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‘Dancer’ sergei polunin dazed
Still from ‘Dancer’Courtesy of ‘Dancer’

Ballet’s bad boy on dancing, dreams & the dark side of drugs

Sergei Polunin was thrust back into the limelight after David LaChappelle’s video went viral. Here, he talks about ‘Dancer’ – an intimate new documentary about his life

It’s a cruel Shakespearean twist that Sergei Polunin’s natural gift is actually a burden. In fact, the most talented dancer of his generation had little say in the matter. Forced into training at the age of three, the Ukrainian child prodigy swapped gymnastics for ballet and soon earned comparisons with Rudolf Nureyev. Then, in 2012, Polunin sent shockwaves by quitting the Royal Ballet at 22. It followed a period where he earned – perhaps craved – press attention for all-night partying, erratic tweeting (“Does anybody sell heroin?”) and performing on coke. The natural highs of pirouetting, it seems, weren’t enough.

In Steven Cantor’s probing new film, Dancer, Polunin is introduced via the filthy riffs of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, a knowing wink to the now 27-year-old’s “bad boy of ballet” label. The documentary was intended to be Polunin’s farewell to dance; instead, it inadvertently launched a comeback. When “Take Me to Church” – a music video guest-directed by David La Chappelle for the film – was leaked in 2015, it went viral, amassing what’s currently at 19 million views. 

Polunin, reinvigorated by YouTube infamy, cancelled his retirement and has since partnered up with fellow dancer Natalia Osipova. But it’s still not a fairytale. “I don’t like physical activity,” he laughs. Nowadays, he only trains one or two hours a day to keep in shape. If there’s an upcoming show, that’s an additional three or four hours of rehearsal. “I don’t feel the physical urge to dance.” I point out this contradicts what he says in the film. “Well, I do have a burst if I don’t dance for four months.”

In Dancer, we see intimate footage of Polunin as a kid twirling with triple the grace of his peers. Deemed “flexible from birth” by his mother, he started as a potential Olympics gymnast (“I felt like a tool”) and then learned ballet in Kiev. To pay for the fees, his father worked abroad. Aged 13, Polunin moved on his own to London’s Royal Ballet School, where he practised overtime in the false belief it’d unite his parents – they divorced when he turned 15.

“If you can live to 200, then do cocaine – it’s fine. But unfortunately, it breaks up families and it breaks up you. You get depressed” – Sergei Polunin

“I did gymnastics, I went to school, then I did homework. I missed out on a childhood,” Polunin laments. As a bonus, it literally hurts if he’s inactive. “It’s true, because I’ve done physical activity since three years old, and my body is used to exercising. If I don’t, the blood pressure goes.” Thus, if he’s not exhausted, he’s in discomfort. “Something is always off. I’m never relaxed.”

So, is there much consideration for mental health issues in the ballet industry? “Some people go crazy. It’s constant pressure. People don’t eat well. They work a lot. There’s no rest. People lose their mind by 30. They really go crazy – especially ballerinas. It triggers something.” School is like the army, he says, and then at theatres the competitiveness remains. “It’s not nice. I can’t say people enjoy it. You can’t love or have fun or experience things. It’s not healthy to be in that environment.”

There are methods of relieving tension. As many clubbers will know, cocaine enhances the freedom of one’s movement. Polunin, though, was discovering this on stage, while still at the Royal Ballet. “It blocks your brain from feeling pain,” he explains. “Nothing stops you, and you can really push yourself.” So, would he recommend it? “It’s good in the moment, I have to say. If you can live to 200, then do cocaine – it’s fine. But unfortunately, it breaks up families and it breaks up you. You get depressed. Months later, you don’t have that energy at all. It’s fake energy.”

Upon hearing these descriptions, it’s understandable why Polunin walked out on the Royal Ballet at such a tender age. Another gripe was the payment structure. “The Royal Ballet is the best paid company, but the dancers get nothing. The stage crew get paid three times more than the dancers, and they have a job for life – dancers only have 10 years.” He rattles off statistics about overblown footballer wages. “The dance industry is unsustainable. There’s no agents, no managers and no money involved. Parents won’t want to put kids into it.”

The subsequent headlines were less sympathetic. Polunin was the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal, and he quit days before a premiere. He returned to Russia where his indignities included a reality TV show called Big Ballet. Yet Dancer also shows Polunin messing about with friends. He undresses on a road, flings away his boxers, and falls to the ground as a naked tattooed angel in the snow. Finally, he’s liberated.

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” Polunin believes. “We dance as kids. We dance as teenagers. We dance in clubs.” Not so at the Royal Ballet. “Ballet as an art form is very restrictive. It’s not a free dance. You can’t lift your hands above a certain degree. It could – and should – be more fun.”

This comment, plus the backstory, sheds light on “Take Me to Church”. It was, Polunin says, the first time he’d danced like a kid, and that for nine hours – yes, nine – he prepared by crying. “I spoke beforehand with Mickey Rourke. He told me, before you act, you have to get empty. You have to be in a true state of being. I got into that emotional state.” He chuckles. “I didn’t know it was going to be for nine hours.”

As hinted by the Hollywood namedrop, Polunin loves movies. Even La La Land. “Take Me to Church” wasn’t just supposed to close the chapter on dancing; it was to launch an acting career. “David released it without asking. People took me seriously because of the video. I couldn’t leave dance. I had to come back.”

Not that the two fields are mutually exclusive. Polunin will soon be a film star, and not just through Dancer. His upcoming projects include Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton; Murder on the Orient Express with Kenneth Branagh and Johnny Depp (“I had a poster of him for so many years”); and The White Crow with Ralph Fiennes and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Unlike his harsh words for ballet, Polunin is ebullient about the movie business. “It’s the most amazing industry. Literally mind-blowing. I love learning from these actors, how they approach the work, and how they switch into character.” In Red Sparrow, he dances with J-Law. “She does ballet in the movie. I’m not teaching her 100%, but I’m partnering her.”

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul. We dance as kids. We dance as teenagers. We dance in clubs” – Sergei Polunin

I ask how he can stomach the success of La La Land, particularly with its unmemorable musical numbers. “It’s not Gene Kelly, but people can relate to it. I don’t think it’s easy to make it normal-looking. It shows people love watching dance. That’s why I love Indian movies – it’s important to have dancing in movies.”

Away from cinemas, it’s another story. “The ballet industry is dead,” he concludes. “Completely dead. If you don’t make it more popular, no one’s going to care.” That’s his aim with Project Polunin, which plays next week at Sadler’s Well. “Critics might hate it, but people will definitely love it.” Or you can tackle social issues. Reuniting with LaChapelle, he performed in a topical video called “Make Love Not Walls”, which he’d like Donald Trump to watch. “Dance can unite countries. It’s a language everybody understands.”

Polunin’s clearly been wooed by movies, though. While the “bad boy of ballet” reputation will forever be as permanent as his tattoos, his Hollywood fantasy seems to be coming into fruition. So, would he quit dancing to take up acting full-time? “I would easily do that,” he responds eagerly. “I don’t feel the urge to dance. I don’t need to dance. I’d be very happy to just dance in movies.” Perhaps then, his natural gift will no longer feel like a burden.

Dancer will be released in cinemas on 10th March, watch the trailer below.