As the most talented ballet dancer of his generation Sergei Polunin may be heir apparent to Nureyev and Baryshnikov and, in an uncanny way, the handsome 27 year-old Ukranian even bears a resemblance to his famous forbearers.
Yet with his tattoos and bad boy reputation, he is very much part of a new era. He’s prepared to speak his mind even if it led in part to his own downfall.
Again very much on the rise and working across various artforms, the resilient and hard-working Polunin is keen to bring ballet to the younger generation, and movies are very much a part of his agenda. Dancer, a frank biographical documentary directed by Academy Award nominee Steven Cantor and produced by Oscar nominee, Gabrielle Tana, is probably a good start.
Initially sponsored by the Rudolph Nureyev Foundation to study at the British Royal Ballet School at the age of 13 in 2003, Polunin rose rapidly through the ranks to become the youngest ever principal at age 19, though left the prestigious British company in 2012 amidst scandals of his being a London party boy and his admission of performing while on drugs.
After enduring the strictures of ballet and gymnastic training from the age of three, he yearned for the freedom to choose how to live his life and how to perform – and maybe he could earn a little money along the way. As Dancer shows, he was also reeling from the divorce of his parents who had sacrificed everything to make his career happen.
A film lover since childhood when his mother, Galina Polunina, recorded so many of his moves, he decided to head for Los Angeles to study acting after leaving the Royal Ballet. He struck out there as well, often feeling too scared to turn up for auditions as the news of his bad boy behaviour in the British media had spread.
He contacted Baryshnikov though admits he was nervous when they met.
“I made an effort to meet him at Baryshnikov Arts Centre and it was really, really cool,” Polunin recalls. “He talked about Nureyev and about his own experiences, but we are from very different generations, you know. He would say, ‘Shhhhh’; he would bring me down to earth. I talked a lot; I was very excited. I wish I could have listened more. I was more excited to tell him what I am doing.”
Polunin would find other supporters, most significantly Igor Zelensky, a former Russian ballet star and the artistic director at Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre and the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet, who invited him to dance with the companies.
“Why I loved Igor is that, when I met him, I realised he cared about me. He was not just going to carry me through my work, but he cared about me as a person. I was very lucky to find him.
"I was scared to go to Russia because of what you watch on TV. But when I went there it was the opposite. It was interesting to relearn my own culture, and I realised people are the same everywhere."
“I never had a mentor until I went to Russia. I became a westerner in England and I was scared to go to Russia because of what you watch on TV. But when I went there it was the opposite. It was interesting to relearn my own culture and I realised people are the same everywhere.”
After two years of exclusively dancing the classics, something he had never done, he yearned for the beat of a more modern drum and decided to give up ballet. The four-minute dance he performed for Dancer, backed by Hozier’s Take Me To Church, would be his last – until the David LaChapelle-directed clip went viral when it was posted on YouTube, to the tune of 16 million hits, and counting.
Polunin would ultimately return to dance with a newfound maturity.
“I see David as a visionary for the future of ballet. It [the clip] was like light though the universe and it was meant to happen. He had the chapel in his property in Hawaii, he found Hozier’s song and my friend Jade [Jade Hale-Christofi, his alumnus from the Royal Ballet] helped choreograph.”
While he credits LaChapelle for showing him the way forward – and they intend to work together soon via his company Project Polunin – the gifted dancer becomes most excited when talk turns to his good friend Mickey Rourke.
“I was always fascinated by Mickey’s characters and my mum always gave me bad examples about him. ‘If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna end up like Mickey Rourke’, or things like that. I’m sure she liked him but she was just playing on the name. I was like, ‘Wow, if my mum’s saying he’s bad then he’s really good.’ So I guess I mentioned this somewhere and somebody passed it on to Mickey and he called me and he said, ‘Happy birthday!’ And I was amazed.
“An interview came up and they asked who I wanted to be interviewed by and I said Mickey. It was a Skype call. Then I bumped into him in a club by accident in Russia and he came to see my show. I actually stayed in his house in Los Angeles before filming Take Me to Church and he told me about acting. I emptied myself out for that performance and that's what Mickey does before roles.
“He gave me his trousers from The Wrestler with blood on them and I was like, ‘Fuck this guy has a big heart to give those away’. I don't know yet why we met but I believe there is a reason for everything. I believe in our strange connection. I do hope to do a movie with him.”
"I don't know yet why we [Mickey Rourke and I] met but I believe there is a reason for everything. I believe in our strange connection."
The pair also share a penchant for tattoos and Polunin, the former co-owner of a tattoo parlour, even has one devoted to “Mickey”. Dancer shows the extent of his body art and most impressive is his circular abdominal tattoo.
“It’s a Slavic swastika, it’s water and fire. When I was in Russia I felt like my energy was draining from my stomach, so I did it to protect myself. I hoped it would give me more power. It’s a very powerful sign.”
(The Slavic swastika is the earliest swastika ever found and was uncovered in Mezine, Ukraine, carved on an ivory figurine dating back 12,000 years.)
Polunin is now focusing his considerable energy on launching Project Polunin. The company kicked off at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre with Osipova and Guests, a triple bill of contemporary dance where in two of the three segments he dances with his Russian girlfriend, Natalia Osipova, a ballerina and principal at the Royal Ballet, who also curated the programme. The Guardian calls the pair “ballet’s most explosive couple”.
“We want to have our own foundation, our own money," he says of the company. "We want to give dancers a creative hub like I did with David. Musicians can come in and be collaborative while not competing with the [major] companies, because you can’t compete with the companies. In the evening everyone can come in and work on things they want to do. I want to connect with the fashion industry and the movie industry. It’s important to connect these worlds.”
'Dancer' is out now in selected cinemas around Australia.
Watch the Dancer trailer: