Sergei Polunin – ballet’s lost boy

Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
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As if there hasn’t been enough drama and scandal in the ballet world recently, one of the dance world’s hottest young stars is making headlines. Again.

Sergei Polunin famously quit the Royal Ballet in January last year at the tender age of 22, after becoming the company’s youngest ever RB principal. I remember interviewing him when he was just starting out, hotly tipping him as ‘one to watch’. Sergei was fast becoming known for his striking and unusual gifts of elegance, strength and charisma, and has been compared to Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Acosta. But he soon gained a reputation for ripping up the rule-book rather than for the roles he played onstage.

He’s not the first dancer to rebel against the strictness and discipline of the ballet and he certainly won’t be the last – so why are we all so obsessed with him? His story is unique: journeying from Kiev to the White Lodge at the tender age of 13, rising through the ranks and then flying off the rails in spectacular fashion, skipping classes, opening tattoo parlours, getting inked, going clubbing, publicly idolising Heath Ledger and James Dean, self harming, insomnia, a Twitter call out for heroin and admittance to performing while high on cocaine.

The latest news of him and his producer/mentor Igor Zelensky quitting the show, Midnight Express just days before its London premiere has the newspapers abuzz again, but the story in its actuality sits uneasily between enjoyable scandal and an uncomfortable realisation about the young Ukranian’s mental health. Peter Schaufuss, the show's choreographer and director was worried when he didn’t turn up for rehearsal, before stating that he was "hugely disappointed" about Sergei’s disappearance.

[pullquote]He’s been asked to act in films, he’s won a Russian TV dance show, he’s done nearly-naked photo shoots and he’s admitted to working certain dance jobs that bring in huge amounts of cash.[/pullquote]

English National Ballet's artistic director and former Royal Ballet principal Tamara Rojo has now revealed that Sergei is "in Moscow and is OK", adding that "Sergei is an amazing artist and a complicated man. Sometimes the price people have to pay for that level of artistry is that it is not consistent or predictable".

Various channels of blame have emerged, from the celebrity culture of ballet, to the institution's concentration on educating the body more than the mind and the media for sensationalizing the story. But the pressure to succeed is palpable.

Sergei told me when he first arrived in the UK, that he “felt very free."

It was the first time I had been on my own without my parents and I missed them a lot to begin with. But once I’d settled I found it really exciting to be doing something new.

Now known as ballet’s lost boy, it’s clear that Sergei was trying to process the pressure of utilising his talent in a way others expected of him – his parents, who divorced when Sergei was young and have never seen him perform (he once said: "I would have liked to behave badly, to play football. I loved sport. But all my family were working for me to succeed. My mother had moved to Kiev to be with me – we lived in one room together. There was no chance of me failing."), his critics, who he thinks didn’t give him enough time and his contemporaries, who found it hard to stand by and watch such an incredible talent going seemingly, to waste.

His AWOL status from Midnight Express and the London Coliseum gave rise to rumours of rows over artistic differences, disagreements about the more controversial choreographic scenes in the 1978 Turkish prison drama and concern that the production wouldn’t be up to scratch.

But there are undeniably serious mental health issues at play – Sergei spoke of his self harming as “the best therapy for myself” in an interview with the Sunday Times Magazine, saying “You get to feel good. You do it when you’re kind of down, sort of depressed” shortly before he left London.

He’s clearly been crying out for help and with Zelensky on hand, as a mentor, parent figure and friend, I hope he’s on the right track. Sergei been open since day one about not wanting to perform over the age of 30 as the physical demands on your body are too much, and quite frankly, who can blame him? He’s right. Maybe he was right to leave Midnight Express in his wake, too. Let’s see what the critics have to say about it and judge then.

For now, despite his troubles, there is a sense that with everything he does there is a grander plan. He once said in an interview about ballet in Britain, “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.”

Sergei told me himself that he’d like to have a go at acting, saying “There is a strong element of acting in ballet anyway and I really enjoy being able to portray a character and getting stuck into a role.” He’s been asked to act in films, he’s won a Russian TV dance show, he’s done nearly-naked photo shoots and he’s admitted to working certain dance jobs that bring in huge amounts of cash. Because of his celebrity status, should he want to pursue other opportunities, he will be able to. To become rich and famous, maybe, to become an actor, or to get so scandalous Hollywood will eventually relent and write his life story. That he will star in. And Zelensky will direct.

Who wouldn’t want to be involved in the making of that film? It would be the male version of Black Swan but with Polunin in place of Portman. Sign me up as script writer, Sergei. Hollywood, here we come.