Berluti – Pink wool blazer, £2,640; pink wool trousers, £790; black leather Chelsea boots, £1,080
Even in the oppressive summer heat of an east London railway arch, Sergei Polunin remains cool. He lies on the floor of the photo studio in nothing but pink trousers and pointy Chelsea boots, footwear that would silence a Brexit-belt pub. At the photographer’s request, he is spinning on his back, contorting his legs. If you did it, you’d look stupid, or drunk, or stupid and drunk, but Polunin looks graceful. It’s as if he’s speaking some ancient physical language.
Over the past few years, the Ukrainian has been repeatedly dubbed the “bad boy of ballet”. In 2010, aged just 20, he became the youngest ever principal of The Royal Ballet, but quit — on the spot, during a rehearsal — 18 months later, disillusioned with the industry and angry at his employers. He was already a polarising figure in a conservative world (tattooed, outspoken) but his departure sent shockwaves of disapproval through ballet. Few dancers will ever be a principal of “The Royal”, let alone be so ungrateful as to snub the role. It was a scandal.
“I haven’t met another industry that works 14 hours a day, six days a week,” explains Polunin now, sitting in shade outside the studio, dressed in a dark tracksuit, boots off, the shoot over. “You do 120 shows and God knows how many rehearsals, then 10 years later: ‘Thank you, we don’t need you anymore. Next!’ Then nobody knows who you are and you have no money.”
A modern man working in a system he deems to be archaic and draconian, Polunin rails at the lack of exposure given to ballet in mainstream media — “When TV appeared, ballet should have moved to TV, why should people not be watching ballet?” — and bemoans the fact that professional dancers don’t have agents to haggle with the dance companies on their behalf. “You’re only attached to this big building,” he says, meaning the established ballet companies. “One guy decides [your] whole life, you don’t have [any] question and answer.”
Whatever balletomanes think of Polunin, none denies his talent. He began dancing in his hometown of Kherson, in the south of Ukraine, aged four, and by eight he had moved to the capital, Kiev, attending the State Choreographic Institute. At 13, and with support from the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, he had moved to London and a place at the Royal Ballet School, alone without his parents and unable to speak the language. Known for his great strength, and his ability to leap impressively high in the air, Polunin has been frequently described as the most gifted male dancer of his generation. It is said his Royal Ballet School teacher knew he was the real deal before he had so much as raised his leg; the sight of his taught, compact, purely-balletic proportions was enough.
After departing The Royal Ballet, Polunin went first to Russia. Invited by Igor Zelensky, a former principal of the New York City Ballet, he found sanctuary with the Stanislavsky Music Theatre, among other companies, and searched for his lost love of the discipline.
Then, in 2015, he danced to the Hozier track “Take Me to Church” in a video directed by the maximalist photographer David LaChapelle, and was suddenly basking in the mass exposure he’d so craved at The Royal Ballet. The video, which saw him careering in graceful anguish around a sun-bathed barn, has been watched more than 24m times, and introduced the inked-up human maelstrom to the YouTube generation.
Then came Dancer, Steven Cantor’s documentary of Polunin’s life and early career, tracking him from child prodigy to disgruntled principal. Kenneth Branagh saw the film and decided, perhaps not surprisingly, that Polunin would be a good fit for the role of Count Rudolph Andrenyi in his starry remake of Murder on the Orient Express(2017). Earlier this year, Polunin worked alongside Jennifer Lawrence in the spy thriller Red Sparrow — he was her dance partner. Next, he appears in The White Crow, a biopic of Rudolph Nureyev, directed by Ralph Fiennes. Polunin plays Yuri Soloviev, a contemporary of Nureyev who became the star of the company once his colleague departed. At Christmas, you’ll see Polunin dancing rings around Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the Disney production of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Hollywood seems to suit Polunin. “It’s way better supported,” he says, comparing film to ballet. “You’re taken in an amazing car, driven, food, treatment,” he explains. “Everything is for you. You go to work and everything is taken care of, you don’t have to think. You only concentrate on yourself.”
He still dances off camera, of course. There have been solo productions at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and a few months ago he filled a late night spot at Lowlands Festival in the Netherlands. He says the reaction was amazing, that he tried harder because he knew there were people in the audience seeing ballet for the first time. He’s also planning on starting his own ballet company and a charitable foundation.
Right now, in the afternoon sun, he seems contented, temporarily at least. But he hasn’t lost his impulsiveness. The tattoo of a pigeon next to his left eye is new, he says. It was done hand-and-needle by a guy on a Red Square pavement. What made him decide to get it?
“I don’t think about it,” he says. “It’s like a moment in life. Sometimes I wake up and I have to get a tattoo.” Think of it as a leap in the dark.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is out on 2 November