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Ballet\'s prodigal son: interview with Sergei Polunin
Sergei Polunin caused shock waves when, at the age of 22 and with the world of dance at his feet, he walked out of the Royal Ballet. A year on, he is ready to be welcomed back to the London stage he so abruptly abandoned.
Sergei Polunin rehearsing in Moscow in January Photo: Davide Monteleone/VII Photo
You can quickly list the male dancers who found the kind of fame that allows them to be identified by a single name: Nijinsky and Nureyev. Perhaps Baryshnikov. Perhaps Acosta. But in January 2012 a new name and a new face suddenly emerged from the rarefied world of ballet and jumped on to the front pages. Without warning, Sergei Polunin walked out of the Royal Ballet company and into the glare of a worldwide spotlight. He was 22 years old.
The brouhaha occasioned by his shocking departure from the company that had nurtured him was intense. Dance critics feared that an outstanding talent was about to be lost amid dark tales of late nights, missed classes, drugs, the tattoos with which Polunin had increasingly covered his body, and deep disillusion with the discipline of ballet itself. People who had never even heard of Polunin were obscurely full of regret that they might never see someone who had blazed briefly across British stages and was now apparently walking away from his own brilliance at dance.
Twelve months later, the subject of such anxiety and all those global headlines is sitting on the floor of a studio at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre, smiling a sweet, boyish smile. It is 8pm, and the building is quiet. It\'s the Orthodox Christmas, and outside snow is falling softly on to deserted streets.
Since Polunin\'s sudden departure from London his life has undergone massive change. \'Before, I had never paid a bill, I didn\'t know how that worked,\' he says. \'Now I have to think for myself.\' He has just returned to Moscow from a 24-hour dash to Los Angeles, where he was photographed by the filmmaker Gus Van Sant. \'It will be one for me to tell my grandkids,\' he says.
Royal Ballet star breaks silence after storming out
In Moscow last month rehearsing Swan Lake with Erica Mikirticheva. Photo: Davide Monteleone/VII Photo
Yet, as if to prove the new levels of responsibility he is assuming, Polunin has come straight from the airport to rehearse Swan Lake with the ballerina Erica Mikirticheva. With a performance in two days\' time, their concentration is intense as they work on the three great pas de deux around which this famous ballet is built. They don\'t yet dance with all their energy but walk thoughtfully through the steps. It is like seeing a great painting with some of the lines rubbed out – a finished masterwork changed back into a sketch.
But even in this half-drawn form, you can see why ballet lovers fell into mourning when Polunin announced he was leaving the Royal and might give up dance altogether. Stamped into each lineament of his body is a rare natural ability honed to sophisticated shape. His line is effortlessly elegant; with a jut of the chin and a finely raised arm, he is a prince. His jump, when unleashed, is not just high and easy but also holds its shape in the air, so you carry on seeing its image long after he has landed. These physical attributes are burnished by artistic ones: he has both charisma and the unforced ability to make you believe in what he does.
Igor Zelensky, the artistic director of the Stanislavsky Ballet where Polunin has been based since July, is in no doubt as to how special he is. \'Talent is very rare. Margot Fonteyn is a talent. Maya Plisetskaya is a talent. Baryshnikov is. I don\'t want to go on too much about Sergei. But it is inside him. He is unusual. Unbelievable.\' The director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O\'Hare, agrees. \'He is one of those dancers that you look at and think, where does that come from? It\'s a wonderful gift.\'
Polunin in 2011 with Tamara Rojo in Marguerite and Armand, roles they will reprise in London this month. Photo: Royal Opera House
British audiences will be able to see Polunin again when he returns to the Royal Opera House this month to perform Marguerite and Armand with Tamara Rojo. When, in 2011, the couple first danced the roles created by Frederick Ashton for Fonteyn and Nureyev, the result was thrilling. One of O\'Hare\'s first acts when he took over the directorship from Monica Mason last summer was to plan a revival as a farewell to Rojo, who has left to take up the directorship of the English National Ballet, and as a welcome back to Polunin. \'Some people maybe think I am wrong for inviting him back, but I feel that people do deserve another chance. It would be really disappointing for him and for us if we just closed the door and said never again. This is the perfect way to start afresh.\'
The performances will truly mark the return of the prodigal son. Sergei Polunin is as much a child of the Royal Ballet as he is of his home in Kherson in Ukraine. There he studied gymnastics from the age of six and then ballet, after a bout of pneumonia meant he had fallen too far behind his classmates. In 1999 his mother, Galina, took him to Kiev to continue his training. He left both her and Kiev behind in 2003, at the age of 13, when he came to White Lodge, the Royal Ballet Lower School in London, winning his place (funded by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation) on the basis of a videotape and a final audition. \'I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions,\' the school\'s director Gailene Stock told the dance writer Julie Kavanagh. \'Before he\'d even done a plié I thought, "That\'s it." \'
The standard of his dancing meant that Polunin\'s rise was rapid. By 2007 he had joined the company; by 2010, at the age of 19, he had become its youngest ever principal. He was at the top of his profession – but it didn\'t bring him what he expected. \'That was the big let-down for me,\' he says. \'In school, they don\'t let you know what you will get when you become a principal. It used to be a glamorous thing, but now it is less glamorous. It is different in Russia. Here there is a television channel devoted to opera and dance. In England, ballet is kind of closed. They are opening up a little bit, but it was always something not for the general public. So you don\'t get fame, like a football star or a film star. And if you don\'t get fame, you can\'t do other stuff.\'
This hunger for recognition outside the closed confines of a small society was combined with a workload that increased as the company sought to develop Polunin\'s potential by giving him major roles to learn – six in 2011, with more to come in 2012. Polunin admits that he would have moaned if he hadn\'t been given the chances, but he says, \'A lot of things I didn\'t prepare as well as I should have prepared, and critics judge you on the first impression. I felt they never gave me enough time.\'
His dissatisfactions were expressed in different ways: he was staying up all night playing computer games; he covered his body in tattoos and took part ownership of a tattoo parlour; he started skipping class; he sent wild, jokey tweets about taking and needing drugs. \'I was not able to put things together. Dancing-wise I didn\'t feel I was in charge of anything,\' he says, trying to explain. \'It had been an amazing place, and I had worked with amazing people but you pay a price of not being in charge.\'
But there was something deeper. \'The only family I knew was the Royal Ballet and I didn\'t feel I was part of it in a way. I moved up quite quickly so I didn\'t make many friends. You are on your own in that sort of place. I didn\'t know Monica that well. With Kevin, I was probably the closest, but he didn\'t know everything that was going on with me either.\'
Sergei Polunin displays the tattoos that critics feared were symptomatic of his disillusion with dance. Photo: Davide Monteleone/VII Photo
On January 22 last year he broke up with fellow dancer Helen Crawford, the girlfriend who had \'kept me going\'. And on January 24, two days before he was due to open as Oberon in Ashton\'s A Midsummer Night\'s Dream opposite Alina Cojocaru as Titania, he stormed out of a rehearsal. \'I didn\'t even have an argument with Alina,\' he says. \'She was being the way she likes to rehearse. I just said, look, I have had enough.\' He left, and locked himself in a lavatory. \'Only in the changing room did I come up with the idea that the way to escape out of all this kind of craziness is just to leave. It was literally one of the thoughts in my head – spontaneous. It was the simplest thing to do. It was kind of a weakness. It wasn\'t a strength.\'
He was on his own for hours because no one knew what was going on. \'It sometimes happens,\' he says ruefully. \'Little fights, people walk out, it is just part of it. Nobody thinks you are going to leave.\' But he acted. O\'Hare, then the company manager, wasn\'t in the building, so Polunin went to see Mason, and despite her pleas and willingness to help him, nothing she could say could convince him to change his mind. He walked out, the Royal Ballet issued a press release announcing his departure, and the balloon went up.
O\'Hare was immediately sympathetic. \'We\'ve got 95 dancers and I don\'t want people to think I only care about that one person. It is about getting the balance right. But I did care about him and within the week we met and talked his feelings through. I tried to say that the door isn\'t closed, that it is you we are worried about.\'
Six weeks after his walkout, I met Sergei Polunin for the first time when he was starring at Sadler\'s Wells in a programme called Men in Motion, which his friend Ivan Putrov had invited him to be part of after his departure from the Royal Ballet. I was alarmed by how vulnerable, confused and lost he seemed. He talked about crying every morning, and giving up dance by the age of 26. On stage, he flew through the air but his precision had gone – and the new work he created, about his hero James Dean, was a mess. He laughs sheepishly. \'I didn\'t put in much of an effort. It was amazing in my head, but it was not done properly and then I even forgot half the choreography. It was not good.\'
Nor, really, were the next few months as he toured the world performing in galas and seeing other companies, including American Ballet Theatre and the Mariinsky, none of which he felt would suit him. Then, in St Petersburg in June, he met Igor Zelensky, who rang him up and suggested they meet.
You don\'t need a degree in psychology to see at least one problem that has beset Polunin. He was sent to London at the age of 13 to pursue a career that his mother had chosen for him. His parents, who are divorced, never came to visit him; he turned down offers to bring them over. When he left the Royal he visited Kherson and enjoyed seeing his old friends from gymnastics class and their young successors. He also saw his parents. But his father, Vladimir, has still never seen him dance, and Galina has not seen him on stage since he left for England.
He looks down as he talks about his mother, his voice fading. \'She put a lot of work into me and always told me off for something. I hated that. So I said to myself ages ago that she is not going to watch any more.\' Relenting slightly, he says he may invite her to see Marguerite and Armand when he dances it in Russia with the Bolshoi\'s Svetlana Zakharova later this year.
In this fractured context he could not have encountered a better mentor than Zelensky, himself one of the greats of ballet – he starred with 14 companies around the globe including the Mariinsky, the Royal and the New York City Ballet. At 44 he still dances, but he also runs the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow and the Novosibirsk company in Siberia.
Early in his career Zelensky met Nureyev, who gave him wise advice and support. When he met Polunin, he understood instantly that he could play a similar role for the younger dancer. \'After 10 minutes we knew each other,\' he says. \'It is maybe something Russian.\' He offered him a home with the Stanislavsky, from which secure base he could dance not only with Zelensky\'s Siberian company but also begin to build up guest performances around the world, such as with the Royal Ballet. Zelensky is now a constant watchful presence in the young dancer\'s life. \'You can call me anything you want: director, father, brother, friend,\' he says. \'But I really worry about him, what he eats, where he goes, what he is doing. Because he needs a shoulder.\'
With the personal concern goes career guidance. In order to bring him to a wider audience in Russia itself, Zelensky suggested that Polunin compete in a television dance competition, the balletic equivalent of The X Factor, which he and his partner won. Appearances in magazines and on other television shows duly followed. Tickets for his performances now sell out as soon as they go on sale.
Polunin has the stardom he craves, but if he follows the Zelensky plan he will also be able to perform as a guest with companies round the world, thereby developing as an artist by building a wide repertory of challenging roles. \'I try to explain to him, he has to concentrate on one thing,\' Zelensky says. \'He is not a rock star, he is a sportsman, and he has this really short time, maybe 10 years, to work for his name as a dancer, and after maybe his name is going to work for him.\' Polunin\'s attitude to Zelensky is warm. \'I always thought it was lucky I met Igor,\' he says. \'And he told me it\'s lucky he met me. So it works both ways.\' He never criticises the Royal Ballet in conversation, saying it is a structure that works well. But he now likes the way that he is answerable only to Zelensky. \'There are no little departments, it is straight to the boss. We are really close. He has showed me what you can do in ballet. In Russia you can do a lot with it.\'
This hunger for wealth and success, which runs like a thread through all Polunin says, is not an end in itself. It springs partly from the fact that coming from a truly tough background, he wants to buy a luxurious lifestyle for himself and his family. Throughout his time with the Royal Ballet this paradox was obvious. \'What is lovely about him is that he is a genuinely nice person,\' O\'Hare says, \'and will share his wealth with everyone. He wants to treat people well. It\'s very endearing.\'
Polunin makes the same point. \'I want to make people happy. I love kids and I want to help kids. And tigers.\' Despite such youthful idealism, he wants to be allowed to grow up. One of his complaints about London was that \'they treat you like you are a boy from school, a child. They take care of you, they tell you what to do. Here I definitely grew up as an artist who has to think for himself.\'
Certainly the man I meet in Moscow is more relaxed and confident than the one I met in London. He is warm and direct, he looks you in the eye as he talks. He has, he says, given up partying. Living clean and working hard, he relishes learning new ballets such as Roland Petit\'s version of Coppélia, which the Stanislavsky will bring to London in July. Next month he will learn Kenneth MacMillan\'s Mayerling. Manon (which he has already danced with the Royal) and Romeo and Juliet will follow.
He admits he is lonely – \'but you don\'t get that much time alone because you work a lot and you meet interesting people at work\' – and that not all his failings have vanished. Zelensky claims that Polunin is exercising about 20 per cent of his ability, an assessment with which the dancer wryly agrees. \'Yeah, because I never push myself.\' But watching him rehearse, it is his perfectionism you notice; the desire to get things just right; the moment when suddenly, looking at his partner\'s folding arms, his face is full of exactly the tender wonder that Prince Siegfried must feel for his swan princess. The room is transformed by that minute of intensity.
On his right hand, covered in plaster, he has a new tattoo of the Russian eagle. He is slightly ashamed to talk about it. \'Where I live there is a tattoo place just by me and for ages I thought I shouldn\'t do it, but then I just did. Three days later, I thought I should remove it.\' He shakes his head and laughs. \'So I did it the old Russian way where you get some kind of acid. I burnt it. But it didn\'t remove it.\'
That tattoo – \'I just love for some reason the body art. I always drew on myself from being a kid\' – could symbolise the conflicts he still feels, the contradictions he still exhibits. On the one hand, he says if it had been left up to him, \'I would have said no to dancing. I only did it because I could. I never thought it was a cool thing to do.\' He talks longingly about films and fashion, football and boxing. On the other, he talks with deep affection of \'the taste\' of the Royal Ballet and his excitement at returning to a company whose repertoire he has missed.
He is pleased, too, that he will be staying in London to dance a version of Midnight Express, choreographed by Peter Schaufuss, at the Coliseum in April. The production co-stars Zelensky, and the poster shows Polunin cowering half naked under Zelensky\'s protective hand. Zelensky laughs as he shows it to me. \'I told Sergei I have to do the ballet to control you. You are going to be in London for a month, so I have to be next to you. And that is the picture.\' Polunin makes a similar joke when I ask whether he will slip back into his partying ways once he is reunited with his London friends. \'Igor will kill me,\' he says laughing. But then he makes a different point. \'Sometimes I think, oh, I shouldn\'t have left. All this amazing stuff I would have done. But sometimes to create something new, to move forward, you have to do it.\'
Sergei Polunin and Tamara Rojo dance Marguerite and Armand on February 12,15 and 21 as part of the Frederick Ashton mixed bill at the Royal Ballet (roh.org.uk)
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