very able, very ambitious dancer.

Audiences and critics were quick to spot his talent. As well as his technical finesse, he is a natural actor who brings a believability to the big old ballets. Early successes include Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering,” where he outshone several more established dancers, and the lead role in “La Bayadere,” when he was only 19. Promotion quickly followed, with his becoming a principal this past summer, the Royal Ballet’s highest rank, and one of the youngest in its history.

On stage, Mr. Polunin looks entirely at ease, and you wonder if it’s where he feels most at home. “It’s much easier than being in rehearsal,” he says. “When you are in character, you can convey the story, the emotions. I prefer the dramatic roles, where you give your feelings, your energy, to the audience. But you have to connect with the person you are dancing with. You have to look them in the eyes. The audience can see if the dancers are connecting. It’s totally visual.”

Off stage, Mr. Polunin has a reputation as a jester with an irreverent sense of humor. Ask him about a ballet he is scheduled to dance, and instead of the usual pleasantries about character and narrative, he says he thinks the choreography is “very weird.” On the physical demands of dancing, he says it’s much tougher than soccer: “Footballers only play two games a week.” And ask him about how he would cope with injury, the bête noire for ballet dancers, and he deadpans: “I hear it can extend your career. You don’t dance, you heal, you go on for a few more years.”

For all the joking, you don’t doubt that Mr. Polunin takes his career very seriously. He has a focus and efficiency, and is clear-eyed about what to dance and where to perform. “I like the dramatic roles, Mayerling, Romeo,” he says. “It’s good to have a base at the Royal Ballet, but I’d also like to guest [with other companies]. I get asked a lot. It’s not just the money, but having a name and a profile. I’d quite like to act. It would be fun to do films.”

You can judge his filmic potential for yourself in a promotional video the Royal Ballet made for the Opera House website. It shows Mr. Polunin preparing for a photo shoot on Crimea’s Black Sea coast, with the gothic folly Swallow’s Nest in the background. The music is from Benjamin Britain’s opera “Peter Grimes.” The three-minute film is skillfully made and cleverly edited, and suggests Mr. Polunin is as adept at working the camera as he is the stage.

For now, he has the evening’s live performance to prepare. It is a small role in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Winter Dreams,” but provides vital stage time to hone his craft. “I do it because I can,” he says. “I enjoy being on stage, the performance. It’s my thing. A kind of destiny.”

Sergei Polunin can be seen at the Royal Opera House in “Sylvia” on Nov. 6 and 15, in “Cinderella” on Dec. 17 and “Peter and the Wolf” on Dec. 14, 16 and 18.

Write to Sarah Frater at

Sergei Talks on “The Talks”

Sergei Talks on “The Talks”




sergei talks
Photo by Rankin

Mr. Polunin, what can dance teach you about life?

I think what it teaches you is discipline, which is very important, and it’s fun when you’re in dance classes together with other people while growing up — but later it drains your energy for no reason. You have to be very strong inside because in ballet, being creative is told off. It’s ridiculous, but I just thought about this the other day: even if you look to your right when you are supposed to look to your left in a dance sequence, they will tell you off!

Does that really matter?

(Laughs) Exactly! It’s your soul that people want to see! And if you understand life at all, you understand that everything is in constant change: it’s never going to be the same movement ever again. But the people who dictate this in dance institutions are not necessarily looking at the bigger picture. You know only one thing — it’s like being in the army: you’ve been told what to do and you have to do it!

“They don’t teach you that ballet is much more than just dancing.”

You’ve been enrolled in this system since you were three years old. How do you break out of that kind of regimented behavior?

Well, that’s why ballet is one of the hardest disciplines — you kind of stay childlike, because you never really experience childhood, so you try to stay in that. Even in terms of your observation of the world, you don’t really see anything because you’re in the studio all the time! And you are with the same-minded people and with the same-minded teachers literally all the time. Everything is one way. You don’t really talk to people from different industries. And the teachers, they’re people who don’t really necessarily teach you what’s going to happen to you after ballet; they don’t teach you that ballet is much more than just dancing.

Is that something that you had to learn on your own?

Absolutely. I actually never thought of myself as a dancer — I was curious about life outside of ballet more. I wanted to achieve things. You know, it was only by travelling that I started to mature and to make my own choices, learn how to deal with people and understand how the industry works. For example, when I met David LaChapelle, it was strange to him to find out that I didn’t have an agent! (Laughs) But dancers don’t have agents, because the system wouldn’t want them to have the freedom or the power to make their own choices — it’s more comfortable to do what the company wants.

But it didn’t use to be like this. Dance used to be a progressive art form, in tune with contemporary culture — now it seems to be more segregated.

Right, and in ballet, the great dancers and choreographers like Rudolf Nureyev were always free spirited. Now everything is put in a box! Why are they telling me what’s English style and what’s Russian style in classical ballet — that distinction shouldn’t even exist! For instance, English style was never restricted. Dancers like Margot Fonteyn and Anthony Dowell were free dancers, and they were amazing. Now suddenly everything became so small. You don’t lose anything, in fact you gain a lot by having free-thinking people. I tried to work it out myself, which… Probably wasn’t as smart. (Laughs)

James McAvoy said that your ability to question authority and expand your horizon is dramatically reduced when you’re not exposed to culture growing up.

Exactly! That’s why it’s important to have mentors that could teach you about life experiences rather than only ballet class — they should teach you how to think! To think is to create and that’s what’s most important. Dancing is to me the only industry that hasn’t evolved in any way. But it doesn’t have to be like this! I think it’s important to change dancers’ mindsets as well. Dancers are motivated by their love for dance but they get paid really little, and that’s not fair. Not a single dancer can afford their own flat. You just work and work and then you end up with nothing. And that has to be changed because there is so much talent out there in dance today, and it has to be rewarded.

“When you have two heads, you can bounce ideas off one another — unless there are egos involved.”

Is that why you recently turned to acting?

Well, it’s a different type of reward. In acting you feel like a team, like you’re creating something together. So many things have to come together and you are not alone, you’re not all by yourself. And you’re not so far away from people, you’re close to people — because on stage you can’t really see anybody! When the cameras are rolling, it’s such an exciting moment. For example, in Red Sparrow I was dancing with Jennifer Lawrence while Francis Lawrence was directing, and I felt like I can add something to the big picture. It’s a joint effort, which is fun.

Is this type of collaborative creativity something you were missing when you were at the Royal Ballet?

For sure. When you have two heads, you can bounce ideas off one another — unless there are egos involved. But as long as there are no egos, you just create more! You figure out ideas that you can then take to the next level. And you don’t feel it’s all on you.

Has relieving that pressure given you the headspace to figure out what you actually want to do with your career?

Yes! If you distance yourself from something and you miss it, then you really find out if you really care about it. You ask yourself, “Am I okay to let this go forever?” and you have to listen to your gut feeling. Filming Take me to Church for example was a big moment for me. Through that, I found out how powerful something good and something light can be — instead of darkness and negativity. I personally always feel that fight within me. After that, I danced for free for a couple of months to regain the hunger for dance and the joy of dance: to dance not because I am being paid to or because somebody is telling me to, but because I wanted to do it.

Project Polunin Donation

Project Polunin Donation


David Begbie - Project Polunin donation

Contini Art UK

News – 8 March 2017

David Begbie MRBS has donated his sculpture “CZIN”, 2016, to a silent auction in aid of Project Polunin, a new production that will premiere at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. Taking place at the Project Polunin gala dinner, proceeds from the artist’s donation will help to support Sergei Polunin’s upcoming program. The unique sculpture is one of a recent series of figurative forms, both male and female, whose subjects are contemporary archetypal expressions of masculine and feminine where each contains aspects of the other. “CZIN” has a particular stance and posture expressing fitness, strength and balance; often witnessed within the discipline of contemporary dance and ballet.


project polunin donation


David Begbie is renowned for his figurative steel mesh sculptures and his work is exhibited and collected worldwide. His evocative, sensual and optically dynamic sculpture often comprise images of fine human physique, ‘CZIN’ 2016 being an excellent example of this. His rendition of a male dancer is poised in a way which implies, rather than describes, dramatic movement as it is a sculptural description of muscular tension, elegance and control. The artist’s intention is to place emphasis on the male dancer’s physique whereby the dancer’s body has become a finely tuned instrument or medium for creative artistic expression and quite literally as a creative physical force. Begbie’s transparent sculpture encapsulates an enigmatic and elegantly poised figure, captured as a timeless moment of three-dimensional suspended animation. The meticulously shaped metallic membrane absolutely convinces the viewer that a living, breathing human presence occupies the space, delineated by Begbie’s sculptural skin. Using strategic lighting a compositional fusion of sculpture and projected shadow transforms the stoic image into a dynamic and dazzling optical celebration of human physical form.

The Project Polunin Gala Dinner took place on the 23rd of Ferbruary 2017 at the Banqueting House, London. The artist’s donation was a part of a silent auction; bids were being placed on Givergy tablets throughout the evening, while there was also a live auction conducted by Peer MacDonald, a raffle draw and a live performance by Lisa Friend and Sergei Polunin.


project polunin donation


Sergei Polunin is a prestigious Ukranian ballet dancer, seen by many as the natural heir to Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Sergei enrolled in the Royal Ballet School at the age of 13, in 2003. He became a first soloist at the Royal Ballet in 2009 – and in June 2010, the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever Principal Dancer. Sergei left the Royal Ballet in 2012 and went to Russia at the invitation of Igor Zelensky, to dance with the Stanislavsky Music Theatre in Moscow and the Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and in 2014. Sergei started his collaboration with the famed American photographer and music director, David LaChapelle, starring in the stunning dance video of Hozier’s Take Me to Church. Sergei achieved global recognition when Take Me To Church went viral, receiving more than 16 million hits; the video proved to be the seminal change in Sergei’s career aspirations when it formed the center piece in “Dancer”, a highly acclaimed documentary, created by Gabrielle Tana.



Dancer: The Outtakes

Dancer: The Outtakes

Julie Kavanaugh goes behind the scenes of a documentary recording the life of Sergei Polunin.

By Julie Kavanaugh For Dancing Times, March 2017 issue


An idea is born

In September 2012, I was approached by the Dutch documentary director Aliona van der Horst.  She’d read a long article I had written on Sergei Polunin.  Aliona thought the story of the Ukrainian boy burdened with a phenomenal talent would make a moving film.  I knew that terrific archive material existed.  Galina Polunin, Sergei’s mother, had photographed and filmed all the key moments of his childhood.   I knew as well that he would be safe in the hands of the Van der Horst, who is half-Russian and makes poetic, human, award-winning documentaries.

Additionally, it didn’t seem right to make a Polunin documentary that failed to portray the dancer as the extraordinary classicist he is.   His every step is a blueprint of balletic perfection.  A specialist’s eye was needed.  I wrote telling Aliona that I was married to the film dance filmmaker Ross MacGibbon and that we’d decided to take this on ourselves.  While working on a Ralph Fiennes profile, I got to know the Coriolanus producer Gabrielle Tana and we become friends.  Gaby loved ballet, understood Polunin’s importance, and promised to make our documentary idea happen.  Three months later the three of us flew to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where Serge was performing, to discuss a shooting schedule.


Igor Zelensky stepped up

He was under contract then to the Stanislavsky ballet in Moscow whose director was the charismatic Russian dancer Igor Zelensky, also director of the Novosibirsk’s ballet company and now in charge of Munich’s Bavarian State Ballet where Polunin is a “permanent guest.”  After his dramatic bolt from The Royal Ballet, when the other major companies had shied away from signing up a dancer then regarded as a volatile delinquent Zelensky had stepped in.  “After I left, everything started to close up.” Sergei said, “people started to turn away from me. Igor really helped me get out of this darkness.” 

Zelensky, whose face  Serge has tattooed on his shoulder as a tribute, became a father/brother/mentor figure while his wife and children were his Moscow family.  With his European sophistication combined the Russian machismo and a wild side of his own, Zelensky was a vital role model, instilling in his protégé the importance of self-discipline.  It soon grew into a symbiotic pact with Zelensky creating a Polunin repertory with masterworks by Kenneth McMillan and Fredrick Ashton.  The young dynamo’s presence adding luster and excitement to the Stanislavsky.  In Novosebirsk Zelinsky was able to keep Serge performing and for big money too (one Nutcracker solo earned him more, he told me, than two months pay in The Royal Ballet). 


Even in a bad red costume, Sergei looked noble and refined

We watched him the first night in the Gazprom-sponsored gala in Novosibirsk’s “Siberian Coliseum” – the largest theatre in Russia. it was a “Snow Forum” with a blizzard soundtrack, snowflake lighting effects in the auditorium and a performance consisting of winter-themed extracts from musicals, operas, and ballets –  mostly The Nutcracker.   Even in a bad red costume, Sergei looked noble and refined, but was so reined in during his manege by the inept, ponytailed conductor who hardly looked at the stage, that the audience’s slow handclap soon petered out. 

I found myself thinking of a remark Ashton once made when we were talking about why Rudolf Nureyev had chosen The Royal Ballet as his home company:  “A beautiful jewel needs a beautiful setting.”  Because by contrast, the State Academic Opera And Ballet Theater, with its rickety sets and brash lighting appeared as tarnished costume jewelry at best. 


A motley lot

Physically and technically, the dancers were motley lot, their mime movements almost comically old school.  “They don’t know how to be natural,” said Sergei, who like Nureyev in his day, was breathing new life into the 19th-century classics.  He was preparing for Giselle while we were there, saying that he’d had to stop the make-up woman from powdering over his brows and painting clownish black arcs in the middle of his forehead. 

Outside in the snow banked-streets the temperature was -24°C, but Sergei virtually lived in the theater, where he and Zelensky had been given backstage apartments.  Igor’s was smart and minimalist.  Sergei’s not much more than a boarding school cell with chipboard cupboards and a bed covered with a garish duvet and strewn clothes.  But he loved Novosibirsk, which was less lonely for him in than Moscow, and we planned to come back and film his cocooned existence with Igor, as well as make good use of the theater’s vast blackened stage.


Galina sees Sergei dance professionally for the first time

The following month we shot the first footage in London.   The Royal Ballet was reviving Marguerite and Armand to mark Tamara Rojo’s farewell season with the company and Kevin O’Hare had invited Sergei back to partner her.  This was a huge deal for him. A comeback begging to be recorded, as well as what I saw as the perfect opportunity to carry out a promise I made to his mother.  I’ve already written about my friendship with Galina Polunina, and how I invited her to London to see him for the first time on the Royal Opera House stage. 

That night, sitting beside Galina, as she clutched my arm when the curtain rose, her eyes shining with tears, has to be one of the most memorable ballet-going experiences; but more to the point, it gave us a tremendously powerful scene for the film – one which our cameraman, positioned in the stall circle, and following Galina through the pass door onto the stage, caught in soul-stirring detail.

“I’ve always been scared of contemporary”

In the summer of 2013 Serge was back in London, appearing with the Stanislavsky company in Roland Petit’s Coppelia.  A kitsch, mawkish version which also happens to be an exhilarating showpiece for a male star. Galina came over for it and so did a director/producer acquaintance of Gaby from the US named Steven Cantor.  Tall and rangy, he talked earnestly about the necessity of a Formula and a Journey for the documentary, but had our ear as he was offering to put a large chunk of the budget. 

We now had the funds to commission an eight minute piece by Russell Maliphant, and over a week in August we recorded Sergei working with the choreographer for first-time. “I’ve always been scared of contemporary,” Sergei told me. “For me ballet is so much easier.  It’s unusual for me to go low to the ground – I feeling going to pull everything.”  Even from the first day, however, there was a rapport between the pair, the atmosphere in Maliphant’s north Acton studio almost Zen-like.  


Original idea for Dancer focused on artistry

To begin with Sergei was “just trying to copy what Russell’s doing” and having trouble mastering a tricky for swivel but the falls and capoeira-inspired movements came naturally to him, and ini close-ups and wafting his arms beautifully framed his Slavic face.  Maliphant’s idea was to exploit his virtuosity – “the great leaps and turns, those explosive moves.”  – but blend it with other techniques.   “We’ll be dipping into the classical, but I want to play around its edges, and how we go into it and come out of it is something I like to explore.”  

Ross wanted the making a solo to be linking device throughout the film, and planned to shoot the finished piece on location with multiple cameras using time-spliced technique – a freezing of 24 frames a second that would capture and hold the exquisite purity of shapes Polunin makes in space.


And then came the tattoos

One August evening we filmed Sergei’s London family, talking to his Royal Ballet School friend Jade Hale-Christofi; his brother Phil, whom Sergei described as a “gang member” but who seemed soft as a kitten; their Greek father and maternal North American mother whose suburban home in been a refuge to surrogate and his most troubled times. 

A few minutes away was the tattoo parlor he’d co-owned with Anthony Lammin, a cool, confident black guy who’d created a number of Sergei’s tattoos.   The latest was to be a replica of a pretty church in Kherson, where Sergei had been “christened.”   To the buzzing of the drill, we filmed Lammin at work on Sergei’s back.  There was a piece of kitchen paper on each thigh to catch the dripping sweat off his armpits, but his dancer pain threshold is so high he could talk to the camera naturally, without a flinch.


Nikolai Priadchenko and what might have been

In the autumn of 2013 we traveled to Ukraine to film the backstory.  The trip had been prompted by an invitation for Sergei to perform Giselle in Kiev with the Bolshoi Ballet’s Ukrainian-born star Svetlana Zakharova.  A double comeback this time.  After their press conference he visited Kiev’s ballet academy were he been trained as a child.  He was visibly moved by the “same smells and faces.”  

In Giselle rehearsals he was coached by his first mentor Nikolai Priadchenko, a wirey man with thick gray hair and leathery skin, who’d prepared Serge for his Royal Ballet School audition, taught him variations for European competitions, and passed on the combination of romantic softness and danseur noble imperiousness that defined his own performances as a company star. 


“If I had him every day, I’d be on a different level”

Priadchenko had been horrified to hear that Sergei had walked out of The Royal Ballet.  ”It’s not a company to be left.  It was his base” and on camera was visibly shocked when the dancer confessed to hardly ever taking company class.  Among his teachers only Priadchenko,  Sergei said, was “constantly critical,” something he admitted he badly needed.  “I work by myself, I mark things and nobody tells me anything.  So I’m trying in a way to lie to people – pretending I know what I’m doing, but really I don’t.   Nicolai knows that and tells me off in rehearsals.   He wants to correct me show me; show me something new.  I try to hold onto the key moments that I remember, but it’s not the same.  If I had him every day, I’d be on a different level.”  (Sadly for Sergei, Priadchenko died six months later.)


Home to Kherson

From Cosmopolitan Kiev we took the overnight train to Kherson.  Kherson seemed a world away especially in its outskirts were Vladimir Polunin lives with his mother.  Sergei’s adoring, pillowy grandmother, who’d got up at 5 AM to make borscht for him, was there along with Galina’s mother, who was strikingly more sophisticated than Vladimír’s.  Vladimir is a gentle, handsome man, who answers difficult questions with touching frankness, as did the two “babushki” sitting side by side.


Where it all began

In town we filmed the gymnasium where Sergei trained from the age of six.   His coach was interviewed about the qualities that could’ve made him a professional.  Sergei’s first ballet teacher put on a special display for him.  He was dragged from his seat onto the stage by the pupils.   After improvising to a melancholy Pavarotti aria he spontaneously lifted his teacher off her feet and swung her horizontally round and round. It was a euphoric moment, but there was one more indelible experience left.  


The healer

Sergei had suggested we film a session with his healer, a former taxi driver.  His eyes were as glassy as a blind man’s.  He spent about 15 minutes on Sergei, muttering as he rocked him back and forwards, which may or may not have produced a result.  All I know is that it urged Sergei to have a go.   He translated the soft torrent of words spoken by the healer.  I was astounded by accuracy of what I was hearing.  Sergei wasn’t surprised.  Struck with pneumonia as a child he’d been discharged after six weeks in hospital as there was nothing more to be done.  It was Galina’s desperation that first took him to this healer who cured him within a fortnight.

The Dancer outtakes and what might have been

The last day of the shoot, November 20, was Sergei’s birthday.  On the overnight train we had a celebration buffet supper.  We toasted him with plastic cups of warm, sweet, Russian “champagne.”  We did not know it at this time, but this was the end of our collaboration.  Gabby Tana had become enraptured by the work of the photographer and music video maker David LaChapelle.  She decided that she wanted a more commercial film.  In a video of a re-released Freddie Mercury /  Michael Jackson track, LaChapelle dressed Sergei up in combat gear.  He stripped it off while running and leaping over the Hawaiian terrain and into a sunlit white barn. 

This was refined into the now famous Hozier “Take Me To Church” solo, an internet sensation, and today, the centerpiece of the documentary Dancer.  Aimed at the massive YouTube audience, the film has given Sergei the global exposure he craved.  Steven Cantor replaced Ross as director, and in focusing on Polunin’s angst, and not his artistry, Cantor created a portrait of a hugely gifted, mixed-up kid.  Our vision for the documentary, while telling the affecting family story, and filming his movements with innovative expertise, would’ve enshrined forever a great dancer in his prime.


Sergei’s Dance Mom, The New Yorker 2016

Sergei’s Dance Mom, The New Yorker 2016

The New Yorker Culture Desk

What happened when Galina Polunina finally saw her son dance.

Sergei’s dance mom

Dance moms… as a breed, we ballet mothers can be insufferable—clingy, controlling, and omnipresent. The mother of Margot Fonteyn, who was known as the Black Queen.  She trailed after the ballerina, even on company tours abroad, acting as a composite of a personal assistant, lady’s maid, and nineteenth-century chaperone. Many of us are failed dancers living vicariously through our talented offspring.  Looking back, I find something embarrassingly “Black Swan”-like in the way I drew satisfaction from my son thriving at the Royal Ballet School—the very place where I’d felt so miserably inadequate.

Sergei’s dance mom, Galina Polunina, though, saw ballet primarily as an escape, an opportunity for her only child, to achieve a brighter existence than her own. “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.”

Sergei today

Today, Sergei Polunin is renowned throughout the world for the four-minute solo he performed to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.”  The dance video of raw, erotic force went viral on YouTube, and forms the climax of “Dancer,” a new documentary about Polunin. In fact, its hectic acrobatics don’t do him justice. Polunin is an outstanding classical dancer—probably the purest virtuoso since Mikhail Baryshnikov—and brings a cinematic subtlety to his dramatic roles. The smudged lines and head-clutchings of the Hozier piece give little sense of this, although in its strange, swaying opening you can feel the power of Polunin in repose.

Peacock among pigeons

I got to know Sergei when he was thirteen and already a legend to his fellow-pupils at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s junior school. Watching him in end-of-year displays was like seeing a magnificent strutting peacock among a straggle of urban pigeons.  He was so perfectly formed and technically astounding that his teachers had moved him ahead by two school years. He’d started dancing at the age of three, when Galina first took him to classes in their Ukrainian home town of Kherson. As he grew older, his parents, believing that he stood more chance of success as a professional sportsman, enrolled him in gymnastics.

From the age of four, Sergei trained after school until he dropped with exhaustion.  There was no kicking a football about with friends or fun of any kind. After Sergei had recovered from a long spell of pneumonia, Galina decided to give ballet lessons another try, and when he turned nine she entered him for the Kiev State Choreographic School, which accepted him at first sight.

Sergei’s “Billy Elliot” moment

The school’s boarding facilities were so rough that Galina felt she had no option but to move to Kiev herself to make a home for Sergei. Galina’s husband, Vladimir, and her mother both left Ukraine and worked abroad to fund his training.  The four-year separation inevitably took its toll on the Polunins’ marriage. For Sergei, the knowledge that he was responsible for the family’s breakup was hard to bear.  Even harder was the constant pressure to fulfill his remarkable talent. Galina began preparing Sergei for a brilliant future.  She entered him in ballet competitions and rebuked him for not taking his dancing more seriously.

She accompanied him to London for an audition at the Royal Ballet School, and afterward suffered a “Billy Elliot” moment of despair when the acceptance letter arrived, knowing the family could never afford the fees. The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation later agreed to subsidize Sergei’s schooling. Losing him to London was Galina’s greatest sacrifice.  She fell into a long depression before beginning a new life for herself as wardrobe mistress at Kiev’s National Opera.

Royal adventure

For Sergei, however, after four years living in a single room with an exacting mother, the Royal Ballet School, housed in a stately hunting lodge on two thousand acres of parkland, was an exhilarating adventure. Determined to meet his family’s hopes, Sergei was a model pupil at White Lodge.  Once, however, at the senior school he began to kick against its regimental confines. He experimented with club drugs when he joined the company. Later, finding himself unchallenged, having already soared to the top of his profession.  He began using cocaine to heighten the adrenaline rush of performing.

Then, in 2012, he made what he called a “big boom” in the world press by quitting the Royal Ballet. Appointed its youngest ever principal at the age of nineteen, he’d been fast-tracked through the ranks, given too many major roles too quickly, and by twenty-one felt burnt out. He told me at the time that it seemed he had nothing left to prove.  He realized that his lack of a real vocation for ballet owed to the fact that he’d been forced into it as a child. It had been his mother’s choice, not his.

Sergei’s mom kept up with him on the internet, like the rest of us

I visited Galina in her studio apartment in the outskirts of Kiev in 2012.   I was working on a long profile of Sergei. His tweets about his late, druggy nights, and the press excitement about his new tattoos and his escapades in North London’s underworld, had frightened her.  She craved reassurance that the online rumpus was mostly hearsay.

Despite the language barrier, Galina and I bonded immediately, perhaps because of my own brief experience as a ballet mother. I’d done my own share of pushing, arranging a Russian tutor for my youngest son, Alfie—he also had conversation sessions at White Lodge with Sergei—in case he ever studied at Vaganova Academy, in St. Petersburg. This never happened; he decided he wanted to go to “a normal school,” and I’ve never been allowed to forget that the Russian lessons, which he dropped as soon as he could, were all my idea.

“I vowed I’d arrange for her to see him dance”

But an adolescent’s raised finger to parental influence was nothing in comparison to what Sergei put Galina through. They had kept in regular touch and vacationed together during his summer trips to Ukraine.  Now he dissuaded her from attending the students’ graduation concert at the Royal Opera House, in London.  He was the star, and all but forbidden her to watch his Royal Ballet performances.  Galina was forced to follow his progress online. Video clips can’t capture the glow of his presence onstage, and I vowed that somehow I’d arrange for her to see him dance.

“All is good”

A year later, an opportunity came up. I’d begun work on a documentary about Sergei with my husband, the dance filmmaker Ross MacGibbon. There was already a wonderful visual narrative, as in typical dance mom fashion, Galina had photographed and filmed all the key moments of Sergei’s early life.  We decided to shoot the first footage in London, in February of 2013. The Royal Ballet was reviving the Fonteyn/Rudolf Nureyev vehicle “Marguerite and Armand” to mark the ballerina Tamara Rojo’s farewell season with the company, and the director had invited Sergei back to be her partner.

After sending Galina an invitation to help secure a visa, I presented her London trip to Sergei as something of a fait accompli. I’d acted on impulse—mostly out of empathy with Galina—but I readied my excuse to Sergei.  If we got permission to film his mother watching him for the first time on the Royal Opera House stage, it would be a powerful moment in the documentary. He didn’t protest at the time, but told me later that he’d tried to talk Galina out of coming. “I felt so connected to her that I thought I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the role,” Sergei recently recalled. “All I would be thinking is ‘She is there.’”

February 10th, 7:50 a.m.: “I am start fly, love Galina.”

1:07 p.m.: “Where are you now?”

“Now in the train! All is good!”

Galina in London

I met Galina at Victoria Station, and took her to a small, chintzy hotel I’d booked nearby, on Ebury Street, leaving her to rest. Sergei had told her that it was warm in London, but the weather had turned foul, with sleet and freezing wind, so later we went together to buy a pair of boots. That evening, I picked her up at seven and drove to our flat, where I’d prepared dinner for her and Sergei. She hadn’t been able to contact him yet, and neither had I, our calls going straight to voice mail. At 8:30, we were still unsure if he was going to arrive, but finally I got through to him. He was in a taxi with his friend, the Royal Ballet’s Nehemiah Kish, a soft-spoken American dancer whose loyalty is much valued by Sergei.

More than one dance mom

Dinner was a little awkward at first.  Sergei hardly spoke to Galina, who was quiet and couldn’t join in the English chatter. I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake. Male stars with absent mothers are a magnet to devoted, middle-aged fixers—Nureyev had surrogate stage mothers in every city he frequented.  I hated the thought that I’d become one of those meddling obsessives. Sergei was already nervous about returning to the company he’d abandoned.  He seemed to think that having Galina there might jinx his performance.  In challenging this, I was responsible for stressing him out even more. But then the mood loosened up. The baftas, which were on television, helped to break the ice.  The dancers drank several beers and tucked into second helpings of venison. All three stayed late.

Rojo kisses Galina’s hand

“Marguerite and Armand,” which was performed the next night, was the last ballet on the bill.  When the curtain rose Galina clutched my arm for a second. Sergei told me afterward that with his very first step he’d thought about his mother being there. “If I’d screwed up or fallen, I’d have blamed it on her,” he said. But his performance was flawless—blazing, bestial, tender, and beautifully in tune with Tamara Rojo, a superb dramatic ballerina. Galina sat straight upright throughout, dabbing her eyes with a napkin that she’d taken from the bar. At the end, the entire auditorium was hushed (“I thought, What’s going on?” Sergei said), but when the curtain rose again there was a collective roar.

Then the house manager arrived to escort us through the pass door onto the stage, with our film crew following behind. A stylist acquaintance had lent Galina a chic black dress and feathered cape.  When Sergei caught site of her, he took hold of her hand.  They talked in Russian about her designer outfit until he realized they were being filmed. Rojo came over to hug Galina.   She thanked her for “making such an amazing dancer and letting him come to London.”  Then, in a balletic act of homage, she knelt and kissed Galina’s hand.

“I want to make her happy”

Galina went to see “Marguerite and Armand” again during her trip.  She and Sergei had a dinner by themselves. Later in the week, we took her to a local restaurant.  She had a giggling fit when my langoustines arrived with a lemon half-wrapped in muslin. She put it in her bag as a souvenir. We saw matinees of “Mamma Mia” and “Billy Elliot.”  Galina was delighted.  After a couple of days she was as independent as a Londoner. On her return, she carried a stash of demerara sugar in her suitcase (“It costs six times more in Ukraine”).   Galina paid the hotel bill with a brick of banknotes that Sergei had given her. This was the first of many trips. “It was time to stop being selfish,” he told me. “I want to make her happy.”

First of many performances

Sergei was then under contract to the Stanislavsky company, in Moscow.  Director Georgian dancer Igor Zelensky, was a former principal with the Mariinsky and the New York City Ballet.  Other major companies shied away from signing a dancer then regarded as a volatile troublemaker.  Zelensky stepped in.  Galina said he “saved” her son. He created a Polunin repertory, featuring European masterworks.  Igor also became a mentor, part father and brother.  His wife and children became Sergei’s Russian family. I saw Galina in Moscow.  Sergei made an extraordinary début in MacMillan’s “Mayerling,” and, in London, with the Stanislavsky in Petit’s “Coppelia.”

Could be mom knows him best

In the fall of 2013, just before my husband and I stopped working on the documentary, we travelled to Ukraine to film Sergei’s backstory.  We returned home a week before the first rumblings of revolution erupted in Kiev’s Independence Square. In Kiev, Galina’s exposure to the West was apparent in the transformation of her apartment. A new minimalism had replaced the Soviet décor.  The heavy brown furniture was gone.  Flocked wallpaper with flying fish was covered in white paint. By the following summer, she too seemed to have undergone a process of reinvention. Sergei had again stunned the ballet world.  He announced that he was moving to Hollywood to begin a career as a movie actor.

Back to dance

This turned out to be a short-lived experiment.  He returned to Russia in October to star opposite Zelensky in “Spartacus.”  He was soon a “permanent guest” with Zelensky’s new company in Munich. At the time his decision to quit dancing was shocking.  I e-mailed Galina, thinking she’d be devastated. Her reply took me by surprise. “I am hope Serezha will be happy in America and will do what he like,” she wrote. Perhaps she’d been putting on a brave face.  Her words struck me as those of someone who’d learned to recognize when a crisis was just another blip, someone gaining strength by letting go.


  • Julie Kavanagh is a freelance writer whose books include the authorized lives of Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev.

Sergei’s Swan Swims

Sergei’s Swan Swims

“And The Swan Is Swimming”

 Ekaterina Belyaeva, 11.10.2012

"Swan Lake" at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater

The ballet season at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater opened on September 29 with Swan Lake.  Vladimir Burmeister’s version. Apart from the fact that it is a cult spectacle for the theater and, in general, a cult Russian ballet, plus the highest-grossing ballet of all time.  The “Swan” Burmeister celebrates several dates this season. Sixty years from the day of his birth will be celebrated with official festivities and even a mini-festival at the MAMT in April 2013.  Secondly, on September 9, it will be eighty-five years from the birthday of the first Odette-Odile Violetta Trofimovna Bovt (1927-1995).  The famous Moscow ballerina danced for thirty-five years on the stage of her native Stasika, becoming the first performer of many ballets of the post-war repertoire.

The main reason to visit this first performance of the season was not his “bearded” jubilees, but the debuts of young performers – Erika Mikirticheva and Sergei Polunin .

The latter began the duties of the premiere of the Moscow theater at the end of last season, having fled in February from London‘s Covent Garden. Despite his youth (22 years), the artist, apparently, experienced an existential crisis.  He got too much luck – he came from Ukraine, he joined the celebrated English troupe, quickly became principal, he danced a dozen leading roles from Capt. Solyon in the “Winter Dreams” of McMillan to Solor in La Bayadere.  In passing, I found out that he does not need a free flow of roles, if there is no time for reflection.  Polunin resigned and went into hiding until he was caught up with the call of the choreographer of the ballet MAMT Igor Zelensky with an invitation to Moscow to work and with promises of a creative atmosphere (in one interview, the artist complained that his English director, Monica Mason, had never even really talked to him ).

"Swan Lake" at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater

The atmosphere for the dancer was unusual: almost two hours it was necessary to be on stage and only twenty minutes of them to dance – basically as a ballerina supporting partner.

The fact is that Burmeister, when composing his version of Swan in 1953, made changes mainly to the plot, to the composition inside the paintings, to the music and the party of Odile, and Siegfried received almost nothing in comparison with the pre-revolutionary editions.  Burmeister in the play has a prologue and an epilogue, which clearly tells the story of the transformation of Odette into a swan: a curtain opens in the middle of the overture, a young girl in a white dress runs out from the wings, an evil owl (Rothbart) stands on a rock and wings theatrically, the girl disappears imperceptibly,  Then on the flat lake in the background a plastic swan moves in the crown, the curtain closes, and the music still sounds for a few minutes.

The whole of the first picture Prince Siegfried nervously wanders around the stage, drinking wine from the cup, humbly nods to the Queen Mother,

while his friends and a jester entertain him and themselves dancing to the music that was originally written by Tchaikovsky for this picture, but later partially capped, and partially used by Petipa to create his brilliant black pas de deux 3 act.

The courtiers flaunt semiclassical dances, which once made their creator famous, and today look very archaically – as museum exhibits from the era of the USSR. All the time you expect that secondary characters with jumps to dull sixth positions will give way to the handsome prince, but will not happen. The second picture corresponds to the classical white picture of Lev Ivanov, only in a shortened format (there are fewer swans, the amplitude of all movements is more modest).

"Swan Lake" at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater

The main trick for setting Burmeister – the third picture. Odile as a fatal woman appears at the ball along with the Spaniards and accompanied by Rothbart (absolutely pedestrian character). She seduces the prince not because she looks like Odette, whom he is in love with, but because he looks like Carmen, and she seduces everyone. Black pas de deux at Burmeister also exists – but in his author’s choreography (with tricks like a Don-Kikhotovsky jump of a ballerina in the hands of a partner) and to the music known to us on the Pas de de Tchaikovsky-Balanchine. At the same time Rothbart ( Anton Domashov ) constantly sympathetically interferes in the personal life of her daughter and her alleged bridegroom right at the time of their main dance. It is clear already that

Polunin, when he reached his short variation, gave out to the maximum – picturesque pirouettes, double tours with accurate landings in the fifth, stone solid, etc.

In pantomime and gaming pieces Polunin kept in character delicately, which pleased.

The fourth picture is not significant, except for the sugary, fantastic-plastic happy ending. Odette does not just not die a swan, she survives and regains her human appearance (puts on a dress and looks like a fairy Alyonushka) to match Siegfried.

The work of Erika Mikirticheva was rather liked, although she still has to sharpen the role.

There were a lot of technical inconsistencies that would improve in time. Actress’s audacity Odile, she threw out with interest, but not enough aplomb and, in general, hardness in the movements.

In the theater they openly say that they have a change of generations.

Two debuts of the young in the first ballet evening – this is a good start. We will wait for the continuation. October 29 Polunin will dance Basil in “Don Quixote” A. Chichinadze – another rarity from the “treasury” MAMT.

Photos by Mikhail Logvinov


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