sadler’s wells – Sergei Polunin

Tag: sadler’s wells

Royal Opera House Opens New Exhibition 2010

Royal Opera House Opens New Exhibition 2010

October 21, 2010

Royal Ballet principal dancers Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin announce the opening of a new exhibition from Royal Opera House Collections and The Lowry, Manchester.  Tamara and Sergei are wearing the costumes from “Birthday Offering.”

“Birthday Offering” is a pièce d’occasion in one scene choreographed by Frederick Ashton to music by Alexander Glazunov, arranged by Robert Irving. The ballet was created in 1956, to celebrate the Royal Ballet’s 25th anniversary. The first performance took place on 5 May 1956 at the Royal Opera House, London.

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“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.

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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.’

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 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.

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 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.’


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.’

“The Cheek Of It” A Telegraph article from 2012

“The Cheek Of It” A Telegraph article from 2012

Sergei Polunin: the ballet cheek of it

The shock departure of the Royal Ballet’s young star has rocked the company.

cheek of it
‘I got some sick tattoos’: Sergei Polunin, pictured in ‘Rhapsody’ at the Royal Opera House  Photo: Robbie Jack

Where were you when you heard that Sergei Polunin had left the Royal Ballet? I was just about to take my seat at a studio performance at Covent Garden where London’s balletomanes were huddled miserably in the aisles, open-mouthed with dismay at the news. His colleagues were equally nonplussed – “he was fine yesterday”, said one.

Reports of a ballet world “in shock” might sound like overkill – nobody died, for heaven’s sake – but the sudden loss of this extraordinary young star was proving hard to bear and almost impossible to fathom. Why on earth was he leaving? Where would he go? And (the show must go on, after all) who could they possibly cast in his place?

Polunin’s unprecedentedly abrupt departure was front-page news, but the 22-year-old star has long been food for headlines. His teenage debut as the snorting, tiger-slaying hero in the 1877 melodrama La Bayadère prompted comparisons with the young Rudolf Nureyev and, for once, the hype was justified: the same supercharged classicism; the same haughty sensuality; the same instinctive mastery of stagecraft.

Polunin’s silky technique, drill-bit pirouettes and cat-like jump were a credit to his schooling, but his most exceptional qualities were not learnt in the studio. Even at 19, he knew how to infuse every step with motive force and give a gesture dramatic weight. Ballet’s princes spend a surprising amount of time standing about shooting their cuffs and generally looking spare but Polunin has only to tilt his chin or wave an imperious hand to take total command of the stage. Nobody taught him how to do that (if they knew the formula, they’d bottle it).

Young Royal Ballet soloists often bemoan the years wasted while they blush unseen in the chorus but Sergei Polunin’s prodigious talent meant he was fast-tracked through the ranks. At only 19, he became Covent Garden’s youngest-ever male principal dancer and began systematically working his way through the great roles of the repertoire – to universally ecstatic reviews.

Adulation, rapid promotion and regular crowds at Floral Street’s stage door could easily turn a young dancer’s head and result in preening, self-regarding performances, but if Polunin was vain he didn’t let it show on stage. He never consciously stole a scene and soon proved a considerate and versatile partner. In the five short years since his graduation he has been paired successfully with almost all of the Royal’s female stars – Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Alina Cojocaru – but the most exciting match was made last October with the Spanish dancer Tamara Rojo in Marguerite and Armand.

The one-act piece had been tailor-made for Margot Fonteyn and gorgeous, pouting new arrival Rudolf Nureyev by Frederick Ashton in 1963 but Rojo and Polunin made the ballet their own. Rojo (who ought to know) is unstinting in praise of her new partner. “Dancing Marguerite and Armand with Sergei was one of the most wonderful experiences of my career,” she told me yesterday. “He is a truly special man and I really hope I get to share the stage with him again.”

Her audience felt the same way, electrified by the urgency and naturalism of the two stars; many happy hours were spent in games of Fantasy Ballet, re-casting every revival with this thrilling new partnership. Their admirers hungrily scoured the schedules and crowded the blogosphere: when would the pair be dancing next?

It looks as if we’ll all have a long wait. Tuesday’s resignation was “with immediate effect” and he will dance none of his scheduled debuts: no Oberon; no Romeo; no La Sylphide; no A Month in the Country. This cruelly abrupt departure leaves a lot of disappointed ticket holders (his dates were all completely sold out) although it remains to be seen whether London’s well-bred ballet-goers will be moved to stamp or boo when he takes his bow at a boy’s own ballet gala, Men in Motion, at Sadler’s Wells tomorrow night, directed by Ivan Putrov, who also left the Royal Ballet in less than ideal circumstances.

A riot at the Wells is unlikely. For the moment the mood of the fans is one of baffled disappointment (“Now I know how it felt when The Beatles split up,” wailed one), all struggling to comprehend how anyone blessed (or burdened?) with such a unique talent and given every opportunity to nourish it should cut and run with so little consideration for his teachers, his fans or even his own career. He had the Covent Garden repertoire in his pocket, the ballet world at his feet – what the hell happened?

Dame Monica Mason, licking her wounds at the loss of her biggest star during her final season as the Royal Ballet’s director, is refusing any comment beyond a rather terse press release. Polunin himself is not taking calls and even his inane tweets (“I got some sick tattoos”) have dried up. It’s tempting to look to his rags-to-(relative) riches background for answers but it’s a career path that many performers share.

Born in the small town of Kherson in the Ukraine, the young Polunin started out as a gymnast, but the switch to ballet (aged eight) led to an audition with the Kiev State Ballet school and a move to the big city, where he shared a one-room apartment with his mother (who has yet to see him dance professionally). A video audition led to a sponsored place at the Royal Ballet School followed by a job with the company and a new life in London.

Was it all simply a case of too much too young? He’s clearly a complicated and contradictory character. He wanted every role he could get, then complained of feeling “constricted”, demanding to be released for lucrative guest appearances (“that is where you make good money”). Polunin is hardly the first dancer to want to make the most of their golden years. If this was the problem, it’s a pity he and Monica Mason weren’t able to thrash out a compromise before it came to this.

And where will he go? He was hinting at New Year that 2012 would be “controversial” and he’s unlikely to have made such a major decision on a whim but, if there is a grand plan, it was still unvoiced 24 hours after the shock announcement. First thoughts as we stood chattering in Covent Garden’s basement studio were that he might have been lured to St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky ballet. The company, bankrolled by fruit magnate Vladimir Kekhman (alias “Mr Bananas”), recently poached the Bolshoi’s star couple Vladimir Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova for vast sums and a flexible contract, but it seems hard to believe that a hip Ivy-goer like Polunin would want to retreat back East. The word on the street (well, Floral Street, anyway) is that he may be thinking of dancing for American Ballet Theatre – not exactly a step up.

At the time of writing the young star was holed up in darkest Holloway, in the bedroom above the tattoo parlour he co-owns. Google “Sergei Polunin” and the word “tattoo” comes third in the list of suggestions. There is a school of thought which insists that the tattoo count is in inverse proportion to IQ. Sergei Polunin has lots of tattoos (all masked at vast expense by the make-up department).

Dermal decoration is pretty rare in the ballet world, so much so that one company insider mistook the bear claw “scar” that runs across his chest for a horrific instance of “self-harming” – which I suppose it is, in a way. The giant crucifix tattoo on that beautifully muscled forearm is hardly the smartest choice for a man whose body is on constant display (there’s a lot more topless ballet than you’d think). Most ballet dancers don’t even dare sunbathe in case it’s wrong for a role. My spies tell me the latest acquisition, done by a rather confused Russian tattooist, reads: “I am hwo I am” (let’s hope he got a discount).

And how will the Royal Ballet manage without him? Don’t let the “Dream turns to nightmare” headlines depress you too much. Re-assigning his performances is the least of the Royal Ballet’s worries. Dancers come and go, injuries happen, understudies rejoice. Steven McRae will dance Polunin’s Oberons as well as his own in The Dream (very nice, too) and hungry young soloists will be jumping a little higher and landing a little neater in morning class, buoyed up by that ill wind.

Meanwhile, as the dust settles, a fellow critic assures us that it’s “no great loss”. Perhaps. But when I look at those pictures and re-run those ballets in my mind’s eye, it feels like a very great loss indeed.

Dream Becomes A Nightmare, Polunin Quits Royal Ballet

Dream Becomes A Nightmare, Polunin Quits Royal Ballet

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destructive Power Of Ballet Laid Bare

Destructive Power Of Ballet Laid Bare

Pointe break: ballet’s destructive power laid bare in Sergei Polunin documentary

Steven Cantor’s intimate film about the rebellious dancer exposes the pressures heaped on young prodigies – and has vital lessons for the industry

Unresolved demons … Sergei Polunin.
 Unresolved demons … Sergei Polunin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

In Dancer, Steven Cantor’s new film about Sergei Polunin, there’s heartbreaking footage of the dancer when he was eight years old. Wide-eyed, gappy-toothed and lit by an irrepressible grin, little Sergei spins, tumbles and balances with a grace astonishing in one so young. As Polunin’s grandmother comments, “He used to dance with his heart. He transported himself right into the music.”

Nearly two decades later, as Cantor’s camera follows Polunin backstage after a show, the life has apparently been drained from him. Blank-faced and hunched, he mutters: “Every day I hope I will be injured, then I won’t have the option to dance any more.” A bleaker, darker fable than The Red Shoes, Dancer tells the story of how talent can turn from a blessing to a curse.

Something of that story became public in 2012 when Polunin, as one of the Royal Ballet’s most heavily promoted young principals, suddenly announced that he was quitting the company. Amid stories of cocaine use and his own gnomic tweets about “living fast and dying young”, the 22-year-old claimed that he’d become stifled by ballet, that “the artist inside [him] had died” and that he had to move on.

In fact Polunin moved on to Russia, where he joined the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow. Closely mentored by his new director, Igor Zelenksy, Polunin initially seemed to have made a fresh start – but news began to filter back that he hadn’t settled, that he was skipping rehearsals and missing shows and was again talking of leaving ballet, this time for a career in Hollywood.

It was hard get an accurate picture of what was going on. Polunin had become a magnet for journalists, and during interviews he tended to blurt out whatever was passing through his mind. With his words often taken out of context, he was frequently presented as an ungracious, lazy, confused young man with delusions of celebrity. The larger story, of Polunin’s difficult family background and unresolved demons, was less widely known. It’s this story that Cantor tries to tell in his humane and sympathetic documentary.

Cantor is a director, not a dance expert, and perhaps it’s not surprising that at times he oversimplifies his material in the service of his plot. His use of heavy rock guitar and staccato pacing to colour the scenes of Polunin’s early rebellion make the dancer seem wilder than he really was (drugs and tattoos are far from unknown in the ballet world). There is no attempt to place the dancer’s gifts or the trajectory of his career within the wider context of ballet.

Cantor’s focus, fairly enough, is all on Polunin and on the troubled and complex nature of his talent. He has accessed some marvellous film archives, which give revelatory proof that Polunin was a natural prodigy. We see him at the age of 11, his skinny limbs already shaped by a beautiful line and precocious control; we see him as a teenage student at the Royal Ballet School, leaving his classmates behind as he powers through a complex bravura variation.

But raw talent, however astonishing, may not enough be enough to nourish a career, and Cantor vividly sketches the narrative of how Polunin went from infant prodigy to angry rebel. He was born in the drably impoverished town of Kherson, south Ukraine, but while he recalls his early childhood as happy, his mother, Galina, had her eyes set on wider horizons and enrolled him first into gymnastic classes and then into ballet. As the extent of his talent became clear, she was determined to make him a star.

Everything was sacrificed to that end. When Polunin was given a place at the ballet school in Kiev his father, Vladimir, went to work in Portugal, and his grandmother to Greece, in order to pay the fees, while Galina gave up her own life in Kherson to go to Kiev with her son. At 13, Polunin won a place at the Royal Ballet School, moving to London, where he knew no one. He spoke not a word of English. For two years he apparently flourished, but his determination to be top of his class was driven not only by his own desire to do well but by the belief that, as a successful dancer, he would be able to provide for his family and bring them back together.

The family, however, did not survive its enforced periods of separation and when Galina and Vladimir divorced two years later, something seemed to have broken in the 15-year-old Sergei. Although he continued to make exceptional progress, Polunin recalls that he was very angry, very unhappy inside. He danced through his demons, but by his early 20s he had achieved most of his professional goals, and lost all his motivation. The joy had gone from his work, his family were no longer around to benefit from his success – and in any case he now wanted little to do with them, especially his mother, whom he blamed for having forced him into a career he’d never chosen.

Polunin with Natalia Osipova in Run Mary Run at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2016.
 Polunin with Natalia Osipova in Run Mary Run at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Some of the most revealing interviews in Cantor’s film are with the family. Polunin’s father seems genuinely regretful and shocked by the revelations of his son’s unhappiness, saying he had always been so worried about being the bread-winner that he’d failed to hold his family together.

Galina remains adamant that everything she’d done was correct. There’s a bleak, awkward conversation during which Polunin tries to explain to his mother how coerced and miserable he had felt, but she simply reiterates that he had to take responsibility for all the sacrifices the family had made for him. I hope Cantor was fair to Galina in the editing because she doesn’t come out of the film particularly well: there’s a marked contrast between the wariness Polunin shows towards her and the emotion with which he embraces his first ballet teacher when he goes back to Kherson and recalls the time when ballet was still an innocent, joyful thing for him.

I’m guessing that Cantor considered ending his film with the video for Hozier’s Take Me to Church, which Polunin made in 2015 with the artist David LaChapelle. In one of the final interviews to camera, Polunin says that the video was to be his formal farewell to ballet, that he would give up dancing and get himself a “normal life”. But events moved on after Take Me to Church went viral. Polunin became less adamant about retiring and Cantor had to be content with a less conclusive ending.

Cantor didn’t prolong the filming long enough to catch Polunin as he met and fell in love with the Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, a relationship that Polunin claims has transformed his life. The dancer today is very different from the edgy, confused subject of Cantor’s documentary; he says that with Osipova he has learned to love ballet again and has the confidence to carve out the career that he wants. He will perform and present repertory that he believes in – this March he is premiering Project Polunin, an independent programme of new and vintage ballets, which includes some of his own choreographic input. He is also planning to set up a management agency that will enable dancers to work independently of a home company and theatre, as actors and singers tend to do.

It’s too early to forecast the success or otherwise of Polunin’s plans. In recessionary times, it’s harder than ever to fund independent dance projects (Will Tuckett’s Nutcracker recently fell victim to financial troubles). And it takes guts, good taste and rigour for a dancer to steer their own career. From the evidence of Cantor’s film, it’s impossible to know how well equipped Polunin will be for his new career; how easy it will be for him to leave his restless demons behind.

There is one other unresolved issue that arises from Dancer: what, if anything, could have been done to avert those early crises? When he first walked out of the Royal, he claimed it was the company’s fault and that there was an English “mafia” in the company intent on pushing out Russian dancers (in “Russian”, he presumably included himself).

These days, though, Polunin’s tone is far less accusatory. When I interviewed him (with Osipova) last year, he was touchingly eager to correct any idea that he had not been supported in London: “The Royal Ballet School looked after me very well, they were like my family, and the company gave me everything.” But he did want to explain how alone he had felt back then, and how unable he was to cope with his alienation and anger.

“I was unhappy [at school] and I didn’t know how to express it,” he said. “At home if you were angry you had a fight with someone, but at the school no one ever fought – you would have been thrown out. In the company I began to feel lost. I wanted to do other things, like a musical or a movie, but I was afraid of messing up. I had lived in London for 13 years – it was my home. but I wasn’t a citizen. If the director was angry with me and threw me out, where would I go? When I walked out, I think I was trying to make the worst thing happen to me, the thing I was most scared of, so that I wouldn’t be frightened any more.”

Polunin in Sylvia by the Royal Ballet in 2010.
 Polunin in Sylvia by the Royal Ballet in 2010. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The process of self-reflection that Polunin clearly underwent in the filming of Dancer, along with the confidence he has acquired with Osipova, has brought the dancer an emotional clarity that was beyond his reach a few years ago.

Student dancers and young professionals are a rarefied breed; they’ve been hot-housed to an early maturity; many have left behind their families and homes and all have developed a high degree of competitiveness and self-criticism. As with classical musicians and elite sportspeople, it’s difficult for them to admit any kind of weakness, even to themselves. If the busy teachers and staff at the Royal failed to observe that Polunin was struggling, so did most of his peers.

But this culture of stoicism makes it imperative for the dance industry to develop better systems for dealing with issues of anxiety, burnout and stress. The Royal provides excellent medical facilities to prevent and treat its dancers’ injuries. But just as society as a whole is waking up to the scope of mental health issues among the general population, so dance needs to get better at identifying the problems that can affect its performers. There are other outstanding talents that have been squandered or spoiled by a lack of intelligent nurturing – ballerinas such as Gelsey Kirkland and Bryony Brind are prime examples of those who struggled with demons and doubts. Dancers need to know that it’s OK to ask for help, and management need to create a culture where vulnerability isn’t equated with failure.

  • Dancer is released in cinemas on 10 March 2017. The premiere with a live performance from Sergei Polunin is on 2 March at the London Palladium and will be broadcast into cinemas nationwide. Project Polunin is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 14-18 March.
James Dean, Sergei Takes On The Rebel, 2012

James Dean, Sergei Takes On The Rebel, 2012

Sergei Polunin takes on James Dean

Sergei Polunin dances James Dean for Men in Motion

With a headline screaming “Sergei Polunin: I’ll give up ballet by 26” in The Guardian last Tuesday, Alex Needham wrote that, “Men in Motion includes the first dance he [Polunin] has ever choreographed, a piece about James Dean.”

What happened was, Polunin commissioned his former colleague, Royal Ballet First Artist Valentino Zucchetti to choreograph a piece based on the actor James Dean.  Polunin, who resigned from The Royal Ballet on January 24th this year, had long been inspired by Dean, and Zucchetti accepted the challenge of researching and choreographing the piece in little more than a month.  It would be ready for the re-run of Ivan Putrov’s highly praised celebration of male dancing, Men in Motion, which you can see at Sadlers Wells this week (13 – 15 March).

james dean sergei polunin
Sergei Polunin Photograph: Cheryl Angear

Rebel With A Ballet Cause

Zucchetti knew little of James Dean and during his mid-season break last month, set about watching his films, as well as James Franco’s version to gain inspiration for the choreography.  Zucchetti is an avid music listener – particularly classical music, “I’ve always loved it since I was young,” and found two pieces that he could meld together to create two very different moods within the solo. He is often inspired by the music, and finds that sometimes “it’s screaming to be choreographed on.”

An animated interviewee, Zucchetti is always listening carefully and never afraid to thoughtfully offer his views. Also never one to sit still for long, I can see why he’s often cast as Puck (The Dream), or the Blue Boy (Les Patineurs) and he’s also a great host; mindful that Polunin is running late and courteous to a fault. Currently sporting an injury to one finger that requires it be bandaged with a protective metal hoop over the tip, he remains upbeat about the fact that he’ll miss some opportunities because of the injury (partnering is tricky) because he knows that others will be just over the horizon.

Knowing that dancers lead risky, injury-prone lives I tentatively (I’m not good with blood) ask whether he’d slipped, fallen or worse, but no; he was doing nothing risky at all – just putting on his socks! So be warned.

Sergei Polunin Photograph: Cheryl Angear

Choreographic talent

Zucchetti is modest too.  When I ask about his choreographic experience to date he tells me that he took part in two Draft Works (held in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House and curated by resident choreographer Wayne McGregor.  These are not performances as such, but an opportunity for dancers to cut their teeth in front of an audience) which “went down well.”

This is a massively modest understatement.  Both of his pieces – Trio Sonata in 2011 (comprising a pas de trios for Sander Blommaert, Sergei Polunin & Yasmine Naghdi) and Brandenburg Divertissement (for four couples. “I had the largest cast” which he said made rehearsals difficult to squeeze into their crazy schedules) won rave reviews.  Zucchetti was singled out on both occasions as a choreographer of note.

So what can we expect from James Dean?

The first section of the solo portrays Polunin as James Dean while he was shooting his movies.  The second variation has much more emotional body language.  It’s evocative of Dean’s yearning for affection from his father, which was never forthcoming.

james dean sergei polunin
Sergei Polunin & Valentino Zucchetti Photographs: Cheryl Angear
The theatrical and dramatic elements of Zucchetti’s choreography snagged Polunin’s interest early on.  The pair work well together, though both have intense schedules. When we meet, they have had 2 rehearsals already and need to be finished before the technical rehearsal this weekend.  Zucchetti has a double show day.  Looming (Romeo & Juliet in which he has numerous parts).  Shortly thereafter, preparing for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Liam Scarlett’s new work and Polyphonia. Polunin has been rehearsing his other pieces with Putrov for Men in Motion. Despite this, both are trying to shoe-horn in one more rehearsal.  They’ll need a Tardis if they are to succeed. 


They will get there – they are a great team and if nothing else.  Putting together any sort of choreography is all about teamwork.  The lighting technicians, wardrobe etc., must all be consulted.

james dean sergei polunin
Sergei Polunin & Valentino Zucchetti Photographs: Cheryl Angear

In rehearsal, Zucchetti demonstrates what he has devised to accompany the music.  First they mark all and then dance fullout to the music.  Every now and then Polunin will jump in with a request for more jumps.  Choreographing a solo is harder than an ensemble piece for Zucchetti, because with more people comes the possibility for layers of more complex music, which he loves.

Together they debate and discard anything too flashy or out of character.  They work on the nuances which are so important to them both.  Neither has any interest in dancing steps just for the sake of them.  Zucchetti wants Polunin to stand and really eyeball the audience.  Polunin tries out a couple of barrel turns. It’s a process that takes much longer than, say, the choreographer turning up with a fully fledged ballet ready to roll.  But despite the pressures, tiredness and lack of time, both remain grounded.  Each artist cheerful and focused on the task.

…and, compromise

At the end of each rehearsal they record what they’ve done on their iPhones.  Polunin records the second section of music to listen to later. Zucchetti is a big fan of Benesh Movement Notation.  He has been coached in roles by Christopher Carr who is never without his Benesh notes in his hands.  Zucchetti prefers notation over video.  He says video can only ever record what the dancers did, which may not have been exactly what the choreographer intended.  But for this short solo he is happy to use technology.

james dean sergei polunin
Sergei Polunin Photographs: Cheryl Angear

The music which Zucchetti finally settled upon is in two parts.  Firstly he chose one track from the soundtrack of the 1960’s film The Apartment.  The second part is a track taken from the soundtrack to the film James Franco plays James Dean. There is a narrative through the piece, though the pair have worked hard to avoid making it “too jazzy, or too classical.”  Too Hollywood, I ask ? “Yes” shoots back the reply.

james dean sergei polunin
Sergei Polunin Photographs: Cheryl Angear

Becoming James Dean

James Dean is a five and a half minute solo.  Polunin raids his own wardrobe for the requisite white t-shirt, jeans and jacket.  He even has a James Dean tattoo. What you’ll see is a very honest, direct piece of work with no subtext.  What you see is what you get and Zucchetti hopes that with this approach, the audience will immediately “get it.” He has always wanted impact from the beginning.

james dean sergei polunin
Sergei Polunin Photographs: Cheryl Angear

I think you’ll get it.  But first, you need a ticket.  You have bought one, haven’t you ?

Men in Motion opens at Sadlers Wells on Tuesday this week (13 – 15 March).

2012 Article “A Dancer’s Demons”

2012 Article “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

Cover Story – The Economist 1843


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” (above). 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.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men In Motion Article March 2012

Men In Motion Article March 2012

Sergei Polunin: the James Dean of the ballet world

Sergei Polunin, the Royal Ballet rebel who famously walked out, tells Sarah Crompton why he feels close to the moody film star.

Sergei Polunin (right) with Ivan Putrov in 'Men in Motion'Sergei Polunin (right) with Ivan Putrov in ‘Men in Motion’


Putrov arrives on the bus, which says something about the glamorous life of a dancer. Like Polunin, he was born in Ukraine and trained in Kiev before coming to the Royal Ballet.

“I knew Ivan’s dad before I knew Ivan,” says Polunin. “He was the main photographer at the theatre in Kiev so he always took pictures of me when I was little, in competitions.”

When Polunin arrived in Britain, at the age of 13, to study at the Royal Ballet School, Ivan, 10 years his senior, took him under his wing. Such ties run deep.

“When I came to England Ivan was helping me a lot. He showed me around and took me to dinner sometimes. And this is what you remember most, the people who help you at the beginning.”

That metaphorical arm is still flung strongly around the younger man. When I start to ask Polunin his reasons for leaving the Royal Ballet, just as four major roles were his for the asking, it is Putrov who firmly steps in: “I think this interview is more about this programme and the role that Sergei is taking in this programme.”

Polunin looks down at his hands, a slight smile on his face, shaking his head when I check whether he wants to say anything about his abrupt departure, which is shrouded in both mystery (why would someone so prodigiously talented leave a company that was showcasing him as a principal?) and rumour (of late nights, missed classes, rows with ballerinas, of his plans to run a tattoo parlour).

But as our conversation unfolds, clues about his motivation do emerge. For one thing, it is clear he is enjoying the freedom of working outside a big company.

“What I hate the most is waking up in the morning,” he says, hesitantly. “Like a freelancer, I wake up fine. I want to get up. It is like… OK, I am doing what I want to do. Before, I would cry in the morning.” He breaks off, and laughs ruefully.

He says all this in an accent that combines hints of his native land with the kind of London enunciation that drops all hard consonants and slurs the words together in a continuous stream. Putrov, sharp and erect, watches him like a protective big brother, cracking jokes and finishing his sentences. He, too, made a sudden exit from the role of principal at the Royal Ballet, leaving in 2010 to take a starring role in The Most Incredible Thing, a collaboration between Javier de Frutos and the Pet Shop Boys which he developed.

That brought him into contact with Sadler’s Wells, which in turn led to the first Men in Motion programme. This was where Polunin, a week after his Royal Ballet exit, danced what many people feared was his swansong, in Narcisse, a virtuoso solo. This new programme is entirely different, featuring Tim Matiakis (from Royal Ballet Denmark), Clyde Archer and Isaac Montilor (from Spain’s national ballet company).

At its heart will be a version of Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, starring Polunin, as well as Vestris, a solo created for Baryshnikov and danced by Putrov, and two new pieces made by them – one a duet, the other a solo.

Putrov chooses to remain mysterious about the duet – “come and see it”. But the solo is Polunin’s tribute to James Dean, the perennial outsider whom he discovered through a film starring James Franco. “It is amazing acting in that film, one of my favourites. After that I did the tattoo on my shoulder of James Dean’s name without seeing the actual James Dean movie. Since then I bought lots of T-shirts of his and I watched the movies and I just liked his spiritual mood. That is what the solo is going to be about, what he is feeling inside.”

He is enjoying the creative process: “When you do something you own, it is completely different than someone telling you what to do. It is your own decisions, your own thoughts, your own creativity. Something like that you want to do.”

Do you plan, I ask, to do more of this in future? “It is so many different options,” he says. “Nothing has been decided so he can’t say,” adds Putrov. “Yeah, I could not be dancing in six months,” says Polunin, his crumpled smile breaking out again. “Nor might I,” jumps in Putrov, quickly. “I might be building sets or something.”

Again and again, in our conversation, there is a sense of a young man kicking against the traces of discipline that ballet demands. Most dancers, for example, regard daily class as essential. Not Polunin. “I am not a fan. I don’t believe you have to do classes to be good. And you don’t have to be in a nice studio to do class. You can do it at home. As long as you keep the same routine.”

Polunin talks with great admiration of Tamara Rojo, his partner in his favourite ballet, Marguerite and Armand, with whom he will dance in Japan in the summer. “She is my favourite person to work with,” he says. “You perform twice in a whole month but for the whole month you rehearse. Which is the really boring part. I hate that part.

“But with her, it is like the joy of rehearsal as much as on stage. That is very important.” He has stopped mumbling now, and is talking with some passion. “It is your life. Ballet takes most of your time. And if you are not enjoying it…”

He pauses, and talks to Putrov about different dancers, then adds: “The stage, that’s the only time I enjoy really. I don’t enjoy my working, killing myself during the day for eight hours. I would go to the club and just move about rather than that. But on stage is something quite special. It’s a lot of good energy, adrenalin.

“I never felt scared, because I did gymnastics before ballet. And in gymnastics you are made to compete. On stage, you need people watching you. I learnt this from 12 years old. If you don’t have adrenalin it is way harder to jump and spin.”

His natural, unforced leap is part of what has made him famous. What does it feel like? “It is a good feeling. When you go a little bit higher than you think. In rehearsal it doesn’t normally happen. It only happens with adrenalin in a way, so you kind of surprise yourself .”

Since he was a child of eight, Polunin has been immersed in the training and the discipline that enable him to dance that way. Yet he makes one astounding admission.

“I never watch dancing,” he says. “The only thing I love about dancing is men dancing, men’s solos. I have never enjoyed anything else. It is something that naturally happens to me so I do it, but I never liked watching it. So every time I rehearse with a ballerina – not Tamara – I am like, why are you telling me what to do, because I never get excited by their dancing.”

No wonder there are stories about Polunin failing to get on with his partners behind the scenes. But given this feeling, the programme Putrov has fashioned is an ideal one for his friend to perform in.

“When I did Men in Motion, I felt a lot of the love of it back,” he says. And Putrov smiles benignly. “I think it is going to be a good evening,” he says.

‘Men in Motion’ is at Sadler’s Wells, March 13-15, 2012

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