youngest principal ever – Sergei Polunin

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His Own Words – Sergei Polunin

His Own Words – Sergei Polunin

His Own Words – Sergei Polunin

Sergei Polunin is a Ukrainian ballet dancer and a former principal dancer with the British Royal Ballet, before suddenly resigning in 2012, after only two years in the position. Polunin has a reputation for wild behavior, earning the nickname the “Bad Boy of Ballet.” He has recently gained more popularity following his performance in a music video choreographed to Hozier‘s hit single “Take Me To Church.” The music video was part of a larger Steven Cantor documentary on Polunin, Dancer, which premiered in 2016.


Polunin was born Sergei Vladimirovich Polunin on November 20, 1989 (Sergei Polunin age: 27) in Kherson, Ukrainian SSR, to Galina Polunina and Vladimir PoluninFrom the age of four, the future dancer excelled in gymnastics classes. At age eight, his studies shifted towards dance, and he spent four years at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute. Polunina, in an interview with the New Yorker, suggests that pushing her son towards dance was his best shot for a better life. “In my life, the choices were between salted cabbage and marinated cabbage,” she said. “I wanted him to have more of a choice than that.” The extent to which she wanted her son to succeed was so extreme that she moved with Polunin to Kiev, causing the family to split up in order to make ends meet. Polunin’s father sought work in Portugal, while his grandmother became a maid in Greece, all to support his growing career.

In 2013, Polunin was accepted to the White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s junior school in London, at the age of thirteen. At first devastated that they would not be able to afford the tuition, Polunin still attended largely in part from a grant given by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Unfortunately, this meant that Polunina had to stay in the Ukraine, leaving behind her teenage son. Faced with his family’s sacrifices and the mounting pressure to succeed, Polunin became a star pupil. “In school, I knew I could not fight, could not mess up, because I would be thrown out,” he told Uinterview. “And then when I was twenty-one, I wanted to do all the things I missed out on.” He did enjoy the freedom of the two thousand acres of parkland surrounding the school, saying he felt like he, “Was in Harry Potter.” Polunin’s success was such that his teachers advanced him a full two school years ahead.


Once in the senior school, Polunin’s discipline began to dissolve. While still excelling in his studies, the rising start experimented with drugs. By 2009, he was the first soloist at the Royal Ballet; by 2010, he came principal dancer, the youngest ever in the company’s history. He also earned his title of “Bad Boy” at this time, using cocaine to heighten his adrenaline rush and tweeting about late night parties and tattoos. In an interview with Uinterview, Polunin talked about his experience of getting a tattoo, which was strictly forbidden by the Royal Ballet. “Oh you think I’m bad, I’m going to prove [to] you I’m the baddest [sic],” he recalled. “I always drew on myself, always knew I was going to have a tattoo, and tattoos represented freedom to me.” He was forced to cover his new tattoos with makeup. On January 24, 2012, after growing dissatisfaction with his career, Polunin stepped down from the principal position, telling BBC that he felt, “the artist in me was dying.” Looking back on the dancer’s decision, documentarian Steven Cantor offered his thoughts to the New York Times about Polunin’s motivations. “It became clear that he was dancing as hard as he could to get his family back together. Then his parents got divorced, and I think he felt, what am I dancing for? He just lost his will and went off the rails.” Polunin only recently allowed his mother to see his performances in person; he originally forbade her to do so.


As a result of his bad reputation, Polunin had difficulty finding work with other companies. However, in the summer of 2012, he was invited to Russia by famous dancer Igor Zelensky, under whom he would train and become the principal dancer for The Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. On Zelensky, Polunin has referred to him as a surrogate father. “Nobody would listen to me, there wasn’t any real conversation going on,” Polunin told Uinterview. “And that’s when Igor appeared.” Polunin reveres Zelensky so much that he has gone as far as to tattoo the name of the artistic director on his shoulder.

His time with Zelensky was not without controversy, however. In April 2013, after preparing for the principal dance role in director Peter Schaufuss’s Midnight Express, Polunin, along with Zelensky, quit days before opening night. Despite his superior also leaving the troubled production, many considered Polunin to be “depressed” again.


Still frustrated at the seemingly dead-end to which his dance career had led him, Polunin encountered film producer Gabrielle Tana, who at the time had optioned Julie Kavanagh’s (the author behind his New Yorker profile) biography of Nureyev to be turned into a biopic. Polunin was not chosen for the role, but Tana pushed him to seek further collaborations in film. “I thought it was not just a compelling narrative but also the opportunity to capture someone brilliant in the prime of their career,” Ms. Tana said in an interview with The New York Times. “We didn’t really know what it would be, and Sergei was very wary at first. We were scared we would lose him.”

Tana suggested he work with American photographer and dance documentarian, David LaChapelle. Polunin ultimately decided to use the collaboration as his farewell performance to the dance world. LaChapelle suggested the then-relatively-unknown song “Take Me To Church,” by Hozier. Polunin would then fly down to shoot the music video in the empty chapel-like filmmaker’s studio in Hawaii. A longtime friend and fellow dancer, Jade Hale-Christofi, choreographed the piece. The music video would later become the centerpiece of large documentary work, Dancer, started in 2014 when Tana approached filmmaker Stephen Cantor. Dancer premiered in the Fall of 2016.

Following the worldwide success of Polunin’s Take Me To Church video, he has since decided to return to dancing. He continues to dance with Stanislavsky company and the Novosibirsk Ballet.


Polunin has been dating ballerina Natalia Osipova, who is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, since mid-2015. The pair has performed together in Russell Maliphant‘s Silent Echo, as part of a program of contemporary works. He has received numerous accolades for his performances, including the Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix in 2006. He was named Young British Dancer of the Year in 2007.  In 2014 he was shortlisted as the best male dancer at the National Dance Awards in the U.K.

This article was published by Uinterview on December 19, 2016.
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Itinerant Balletomane Reviews Young Sergei

Itinerant Balletomane Reviews Young Sergei

Itinerant Balletomane reviews young Sergei and the veteran blogger is blown away

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sergei Polunin at the Stanislavsky Theater

I am completely starstruck.  Last week I saw Sergei Polunin perform twice with the Stanislavsky Theater – first as Basil in Don Quixote and then as the Prince in Swan Lake.  I’ve obviously heard a lot about Polunin.  For the non balletomanes out there, he was made a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet at the age of 20, making him their youngest principal ever. After two years, he unexpectedly quit the company.  A few months later, he signed on as a principal with the (respectable but still not nearly as famous) Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow.  You can read an excellent article about him here.

itinerant balletomane reviews young sergei
Natalia Somova and Sergei Polunin in Swan Lake

Lucky to catch him

Since his move to Moscow, Polunin has become a more elusive dancer to see, and I obviously felt very lucky to catch him in two performances. I was especially eager to see if he lived up to any of the hype. The answer is that he completely surpasses it.  I really have never been so impressed by a dancer. The thing that strikes me most forcefully about him is his enormous charisma.  Whenever he is onstage, he draws the eye to him.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a beautifully intense stare, but he has much more than that.  In every moment he is performing he is fully present in the role.  Every gesture no matter how small is done with acuteness and power. This is especially potent in his portrayal of the Prince in Swan Lake, a role that has to anchor the ballet’s narrative without having much opportunity for solo dancing.  Polunin’s prince begins somewhat lost and disaffected; his ardent love for Odette seems to give him something to hold on to in life. His eyes follow her across the stage, and he runs to her as though drawn by some outside force.  

Dramatic intensity with textbook-perfect technique

Polunin’s solo variations combine this dramatic intensity with textbook-perfect technique.  I’ve seen a lot of impressive male dancers here in Moscow. Many of them seem to lose a sense of their character and of the audience as soon as they have to perform impressive jumps or turns.  Polunin never turns off the artistry. So many other male principals land with the greatest of care in order to avoid falling over or take an extra step. Doing this takes concentration you can see on their faces. Polunin simply lands on the ground perfectly and moves into the next step or pose.  He draws us with him in a torrent of movement. His technique does not fixate, even though that technique is beautiful. In addition to having amazing height on his jumps and beautiful turns, Polunin also boasts an arabesque and a back attitude that most ballerinas would kill for.

Nureyev comparison is apt

I’ve heard Polunin spoken of as the next Nureyev and the comparison is apt.  Sadly, however, this is a Nureyev without his Fonteyn.  Both evenings I saw Polunin performing with Natalia Somova, who just isn’t cutting it on this level.  She can be sweet and charming, but she lacks charisma and simply doesn’t have the same level of technique.  In addition, sometimes their partnership seems strained.  In particular, there was a disastrous pair of flying fish dives in Don Quixote, during the second of which Polunin didn’t manage to tip Somova over at all, and they ended up sort of hugging standing up.  I’ve seen videos of Polunin paired with other people and doing it brilliantly, so I assume that this is not an inherent flaw in his dancing, but I’m not enough of a dancer myself to tell who’s really at fault.

My favorite ballet orchestra ever

The wonderful partner that Polunin does get at the Stanislavsky is its beautiful orchestra.  Having been to five ballets at this theater, I am now prepared to dub it my favorite ballet orchestra ever. It is better than New York City, better than the Bolshoi, and miles better than the Royal.  Felix Korobov, the chief conductor, likes a fiery brass section and a quick tempo.  He always manages to bring out a full and lyrical sound.  Even so when he tampers with the music to fit the choreography.  The instrumentalists are a dream, particularly the French horn section and the harpist.  Sadly I can’t name them because they’re not listed on the website. Everything in the ensemble provides the emotional background for Polunin’s portrayal.  I know that the orchestra isn’t the reason Polunin moved to this theater, but I deeply wish it were.

So, in sum: see Polunin at the Stanislavsky (especially in Swan Lake), but hope with the rest of us that they persuade some wonderful young ballerina to move to the company.

Stanislavsky Theater, Don Quixote, June 14, 2013.  Music by Ludwig Minkus, Choreography by Alexei Chichinadze, Kitri: Natalia Somova, Basil: Sergei Polunin, Conductor: Anton Grishanin

Stanislavsky Theater, Swan Lake, June 20, 2013. Music by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, Production by Vladimir Burmeister, Odette/Odile: Natalia Somova, Prince: Sergei Polunin, Evil Genius: Nikita Kirilov, Jester: Dmitri Zagrebin, Conductor: Felix Korobov
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Project Polunin Donation

Project Polunin Donation


David Begbie - Project Polunin donation

Contini Art UK

News – 8 March 2017

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


project polunin donation


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

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


project polunin donation


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



Dancer: The Outtakes

Dancer: The Outtakes

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

By Julie Kavanaugh For Dancing Times, March 2017 issue


An idea is born

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

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


Igor Zelensky stepped up

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

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


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

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

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


A motley lot

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

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


Galina sees Sergei dance professionally for the first time

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

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

“I’ve always been scared of contemporary”

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

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


Original idea for Dancer focused on artistry

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

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


And then came the tattoos

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

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


Nikolai Priadchenko and what might have been

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

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


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

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


Home to Kherson

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


Where it all began

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


The healer

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

The Dancer outtakes and what might have been

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

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


Sergei Upstages Everyone In Balanchine’s 2010 T&V

Sergei Upstages Everyone In Balanchine’s 2010 T&V

Royal Ballet Mixed Bill – A Review


Royal Opera House, London

Two ballets about separation dominate the Royal’s latest mixed bill – Kim Brandstrup’s Invitus Invitam and MacMillan’s Winter Dreams. Each of them has a pair of tragic lovers at its centre, each attempts to compress their story within a single act.

In every other way the two are poles apart. Brandstrup’s new work makes a poetic virtue of its own compression. Its lovers are the emperor Titus and his mistress Berenice, about whose separation nothing is known beyond a simple report by the historian Suetonius that “against his will and against her will they parted”.

Inspired by the agonised resonance of those few words, Brandstrup constructs his ballet out of three short duets. Set to Thomas Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin, these are passionate, fluent exchanges between Titus (Edward Watson) and Berenice (Leanne Benjamin) in which every small inflection as well as every turbulent lift comes saturated with challenge, tenderness, despair. Particularly eloquent is the transition from the flaring, conflicted lines of the first two duets, where the couple are still in partial denial, to the heartbreak of the third. Here, the spare formality of Adès’s music expands to romantic fullness and the choreography mimics it with a melting folding anguish.

What the ballet deliberately avoids is any sense of why Tito and Berenice have to part. Instead it punctuates the duets with interludes of “real stage time” during which we watch scenery (bare brick walls) being shunted onto the stage. These gaps act as question marks, invitations for us to imagine the backstory ourselves. Yet while they’re one way of solving the problem of narration, especially in a one-act ballet, they introduce an element of awkwardness.

Winter Dreams is awkward in many other ways. In this version of Three Sisters, MacMillan puts all of Chekov’s main characters on stage, then ambitiously attempts to contain their different stories within a succession of short danced vignettes. Given the right ensemble, these vignettes can gel into an atmospheric evocation of the play. But with Carlos Acosta badly miscast as Vershinin, even the delicately drawn suffering of Marianela Núñez’s Masha doesn’t begin to make it hang together.

The fun of the evening comes in the two works that open and close it. Lauren Cuthbertson delivers a pitch perfect fusion of period glamour and intelligent style in Ashton’s La Valse. Sergei Polunin, in a miracle of classical precision, virtuosity, and romantic uplift, upstages even Tamara Rojo in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.

Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in the Royal Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s ‘Theme and Variations’ at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. (Photos by Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sergei & Manon, 2011

Sergei & Manon, 2011

Manon, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Review

Lauren Cuthbertson makes her mark in her debut performance of Manon at the Royal Opera House.

4 out of 5 stars

Sergei Polunin as Des Grieux,  Lauren Cuthbertson as Manon at the Royal Opera House
Perfect: Sergei Polunin as Des Grieux, Lauren Cuthbertson as Manon at the Royal Opera House Photo: Alastair Muir

In 2009 the Royal Ballet principal Lauren Cuthbertson was diagnosed with glandular fever, which turned into agonisingly debilitating ME and necessitated not only an 18-month lay-off from the stage, but long periods of total physical incapacity.

She might never have danced again. In fact, she has returned to the stage, a different and more interesting ballerina, one determined to fulfil her ambition to perform the most challenging roles in the balletic repertoire.

And as challenges go, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is up there with the best of them. His three-act interpretation of the Abbé Prévost’s tragic novel is not so much the story of virginal innocence corrupted but of a voracious minx foiled. Manon may be on her way to a convent when we first see her, but she is never in any doubt about the power her beauty grants her in the world, and her treatment of the adoring student Des Grieux, whom she abandons for the jewels and furs offered by a rich protector, is little short of scandalous.

The trick is not only to negotiate the intricate swoops and entanglements of MacMillan’s evocative choreography, which sees Manon constantly passed from man to man like an expensive bauble, but also to make you care about this calculating, irrational heroine.

On her debut, Cuthbertson makes her mark. This is a wonderfully detailed performance, a carefully charted journey from girlish tease to enraptured lover to hard-bitten courtesan and finally to heart-broken and dying waif. She makes you so conscious of Manon’s love of luxury, her longing for the good life, that you understand her rash decisions even if you don’t sympathise with them. Her dancing is sumptuous but careful; there is a tiny bit of abandon lacking.

Her Des Grieux, however, is another matter. Sergei Polunin’s extreme youth makes him perfect for the dewy-eyed dreamer who throws his life away in thrall to Manon’s beauty. When we first see him in a big hat, with clumsy, out-turned feet, he is almost comically the innocent abroad. Then, as the role takes hold, the sheer purity of his movement in the lingering solos and impassioned pas de deux enables him powerfully to express his character’s ardour and despair.

Together, the couple find emotion in unexpected places, not in the big duets, but in the party scene, for example. The moment when Des Grieux pours out his disgust and despair at his love’s behaviour has rarely been more powerful. With wonderful support from Gary Avis as a particularly vulpine Monsieur GM and Jos Martin in ferociously sharp form as the conniving Lescaut, this is an evening to relish.

In repertoire until November 26

Sergei Goes To Cuba 2009

Sergei Goes To Cuba 2009

The Royal Ballet in Cuba A Memorable Dance Event

By: Pedro Quiroga Jimenez / Photos by Ismael Francisco and Royal Ballet Archives, on: Theatre & Performing Arts
May 2009
The Royal Ballet in Cuba A Memorable Dance Event

The Cuban public’s expectations were more than satisfied in July with the London Royal Ballet’s five memorable performances notable for choreographic diversity and the long awaited performances by Spanish Tamara Rojo and Cuban Carlos Acosta.

Rojo and Acosta, leading members of the famous British company, treated the audiences to virtuoso performances of the pas de deux of Le Corsaire for three emotional and ovation laden nights at Havana Gran Teatro.

The ensemble’s contemporaneousness shone in Chroma, by choreographer Wayne McGregor, who tests the physical efforts of each dancer in a game that lays bare the theory of knowledge about the human body. The cleanliness in technique and visible expressive force of each of the performers demonstrated the intensity of a spectacle marked by suggestive breaks from the classical line.

The light and pleasing divertimentos harvested another round of applause.

Alina Cojocaru and José Mart in showed their acting talent in the pas de deux, Voices of Spring, in which they effortlessly execute a sense of movement defying gravity, as in a waltz.

Roberta Márquez and Edward Watson performed Romeo and Jul iet’s balcony scene, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, who sets Shakespeare’s plot among the top 20th Century classics with the imposing score by Prokofiev.

Another pas de deux, Farewell, allowed Mara Galeazzi’s intense arabesques and Thiago Soares’s leaps and turns to not only express love, but a diatribe against destiny.

Thais, a pas de deux interpreted by Leanne Benjamín and David Makhatel, responded to the musical lyricism that inspired Massenet’s opera, saturated with an ethereal and romantic humour conceived by the late choreographer Frederick Ashton. Ashton’s 1976 A Month in the Country, a free adaptation of Russian novelist Ivan Turgueniev’s play, placed Zenaida Janowsky in the leading role on the Havana stage.

A highlight of the program was the homage paid to Cuba’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alicia Alonso by both Cuban and British dancers.

Tamara Rojo, Spanish prima ballerina and Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet, was precise, secure and demonstrated a technique she owes in great measure to the Cuban school, during her performance with Cuban dancer Joel Carreño in the pas de deux of Act III of Don Quixote.

Cuban National Ballet’s prima ballerina, Viengsay Valdés, roused enthusiasm with her customary balance and fouettes in the pas de deux The Black Swan, accompanied by Brazil ian Thiago Soares.

Johan Kobborg’s choreography of Les Lutins (the musicians) was pleasant and brief performed by Alina Cojocaru, Steven McRae and Sergei Polunin.

To close the season in Cuba, the Royal Ballet performed the dramatic Manon at the Karl Marx Theatre, the largest in the island, seating 5,000. Manon, one of the most enduring titles in its repertoire, debates greed and personal pride, love and disloyalty, morality and resentment.

The Royal Ballet, together with artistic director Dame Monica Mason, returned to England with a feeling common to Cubans: as she said, having shared a moment memorable in every sense.

Sergei and Harry Potter – Dancelines Article 2016

Sergei and Harry Potter – Dancelines Article 2016

Sergei Polunin: His life so far, from his ‘Harry Potter’ world to the celebrity circuit

A bridge connects the Royal Ballet School to the home of the Royal Ballet in London’s Covent Garden.

One day, the students hope, one day.

For most, that day never comes.

For Sergei Polunin the successful crossing from the school to the company came very soon, perhaps too soon.

Already elevated from the first year of the Royal Ballet’s Upper School to the third year, Polunin joined the company itself, became a soloist in 2009 and the following year was promoted to the rank of principal artist when he was only 19.

Eventually he felt trapped, and sometimes bored, within the Royal Opera House, and at the end of January 2012 he walked out of a rehearsal conducted by the former artistic director of the Royal Ballet, Sir Anthony Dowell.

He told Dame Monica Mason, the Royal Ballet’s artistic director at the time, that he was leaving then and there, and never coming back.

She could do nothing to convince him otherwise.

The news of his departure soon spread from the Royal Opera House to the media, and from there, around the dance world.

The ballet community was saddened or upset that such a talented young man could throw everything away although many dancers, choreographers and dance writers already knew that something was seriously wrong as Polunin had been tweeting about his depression, his use of drugs and his very late nights.

After he walked away from the Royal Ballet Polunin found comfort from his friend, Jade Hale-Christofi – his contemporary at the Royal Ballet School – and Jade’s parents who had been supporting him for several years.

Polunin did not look for support from his own family.

He hadn’t seen his parents during all his years at the Royal Ballet School that began when he entered the junior school in 2003, aged 13.

Polunin’s volatile early life is told in the 2016 documentary, Dancer, one of five films that have been selected by The Producers Guild of America as nominees for the top feature film documentary of the year.

The documentary winner will be announced at the end of January.

At the heart of Dancer is the 2015 YouTube sensation in which Polunin danced a solo, choreographed by Jade, to Hozier’s Take Me to Church.

His ripped, flesh coloured tights and the tattoos displayed over his chest and arms added to the powerful impact of Polunin’s performance.

Dancer, begins with footage from Polunin’s home city, Kherson, in Ukraine.

The grainy grey images of the city are in stark contrast with the later glamour of the dancer’s life at the Royal Ballet.

Images and footage from Polunin’s early life are the most impressive elements of Dancer.

As a young boy he was a prize winning athlete, as flexible as the young Sylvie Guillem whose career also began as a child athlete.

In 1997, when Polunin was 8 years old, he moved with his mother, Galina, to Kiev, where he began his ballet training.

Galina was proud of her son, filming him at every opportunity with a home video recorder.

But from 2003 he had no family to support him.

Polunin spent his early days at the Royal Ballet School as an outsider.

He spoke little English, and was initially adrift as a boarder in White Lodge, the school’s home, a Georgian building place that was once a royal lodge.

In the documentary, Polunin describes how lost he felt in White Lodge, a place that for him was “a Harry Potter world”.

After his first year at the school, when his parents divorced, Polunin acknowledges that he was “angry with my Mum” and, as Jade Hale-Christofi says in the documentary, Polunin “became separate from the family”.

I first saw him dance, in 2004, at the Royal Ballet School’s Summer Fair at White Lodge, an annual event where the students perform for family and friends in the gardens and inside the building.

Polunin danced in The Sleeping Beauty pas de trois.

His technique was impeccable although he looked as if he would rather be almost anywhere else.

A few years later I saw him again, this time on the stage of the Royal Opera House in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody.

The blank look had, of course, gone. His performance was electric and his line was the epitome of classical perfection.

Although we see that perfection again in Dancer’s scenes from Giselle, La Bayadere and Spartacus, the documentary more often focuses on his pain, both physical and mental, as he struggles with life as a professional dancer at the Royal Ballet, a place that for him was a gilded cage.

The documentary takes an unfortunate turn when it swerves into the genre known in the book trade as a misery memoir.

His parents recall how difficult life was for them, how little money they had, and how his mother struggled in vain to get a visa to visit the UK and see her son.

The film ends with orchestrated “happy ever after” moments when the extended family reunites to see Polunin perform.

We see Mum and Dad sitting in the audience of a theatre watching their son with all the joy of Billy Elliott’s Dad, the man who scoffed at the idea of ballet but had tears in his eyes when Billy jumped onto the stage in Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of Swan Lake.

Until recently, Polunin has been supported by father figures, such as the dancers, Ivan Putrov and Igor Zelensky.

He now he has the support of his partner, the ballerina, Natalia Osipova, and with that, appears to have more confidence and security than he has had in his life so far.

This year the couple put together ‘Natalia Osipova & Guests’, a show that opened at Sadlers Wells in London and has since travelled to the Edinburgh Festival, New York and Athens and will tour to Auckland in March.

The idea seems to have sprung from Sylvie Guillem’s post-ballet initiative of commissioning contemporary choreographers and assembling small groups of dancers as a way of continuing her dance career.

But, judging from the London and New York reviews of the Osipova/Polunin show, the couple will need to commission more compelling choreography than they’ve chosen so far.

Meanwhile, Polunin is following Guillem in another way.

Once she was the reclusive ‘Mademoiselle No’ (the dancer who had her own way and no other way), who refused to be photographed and seldom gave interviews.

That all ended when she emarked on international tours with her own groups or partners such as Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Once, Polunin was also reclusive, “the bad boy” of ballet, searching for his own way, not the company way, and he was not known as friendly to the media.

Now, as a freelancer with the Take Me to Church YouTube sensation and documentary as his calling cards, he’s giving interviews wherever he can.


When the flurry of publicity calms down, let’s hope he will continue his career in ballet, choosing his roles the way he wants, but without the angst of before.

The Royal Ballet: Sylvia, A Review

The Royal Ballet: Sylvia, A Review

The Royal Ballet: Sylvia, A Review

4/5 Stars

Royal Opera House, London
Judith Mackrell

Monday, 8 Nov 2010

sergei in sylvia
Debut lovers … Lauren Cuthbertson (Sylvia) and Sergei Polunin (Arminta) in The Royal Ballet’s Sylvia. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The lovers in Ashton’s Sylvia barely get to dance together until the final act. And in the case of Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin – both making their debuts this season – that’s no bad thing. As a partnership their chemistry doesn’t really click – but in this particular ballet it doesn’t prevent either of them flourishing as individual performers.

The pleasure of watching Cuthbertson lies partly in her unpredictability. Aspects of her dancing are almost old fashioned: the neat straight lines of her technique; the detailed regard she has for style. But she can also be startlingly reckless. She goes full tilt at every challenge, practically leaping over the orchestra pit in her opening jumps, fizzing through the third act pizzicato variation with giggling speeds. In her acting, Cuthbertson never hides behind the easy, text-book gesture. She makes you feel the prickle of fear down Sylvia’s spine when she senses the threat of the predatory Orion. When she believes she has killed Aminta, her body appears to shrink with grief.

Polunin is cast in another mould: Russian on a grand scale. But he also dances with a detailed musical intelligence, shaping and finessing the big steps as succinctly as the little ones. Aminta can easily be sidelined as the ineffectual pretty boy waiting for fate to deliver Sylvia into his arms; Polunin gives the role romantic gravitas by the force of his technique. As a partner he needs to mature, however. While he and Cuthbertson can act a good love affair, in the grand and sexy imagery of the final pas de deux we are too aware of the mechanics, and the difficulty of the partnering. Otherwise theirs is a very promising debut, and it comes with some fine ensemble playing. The assorted naiads and fauns are excellent; Akane Takada is an unfeasibly witty, winsome goat.

Meeting Sergei

Meeting Sergei

The Ballet Association is a group of enthusiasts supporting the Royal Ballet company with regular meetings and interviews with dancers and other company members. The group holds an annual dinner to which Royal Ballet dancers are invited. Contributions are made to the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School.

In 2009, the Ballet Association invited Sergei Polunin to their January meeting.  This is the report of that meeting.

Meeting Sergei Polunin, Soloist, The Royal Ballet

Interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 14 January 2009.

Upon meeting Sergei, DAVID BAIN WELCOMED Sergei Polunin and began by asking how he got into ballet.

Sergei is from a city with no ballet history in the Ukraine.  His mother put him in a little ballet school when he was three. He did that for six months. The following year he began gymnastics which he did for two years. By the time he was six he decided to do it professionally so went to a professional gymnastics school doing studies from 8 a.m. to 12 and gym training from 12 to 6 p.m. He’s been used to hard work from an early age. Sergei enjoyed it a lot.

The pollution was bad and wasn’t good for his lungs where he trained so his mother suggested he go back to his little dancing school. When he was three his mum had donated a little carpet to the school and he found it still there on his return. His friend was auditioning for the Kiev ballet school and his mother thought it would be a good idea to move there. She was a guiding force in his ballet career but always asked if he wanted to do it. So aged nine he joined the Kiev school with two friends. At this point he’d never seen a ballet. He’d only done classes up till then which he enjoyed as he loved training and working on his body. The first ballet he saw was a local Ukrainian version of Carmen which he much enjoyed.

He was in Kiev for four years and was two years younger than the others in his class. Originally all his friends at gymnastics were smaller and he said he wanted to stop growing which he did! When he got to the ballet school everyone was taller. Initially his teacher said he saw potential but he didn’t have such a great body because of his gymnastics. He was put in a class with older students but he’s always liked older people as they were more interesting so it was no problem for him to be the youngest in class.

One memory from Kiev school was going to the theatre and being put in the opera.  He also did acting and modelling class which he couldn’t understand but his mother thought it all helped with the ballet. At age 12 she thought they should move again.  They went to Leningrad where he auditioned and was accepted but said he didn’t want to take up the place. He didn’t say why but it was because he felt more scared of academics (which he’d heard were difficult there) than ballet, and wanted to stay in the Ukraine. The following year his mother decided they should all move to London by which time his father was working in Portugal and his grandmother in Greece to support Sergei in Kiev.

A couple of weeks later his father sent him an application form for the Royal Ballet School.  It was completed and returned. They heard nothing for a while and then the reply came that they were very happy to accept Sergei and underneath was written the sum of £32,000. Because they didn’t understand English they thought he’d been accepted but would have to pay that amount which they couldn’t afford so they gave up on the idea. But a couple of months later when the form was translated they realised that the Royal was looking for sponsorship for him for that amount.

It was really down to his teacher’s dog that his application went forward. The dog met his English teacher on the street and the humans started to speak as a result of which his sponsorship was found. His mother remained in the Ukraine when he came to England where he was the only foreign student in his class at White Lodge. Aged 13 he went straight into the fifth year so once again everyone was much older. But it was a great and enjoyable change for him – he’d always wanted to go where there were boys but the opportunity had never come up as he was always with his mother.

At White Lodge there were six boys in a room having fun and he got used to it very quickly and didn’t miss home after a week. From the dance perspective the difference in Russia was that you are made to do things.  Here you have to be self-motivated.  That makes you a stronger dancer as no one pushes you if you don’t do it. Some Russians fall apart because of the pressure but here the facilities are wonderful.  But you have to know where you want to get to. Some of the boys weren’t perhaps pushing themselves. David said here that Steven McRae had commented that he had been surprised that some didn’t put in the effort – did he find that? Sergei thought they generally worked hard.

Sergei, who is now 19, went to the Upper School when he was 14, still the smallest boy. The facilities were amazing and his teacher, David Peden, was very supportive and helped him a lot. They had fun and went to the Prix de Lausanne and Russia together. He’s a very funny guy and Sergei thought his own technique would never improve as they were always laughing in class! As he was so young he stayed longer than usual in Wolf House, which was normally for first year students. This was a good decision by Galina.  Otherwise he would probably have gone out every night getting up to mischief!

David relayed a story told him by Joan Seaman who with her friend was watching Sergei in class. Her friend said afterwards that the teacher, David Peden, was always picking on Sergei.  Joan said quite rightly that that was because he was the one with talent. Sergei said that in private they were good friends but in class it was different and David would pick on him and put him down in front of the other boys. In his first year at the Upper School aged 14 Sergei did Don Q variation with the Russian school who joined them for a school performance.

The previous year Sergei had also won the Grand Prix. He’d also achieved gold in a competition in the Ukraine and was looking forward to a week of rest when on day four someone invited him to go in for the competition. Normally it’s hard to get a US visa but somehow it appeared within 24 hours!

He went on to New York and danced the Acteon solo and Nutcracker and a contemporary piece by himself and a Ukrainian friend which had been created for the Ukrainian competition on the actual day. At the time it was only half finished, he didn’t really know the music and this piece had no name. His mother had mentioned high emotion and his friend thought that was a good title. He just went ahead and danced it almost making it up as he went along. A very famous choreographer asked him where the piece came from as it was very unusual choreography! For the Grand Prix he worked on it and changed the name.

Although he won the Grand Prix he didn’t accept an offer to go to ABT2 or the main company as the Royal offered him a place. It was a very hard decision to make. He was told it was easier to make progress at ABT whereas he’d be in the corps at the Royal but he thought he would try the Royal which proved the right decision as the following year he was promoted. Just before the Grand Prix he’d won the Prix de Lausanne where he went with his teacher who was very strict and wanted arrangements to be precise, emphasising that Sergei mustn’t be late arriving.

On the first morning they were sitting on the bus thinking there were 30 minutes to go.  When they arrived at a beach, they realized they’d taken the wrong bus! With five minutes to go they caught a taxi.  Sergei put on a number and ran in front of the judges. It was very hard as everything has to be just so – classes, rehearsals, contemporary, classical and a perfect performance for the judges. Teddy Kumakawa was the last dancer from the Royal to win. Sergei said he hated competitions but they were important for a dancer to succeed. He knew he had a contract with the Royal when in the Ukraine with broken foot. Disagreeing with the teacher, Sergei jumped as high as possible to try to get his attention and landed badly. He was in Upper School for three years.

Sergei joined the company in 2007. He was thrown on as Bronze Idol in Bayadère when he felt his body wasn’t really ready. In the third act he didn’t know there was a screen in front of the stage. During the stage rehearsal Sergei jumped right into it! After that he wasn’t used for ages so was a bit upset.

Sergei had a meteoric rise in the company. At the end of his first season he was in Dances at a Gathering which was very prestigious. It took a year to get the role. He’d learned it as cover and a couple of weeks before the performance he was told he was doing the Brown boy, a big role. It was wonderful and he really enjoyed it. Rehearsing was difficult but the performance was great. He then began to wonder if he’d be promoted to First Artist or not when he heard he’d been made Soloist which was amazing.

Sergei has done both roles in Nutcracker.  Once as the Prince which was more his style, and also the Nutcracker which is much harder. He’s now rehearsing Solor in Bayadère.  It is a much more interesting role. Acting skills are required which he finds less easy than dancing.

David thanked our guest for a fascinating evening. It was great to host a young dancer who had done leading roles in his first/second years with the company. Anyone who thought there might not have been enough to talk about was quite wrong! It was a great experience.  We all looked forward to following his upward progression over the next few years.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Melissa Hamilton, Sergei Polunin and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2009.

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