Sergei Polunin: His life so far, from his ‘Harry Potter’ world to the celebrity circuit

A bridge connects the Royal Ballet School to the home of the Royal Ballet in London’s Covent Garden.

One day, the students hope, one day.

For most, that day never comes.

For Sergei Polunin the successful crossing from the school to the company came very soon, perhaps too soon.

Already elevated from the first year of the Royal Ballet’s Upper School to the third year, Polunin joined the company itself, became a soloist in 2009 and the following year was promoted to the rank of principal artist when he was only 19.

Eventually he felt trapped, and sometimes bored, within the Royal Opera House, and at the end of January 2012 he walked out of a rehearsal conducted by the former artistic director of the Royal Ballet, Sir Anthony Dowell.

He told Dame Monica Mason, the Royal Ballet’s artistic director at the time, that he was leaving then and there, and never coming back.

She could do nothing to convince him otherwise.

The news of his departure soon spread from the Royal Opera House to the media, and from there, around the dance world.

The ballet community was saddened or upset that such a talented young man could throw everything away although many dancers, choreographers and dance writers already knew that something was seriously wrong as Polunin had been tweeting about his depression, his use of drugs and his very late nights.

After he walked away from the Royal Ballet Polunin found comfort from his friend, Jade Hale-Christofi – his contemporary at the Royal Ballet School – and Jade’s parents who had been supporting him for several years.

Polunin did not look for support from his own family.

He hadn’t seen his parents during all his years at the Royal Ballet School that began when he entered the junior school in 2003, aged 13.

Polunin’s volatile early life is told in the 2016 documentary, Dancer, one of five films that have been selected by The Producers Guild of America as nominees for the top feature film documentary of the year.

The documentary winner will be announced at the end of January.

At the heart of Dancer is the 2015 YouTube sensation in which Polunin danced a solo, choreographed by Jade, to Hozier’s Take Me to Church.

His ripped, flesh coloured tights and the tattoos displayed over his chest and arms added to the powerful impact of Polunin’s performance.

Dancer, begins with footage from Polunin’s home city, Kherson, in Ukraine.

The grainy grey images of the city are in stark contrast with the later glamour of the dancer’s life at the Royal Ballet.

Images and footage from Polunin’s early life are the most impressive elements of Dancer.

As a young boy he was a prize winning athlete, as flexible as the young Sylvie Guillem whose career also began as a child athlete.

In 1997, when Polunin was 8 years old, he moved with his mother, Galina, to Kiev, where he began his ballet training.

Galina was proud of her son, filming him at every opportunity with a home video recorder.

But from 2003 he had no family to support him.

Polunin spent his early days at the Royal Ballet School as an outsider.

He spoke little English, and was initially adrift as a boarder in White Lodge, the school’s home, a Georgian building place that was once a royal lodge.

In the documentary, Polunin describes how lost he felt in White Lodge, a place that for him was “a Harry Potter world”.

After his first year at the school, when his parents divorced, Polunin acknowledges that he was “angry with my Mum” and, as Jade Hale-Christofi says in the documentary, Polunin “became separate from the family”.

I first saw him dance, in 2004, at the Royal Ballet School’s Summer Fair at White Lodge, an annual event where the students perform for family and friends in the gardens and inside the building.

Polunin danced in The Sleeping Beauty pas de trois.

His technique was impeccable although he looked as if he would rather be almost anywhere else.

A few years later I saw him again, this time on the stage of the Royal Opera House in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody.

The blank look had, of course, gone. His performance was electric and his line was the epitome of classical perfection.

Although we see that perfection again in Dancer’s scenes from Giselle, La Bayadere and Spartacus, the documentary more often focuses on his pain, both physical and mental, as he struggles with life as a professional dancer at the Royal Ballet, a place that for him was a gilded cage.

The documentary takes an unfortunate turn when it swerves into the genre known in the book trade as a misery memoir.

His parents recall how difficult life was for them, how little money they had, and how his mother struggled in vain to get a visa to visit the UK and see her son.

The film ends with orchestrated “happy ever after” moments when the extended family reunites to see Polunin perform.

We see Mum and Dad sitting in the audience of a theatre watching their son with all the joy of Billy Elliott’s Dad, the man who scoffed at the idea of ballet but had tears in his eyes when Billy jumped onto the stage in Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of Swan Lake.

Until recently, Polunin has been supported by father figures, such as the dancers, Ivan Putrov and Igor Zelensky.

He now he has the support of his partner, the ballerina, Natalia Osipova, and with that, appears to have more confidence and security than he has had in his life so far.

This year the couple put together ‘Natalia Osipova & Guests’, a show that opened at Sadlers Wells in London and has since travelled to the Edinburgh Festival, New York and Athens and will tour to Auckland in March.

The idea seems to have sprung from Sylvie Guillem’s post-ballet initiative of commissioning contemporary choreographers and assembling small groups of dancers as a way of continuing her dance career.

But, judging from the London and New York reviews of the Osipova/Polunin show, the couple will need to commission more compelling choreography than they’ve chosen so far.

Meanwhile, Polunin is following Guillem in another way.

Once she was the reclusive ‘Mademoiselle No’ (the dancer who had her own way and no other way), who refused to be photographed and seldom gave interviews.

That all ended when she emarked on international tours with her own groups or partners such as Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Once, Polunin was also reclusive, “the bad boy” of ballet, searching for his own way, not the company way, and he was not known as friendly to the media.

Now, as a freelancer with the Take Me to Church YouTube sensation and documentary as his calling cards, he’s giving interviews wherever he can.

When the flurry of publicity calms down, let’s hope he will continue his career in ballet, choosing his roles the way he wants, but without the angst of before.

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Sergei Polunin, Take Me to Church

Sergei Polunin, Take Me to Church

Sergei Polunin, still from Dancer, the documentary

Sergei Polunin, still from Dancer, the documentary

Sergei Polunin in Spartacus

Sergei Polunin in Spartacus

Sergei Polunin, Take Me to Church

Sergei Polunin, Take Me to Church

Sergei Polunin, Vogue Hommes, Paris, April 2016

Sergei Polunin, Vogue Hommes, Paris, April 2016