Wearing a navy zip-up jumper and dark trousers, Sergei Polunin dissolves inconspicuously into the mahogany and brown velvet interior of the central Moscow cafe where we meet.
“My friend who’s a tattoo artist in London told me: ‘if you’re going to be bad, then be bad up front’”, he says, flashing a mischievous smile. “Seriously though, if you do things straight up people don’t care. But if you make a mistake while trying to be perfect people are going to notice and they’ll be shocked.”
With unruly hair and countless tattoos etched across his hands and arms, the Ukraine-born ballerino is the antithesis to the prim, clean-cut image most classical dancers court publicly. His bad-boy reputation was only stoked further when he resigned suddenly, amid rumours of cocaine abuse and professional discontent, from Covent Garden’s prestigious Royal Ballet in 2012. At the time he was the youngest ever dancer to fill the coveted role of principal at the age of 20.
“I realise I made some mistakes with the media and there was a lot of misunderstanding about why I left,” Polunin explains, his gentle Ukrainian lilt slow and thoughtful as he seems intent on setting the record straight. “The way the Royal Ballet looks after people and what it gives you professionally is amazing. They gave me everything they could and I was working hard. But what I wanted was freedom, freedom to do other things like movies and commercials.”
“Modelling and acting have really influenced me, I feed off them”
Across the table from me, Polunin is polite and quick to smile, possessed of an unguarded demeanour that suggests he’s not yet jaded from dealing with the press. The night before our meeting, Polunin performed La Bayadere at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre, where a gushing audience trailed each of his soaring leaps and pirouettes with an eruption of applause. And for good reason. In a dance world where ballerinas are coveted above their male counterparts, few male dancers possess talent prodigious enough to steal the stage and make a name beyond the institution’s walls. Fewer still have refashioned a star career as a classical ballerino to include fashion modelling and acting.
“I live on that stuff,” Polunin tells me. “I live on it more than classical dance on stage. Modelling and acting have really influenced me, I feed off them. It’s a different, fascinating world. The dance world is insular and I know that world very well, I’ve learned most of it. Fashion shoots and modelling is challenging. I feel more alive when I’m doing it because I’m learning something new.”
During our conversation, Polunin makes one thing very clear to me: classical ballet was only the introduction, or rather, it’s Act One of a multi-act play. Although he was awarded one lead ballet role after another at the Royal Ballet, Polunin’s natural gift for dance, nurtured from the age of 13 by the ballet school’s rigorous training, has been as much a source of anguish as of success. Propelled to the height of his career years earlier than most, Polunin came to understand something few people ever do: what it’s like to reach the top not knowing where to go next.
“I was lost for a long time after I left Covent Garden,” he says, recalling his frustration with the school’s failure to accommodate the range of projects he wanted to pursue. “I went to America because I thought it was the land of opportunity, somewhere I’d find what it was I wanted to do.” But when nothing in the US materialised, Polunin returned to Russia where he set about trying to piece together his unravelling dance career. There, the director of the Stanislavsky Theatre offered Polunin the job of principal.
“As a dancer there’s no mechanism for actually functioning and living as a dancer”
“It’s still an institution,” Polunin says, his aversion to dance academies palpable, “but I have complete freedom and protection. I’ve been very lucky,” he explains.
Now, after some years, Polunin’s period of soul-searching finally seems to be coming to an end. But the path ahead of him bears few similarities to the one he arrived on. So far this year, Polunin and his dance partner and girlfriend, Royal Ballet Prima Ballerina Natalia Osipova (I notice her name tattooed across Polunin’s left knuckles in Cyrillic – a new addition, he tells me) have posed for a high-fashion photo spread for the April issue of Vogue. Polunin also gave a surprise dance performance on a catwalk at the Milan Fashion Show, flew to New York to shoot a commercial and is currently the face of Italian designer Pal Zileri’s 2016 fall campaign.
“I started to question myself and to think maybe there was hope, maybe I could change the dance industry instead of walking away from it”
He can largely thank his performance in Irish musician Hozier’s 2015 music video Take Me To Church for his new career direction. And the fact that he is still dancing at all. At the time of shooting the music video Polunin was poised to throw in the towel on dance altogether, disillusioned with what ballet could offer him. It was then that he met music video director David LaChapelle and producer Gabrielle Tana, who Polunin credits with jolting his love for ballet back to life.
“I thought to myself ‘wow, these people who I really love and respect love ballet so much’. I started to question myself and to think maybe there was hope, maybe I could change the dance industry instead of walking away from it.”
The effect of the music video’s worldwide popularity (it has over 15 millions hits on YouTube and counting) surprised everyone, but no one more than Polunin. His battered reputation after resigning from the Royal Ballet, which saw his attempts to initiate new dance projects largely ignored, quickly turned around once the video went viral: “people started to listen to me, my phone didn’t stop ringing.”
Now with his professional life remoulded to include the multifarious dance and fashion projects he’d been yearning for, it looks unlikely that classical ballet will ever again be Polunin’s only life source.
“I can be really happy on stage and suddenly there’s something I don’t like”
“It’s difficult,” he says, as he mulls my question of whether he loves to dance ballet on stage. Throughout our conversation it’s only this topic, of Polunin’s relationship to ballet’s classical form, where his answer falters. “It’s as though I have a fight going on inside me. I can be really happy on stage and suddenly there’s something I don’t like. Suddenly everything changes and I have to really fight to be there. I have no idea what triggers it.”
It’s a struggle that has significantly diminished since meeting and falling in love with Natalia, whose professional and personal partnership has, Polunin says, given him a reason to keep the classical core of his dancing alive. “Meeting Natasha has changed me as a dancer,” he says. “If you care about someone, you really focus on them and it gives you purpose. Natasha has given me purpose to be on stage. In the end, it’s only the connection between dancers that really matters.”
The pair, who now share an apartment in west London, made their UK premiere as a dancing duo with a contemporary performance at Sadler’s Wells on 29 June. But balancing each other’s professional personalities at home and in the studio is taking some delicate arrangement, because “we’re both used to being the leader in our careers”, Polunin explains. “We need to figure out who’s in control of what. But I don’t like to compromise,” he adds with a grin.
It seems obvious that few outside forces can influence Polunin’s career in a way he doesn’t like. Clear and matter of fact, he is unafraid of saying no to offers of work that don’t match his expectations, his life predicated on his own will alone. Earlier this year he vowed that he will only dance on stage with Natalia, and I don’t doubt that that’s exactly what we’ll see.
“We can do whatever we want,” he says, “If we want to dance together we just dance and if someone says no then we’ll just go somewhere else. It’s up to us to decide whether or not we want to do it. Once you decide something, you just do it,” he says. “That’s it.”
Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin will perform together at Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 12-14 August and London’s Sadler’s Wells from 27 September-1 October, after which the show will travel to New York City Centre from 10-12 November. Book tickets for their London show here.