The man who shocked the dance world when he left the Royal Ballet at 22 admits he cried his way through a new documentary.
When Sergei Polunin quit London’s Royal Ballet in January 2012, the dance world was stunned. A prodigiously gifted dancer, he had joined the Company in 2007 after graduating from the Royal Ballet School, and had soared through the ranks, becoming the youngest Principal Artist in the Company’s history in 2010, aged just 19. Two years later, he walked out.
Sergei Polunin in the documentary Dancer
As rumours of Polunin’s unhappiness and disillusionment with ballet swirled, not to mention his tweets about drugs, parties and co-owning a tattoo parlour in north London, the press had a field day, dubbing him “the bad boy of ballet”. In interviews since then, the Ukrainian-born dancer has said that he was “sort of sabotaging myself” (The New York Times) and “trying to make the worst thing happen to me, the thing I was most scared of, so that I wouldn’t be frightened anymore” (The Guardian).
Now a new documentary called Dancer, takes a sympathetic look at his spectacular rise and equally dramatic fall, exploring the reasons for his love-hate relationship with ballet, and the pressures he was under that led to his abrupt departure from the Royal. Produced by Gabrielle Tana and directed by Oscar and Emmy Award-nominated documentary maker Steven Cantor, Dancer begins and ends with David LaChapelle’s famous video of Polunin dancing to Hozier’s Take Me to Church. Made in 2015 when he was ready to walk away from dance completely. It has now had almost 17 million views on YouTube.
The documentary features some dazzling performance footage and candid behind-the-scenes shots, including Polunin taking various pills before going on stage, saying gleefully: “In a bit I will get so high”. There are frank, moving interviews with Polunin himself, as well as his family and others close to him including his friend Jade Hale-Christofi who went to the Royal Ballet School with him and choreographed the Take Me to Church video.
Chatting to Limelight on the phone, the gently spoken Polunin, now 26, says that he has only watched Dancer once – “and I was tricked into it by David LaChapelle,” he adds with a little laugh. “They wanted to find out what I’m thinking about it so they were really clever how they managed it. Actually, I did watch it once before but then it wasn’t the full version.”
He admits that viewing it was an emotional experience. “I was really drunk. I cried all the way through. It was really hard to watch, especially when it’s your family, your childhood. Not easy,” he says quietly.
Dancer also includes some touching home videos of him as a young boy doing gymnastics and then ballet, and even some footage of him on the plane to London to audition for the Royal Ballet School, all of which his mother Galina Polunina sent to Cantor when filming for the documentary was already well underway.
“I didn’t remember it, but it was my Mum who filmed it,” says Polunin of the home videos. “And it actually [arrived] after they began making the documentary. This is the gold! My Mum, the filmmaker! And actually, when the director met my Mum he was like, ‘how did you have a camera when you didn’t have any money?’ And she actually borrowed the camera and she borrowed somebody’s tape. I don’t even know why she was doing it.”
Home video of Sergei Polunin as a young boy in the documentary Dancer
It’s clear from the documentary, that his mother was hugely ambitious for him and prepared to do all she could to further his career. She must have been convinced he would become a star, I suggest. “Maybe she was a visionary, having that camera,” he quips.
Polunin was born in Ukraine, growing up in a relatively poor neighbourhood. When he showed talent as a dancer, his family went separate ways to make enough money to get him top-notch training. His father found work in Portugal, one of his grandmothers went to Greece, and his mother took him to Kiev where they lived in one room so that he could attend a better dance school.
He was accepted into the Royal Ballet School at age 13, arriving in London without any English. Joining the Royal Ballet, he was promoted in quick-smart time. The superlatives flew in the media, with comparisons to Nureyev and Nijinsky. However, the weight of expectation took a toll. The documentary suggests he had hoped that by becoming a star he would be able to reunite his family. His parents’ divorce, therefore, hit him hard.
After leaving the Royal, Polunin danced in Moscow at the Stanislavsky Theatre for Igor Zelensky, but after 18 months moved on again. When he made Take Me to Church, he thought that it would be his last dance. Filmed in LaChapella’s white, airy, barn-like Hawaiian studio, Polunin performs in tights with a hole and bare chest, his muscular torso inked with numerous tattoos. He begins kneeling on the floor, head bowed, then as he flies around the room, appearing at times to hang mid-air so gorgeous are his leaps, the choreography suggests an anguished man, head held in his hands.
Sergei Polunin in David LaChapelle’s dance video to Hozier’s Take Me to Church
Asked if it captures an emotion he was feeling at the time, he says he “wasn’t really that connected with it. I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t really even listen to the song that much. I was ready to move on, you know. I wanted to become an actor, I wanted to go to acting school and I just wanted to be done with it [dance]. For me, the quicker [the better]. Let’s do it, my last dance. And I completely trusted to Jade and to David’s vision.”
Millions have raved about it. As for Polunin himself, he says: “I don’t like watching myself. I thought I could have done better. You watch it from a professional point of view. I think visually it was stunning. Dance-wise, I could do better.”
Since filming ended for Dancer, things have changed again for Polunin. In 2015, Russian superstar ballerina Natalia Osipova, a Principal at the Royal Ballet, was scheduled to dance in Giselle in Milan. When she found herself without a partner, her mother suggested she contact Polunin. Though wary, Osipova approached him and he agreed. Rehearsing and performing together, they fell in love and have been together since, re-igniting his love of dance.
Polunin recently performed with her in London, Edinburgh and New York in a contemporary triple bill that she put together (to mixed reviews). He is also a Permanent Guest Artist at the Bayerisches Staatsballet where Zelensky is now Artistic Director.
Sergei Polunin as seen in the documentary Dancer
“I’m still dancing,” confirms Polunin. “I travelled with Natalia Osipova’s programme, so I’m doing a little bit of contemporary work and thanks to Igor Zelensky I am doing some classical work with his company in Munich. I am also working on my own programme for March. It’s called Project Polunin. It’s a big project, actually. It has many, many layers, a great set of people together to make interesting work. I want to give people [room to create] away from companies, not to compete with the companies but to be away from them to do something interesting. It’s a great bunch of people working on it,” he says enthusiastically.
“So the Foundation is working with a Board to create dance programmes and hopefully create dance movies. That’s what I’m working towards. And another part of the project is dealing with support and representation for dancers who don’t have representation or managers or lawyers… I feel people really need that. When they are young they don’t really know [about these things]. I didn’t, when I was 17 or 19, so it’s just good to have someone you are talk to, who can check your contract, who can make things happen for you.”
Osipova has been “a big part of me going on with dancing”, he says. “She keeps me in shape and keeps me dancing. Meeting Natalia [during Giselle] was the reason for me dancing. I was out of shape so I almost died then! But she kept me going because I was doing it for her.”
He admits that for a classical dancer, it has been hard to adjust to contemporary dance. “I feel it in my hips and back. I say to her at the beginning, ‘this is painful!’ but then you get used to it and it’s enjoyable. It took me a lot longer. A ballet I can learn in one day, two days, but contemporary I have to try and get used to the style so it’s more time. I was doing it for Natalia. Thanks to her experience in that world, I found out it’s a huge world, contemporary dance, that I didn’t know about before.”
Sergei Polunin at home in Ukraine for the documentary Dancer
Asked if he’s open to doing more contemporary work, he says: “I wouldn’t mind to do a combination. Before, I would say ‘no’. I was very much classical but now I’m open to anything.”
Though he’d like to perform classical roles as a guest artist, he’s not interested in returning to a ballet company full-time. “Definitely not, no. Once you come out of this kind of cage and the system, it’s really hard to come back in. I would be interested to talk about how ballet works. I think ballet benefits when you travel around and go to different companies, like opera [singers]. I don’t see why [ballet] should compete so much, why it should be like you betrayed your company if you dance somewhere else… I wish it would change because it would be interesting for artists to experience different companies.”
As for his next move, Polunin is, he says, talking with LaChapelle. “We are going to do something much bigger [than Take Me to Church]. David has got the idea. I can’t really reveal what it is, but that’s next.”
Dancer screens in Australian cinemas nationally from December 1