Sergei Pol­unin

The bal­let bad boy back from the brink

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page -

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

Jen­nifer Lawrence.

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

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