The ballet bad boy back from the brink
Sergei Polunin is telling me about pain. There’s the emotional pain ballet dancers grow up with, explains the 28-year-old Ukrainian dancer, actor and model known as “the bad boy of ballet” – “the sense of being imprisoned by your own body” – and the physical pain that’s a daily reality. “Because when you’re not dancing, you’re always in some degree of pain. And I’ve danced since the age of three, so when I’m not exercising my body seizes up. Which means all day is spent wondering when I’ll be able to dance again.”
Polunin created a sensation in 2012 when he abruptly quit the Royal Ballet at the age of 21. Hailed as the new Nureyev, he had become the company’s youngest ever principal two years previously and had been a member of the Royal Ballet School since the age of 13. His antics offstage attracted almost as much attention as his sublime performances on stage, with rumours abounding about missed rehearsals and wild partying. When he quit, by walking out of rehearsals one day, he tweeted mysteriously, possibly mischievously, about wanting to buy some heroin and declared he would not be returning to Covent Garden. The dance world was left reeling.
Looking back on that period now, Polunin says that pain had acquired an addictive quality that had come to define his life. Most of the 22million people who watched him dancing to Hozier’s Take Me to Church in a David Lachapelle-directed video that went viral on Youtube two years ago will have noticed that, along with 17 tattoos, his torso is covered with scars, the most prominent of which are a set of wide red stripes he calls his “tiger scratches”. These are a result of a “scarification” the dancer has previously described as a “warrior-like practice”. But today, he sees these as the acts of self-harm that they were – and proof that he was caught in a downward spiral that nearly ended his career.
“I’d been carving shapes into myself with razor blades ever since I was a kid,” begins Polunin, who is back in London rehearsing for the world premiere of his own company Project Polunin’s Satori next week: a triple bill that includes a new seven-minute ballet, First Solo, the London premiere of Kasyan Goleizovksy’s Scriabiniana and the world premiere of Satori: “a story of reawakening” co-created by Polunin. He is mild-mannered and courteous with imploring eyes and a wide, frank smile. “When I was 14, I’d draw scorpions on myself, and as I got older I realised that it released endorphins in the same way that having tattoos did – so that the pain would make me feel high for two days afterwards. Acid is the easiest way to do it,” he says blithely. “And it’s actually less painful than using razor blades, because skin is amazing stuff – it’s very hard to scar it – so you cut first and then put acid in the wound.”
As a form of rebellion, tattoos are as obvious as it gets (“in my mind they represented free people,” Polunin says poignantly). Ditto the drugs he lost himself in for months: “And I took everything imaginable,” he admits. “Not because I was addicted, but because I was trying to find answers, and I thought the drugs would help.” The cutting, however, was addressing something at the very core of Polunin’s torment: a need for the former infant prodigy from the impoverished Ukrainian town of Kherson, who felt the weight of his entire family’s hopes so acutely, to be more than just “a tool”. “I needed to remind myself that I was alive and here, me: that I exist. But the idea that to feel something you have to cut yourself, that you’re not really existing unless you’re feeling that pain…” He shakes his head. “I was in a very low place.”
At first, while at the Royal Ballet, Polunin enjoyed the “bad boy” brand. “I even played up to it. And there were offers coming in from musicals and America.” But soon he was struggling to cope. “Because I didn’t know what to do with the attention, it all started to slip away and that began impacting on me in a negative way.” Now, though, Polunin is shocked by the lack of support he received from his industry.
“It’s not like in the sports world, where they have managers and publicists. There isn’t even a union. And we’re not earning anything like the kind of money sportsmen earn
– I can tell you for sure that even principal dancers can never stand a chance of buying a property in London,” he assures me, which does seem surprising. “But are we any less talented than sportsmen? Any less impressive to watch?”
With no support system to help him out of the hole he had dug, Polunin left the UK in 2012 for Moscow and the Stanislavski Music Theatre. “Doors were being slammed in my face,” he says. Stanislavski was “the only place that would take me”. “And that was the most dangerous point for me,” he goes on. “Because at that age you don’t listen to anybody. But thank God I still had the discipline of going to class, and that gave me the structure I needed to get through. If I hadn’t had that, if I hadn’t had dance…” he shrugs. “Really ballet saved my life.” It wasn’t until 2015 that the fog started to lift, and David Lachapelle’s video is still more powerful when you know that while it was being filmed, Polunin was making one of the biggest decisions of his life: whether or not to leave ballet behind. “It was nine hours of crying. Because for a long time when I asked myself how I would feel if I was told I could never dance again the answer was just ‘relief ’. And actually I would sometimes pray that an injury would mean it would all be over.” And yet at the end of those nine hours dancing in an empty barn the sunlight streams through “and I was clear then that I had to come back and dance. Not because anyone was telling me to or because I wanted something in exchange for it, but for the pure joy of it.”
Now that Polunin doesn’t take drugs or drink any more, “I feel so totally, totally… awake,” he says, breaking into his childlike smile. He has dabbled in acting a bit – “It’s like being a child again – and like with sport there is such a team spirit,” he says, and as well as appearing in Steven Cantor’s heartbreaking documentary, Dancer, he has also landed roles in big-budget films like Kenneth Branagh’s current all-star adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express and next year’s spy thriller, Red Sparrow, alongside
Mainly though it’s all about doing things on his own terms. He wants to use his celebrity “to change things – because it gives you so much
‘I believed that to feel something you have to cut yourself, that you’re not really existing unless you’re feeling that pain…’
more power.” He has also set up a management agency that will enable dancers to work independently of home companies and theatres.
But it’s the mixed media Project Polunin that looks set to be his life’s work – even if the first show, which premiered at Sadler’s Wells in March, was a critical flop. “I want to create a platform like Youtube in which artists are given the freedom to create,” he says. “And there should be so many more movies with dancing involved – just look at the success of Bollywood and La La Land. We need to unite the two mediums.”
Project Polunin’s Satori reunites Polunin with Natalia Osipova, the former Bolshoi ballerina with whom he has been in an on/off relationship since the two partnered in Giselle in 2015 (Polunin once tried to remove her tattooed name from his knuckles after a fight). The Brangelina of ballet are very much together now, he tells me – “having someone who has had a similar journey together is so important” – and although marriage is still an alien concept to him, Polunin lights up at the idea of one day becoming a father. “That would be crazy amazing. And I really hope that kids will be drawn in by Satori, because that’s what it’s about: returning to the purity you have before life breaks you. Kids have that capacity for wonder that we need to try to retain as adults.”
I defy any grown up watching Polunin dance not to feel the most basic, childlike wonder. But as I wish him the best with his project and urge him to maintain spurious “bad boy” elements, if only for the brand, there’s a moment’s awkwardness. “You want me to storm out, don’t you?” he sighs. If he wouldn’t mind…
Own terms: Polunin has started acting, most recently in
Strong: Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova in Project Polunin at Sadler’s Wells Theatre
Murder on the Orient Express, above