On January 24th this year Sergei Polunin “woke up fine” and went to work. He was to spend most of the day at the Royal Opera House, rehearsing the climactic duet in “The Dream” in which he was to make his debut as Oberon. Anthony Dowell, who created the role, was coaching Polunin, and his Titania was the Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru—an exquisite artist whose harebell delicacy on stage belies a ferociously exacting temperament in the studio. Polunin was in an unreceptive mood. He had just left his first serious girlfriend, the Royal Ballet soloist Helen Crawford. “This was the second day and it suddenly hit me. Two years we were together and I’d really got used to her.” Cojocaru was not happy either. Frederick Ashton’s Nocturne pas de deux is a masterly rendition of the battle of the sexes, the new accord between the Fairy King and Queen enacted in mirror-image movements in which the two dancers must find total reciprocity of technique and emotion. There is also a notorious stumbling block when the ballerina is rotated by her partner like an open compass as her torso jack-knifes under her extended leg. Cojocaru made it clear to Polunin that he was not helping.
“I thought one more word and that’s it. I held tight, trying not to cry. And then my head flew off.” He announced that he was leaving, which Dowell took to mean leaving the room for a few minutes. But Polunin meant for good.
For the Royal Ballet his sudden defection was something of a backhander. After nurturing this extraordinarily gifted Ukrainian boy through both its junior and senior schools, the company made him a principal at 19 and gave him roles which most of his colleagues could only dream of. Oberon was to be followed a few weeks later by his Romeo debut, beamed live to cinemas around the world. The main impact, though, was a sense of loss. A dancer like Polunin comes along once every two or three decades; at 13 his potential was so evident that his teacher would pull up a chair and study him during class. “He’d say, ‘Sergei, show them how to do a rond de jambe.’” To see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection. Watching him back then at the junior school, where my son was a pupil, I was reminded of home footage I had come across while researching my biography of Nureyev. It was of the teenage Baryshnikov, who was also a living lexicon of classical ballet, articulating academic steps in ways which could hardly if ever be improved. Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars, adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity, while introducing a youthful masculinity of his own.
The 13-year-old boy I remember being touchingly grateful when we took him out for a pizza was now, at 22, the youngest-ever star of one of the world’s great ballet companies. And yet he was ricocheting out of control. It was partly the usual rebelliousness you expect at this age, combined with the accelerated trajectory of his career. But you could sense something more, some other motor for his behaviour, that lay beyond the arcane world of balletomanes. That was one reason why, within days of his departure, the story went global, picked up in America by the Huffington Post, the New York Times and the Daily Beast.
Polunin went to the dressing room he shared with two principals. “Just sitting. Hiding.” He kept ringing the administrator’s office to ask to see the director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, but got no reply. “I was there maybe three hours. Nobody came.” The idea of leaving the company had been preoccupying him for months, and the management was aware of “rumblings”. His mother had told him that if the Royal Ballet valued him they would have given him a permanent visa and an apartment; he was always being invited to guest abroad but not given permission because he was leading the repertory in London. He had even given in his notice a year earlier—also following a break-up with Helen Crawford. “They promised a lot of things, raised my salary. It was a really, really big jump. I told them I wanted to do movies, and they said they’d sort it out. But there wasn’t much of a change. So now, with situation in life not good, I thought it was the perfect time to go. This time I hoped they’d let me.”
In the end he headed along the corridor to Monica Mason’s office, suddenly feeling frightened. “He was very emotional when he first came in,” she says. “But as we spoke he quietened down.” Polunin thought it would be easier for her to accept his resignation if he said he wanted to give up dancing altogether. He told her he had been pushed into ballet from the age of three and had no real passion for it. “Is there anything we can do to keep you?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
Mason had championed him, but their rapport was professional. She wasn’t aware of the latest break-up with Helen Crawford, and this meeting—which he recalls lasting 20 minutes, she double that—was the longest they had ever spoken. “Sergei can be very restless. I’d known him come in and talk for ten minutes and then stand up and go. He’s quite mysterious and unfathomable. He doesn’t seek advice or let people get close to him, and yet he’s adorable. He’s never rude, and he has a kindness and gentleness in him. It’s very easy to get very fond of him.”
As Mason talked, she could not help wishing that she could tie him to a chair and keep him in her office for 24 hours until he had calmed down and realised what he would be losing. “His talent is so rare that one would have done anything to keep him. But he was adamant. I said, ‘Well, darling, where are you going now?’”
“I don’t know.”
“Sergei, please let’s talk again tomorrow.”
“No, no, please. I’ve decided.”
“Are you going to pack up your things?”
“No, I’ll do that another time.”
He walked out of the Royal Opera House feeling an intense “breeze of freedom”. And he did have a plan—to go to New York. He reckoned he would be paid far more as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), whose short seasons would free him to earn more around the world; in rehearsals he had encouraged Anthony Dowell to talk about his own ABT break from the Royal Ballet (“I was researching”). He went back to Archway, the corner of north London where he had been sharing a room with a schoolfriend, the dancer Jade Hale-Christofi. He sat on the bed. “I thought, ‘So, now what? Call ABT?’”
Insecurity was setting in, but not for long. Two hours after the company’s announcement (“Principal Sergei Polunin has resigned from the Royal Ballet with immediate effect”), there was a message on his mobile from Alexei Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi, now resident choreographer at ABT. It was a week before Polunin returned his call: he was keeping his options open. That night his mobile kept ringing and he received hundreds of texts, tweets and e-mails.
One of the few calls he took was from another Ukrainian former Royal Ballet principal, Ivan Putrov. He was organising a “Men in Motion” programme at Sadler’s Wells in which Polunin was due to appear three days later. Ten years older and trained at the same Kiev school, Putrov had been something of a mentor to him, and when Polunin went back to Kiev in school holidays he would often spend evenings with Putrov and his mother Natalia Berezina-Putrova, a ballerina turned teacher. “He liked my cooking,” she told me. “Vanya would go somewhere, and Serezha would stay and talk, or watch videos I showed him of dancers. When he came to rehearse at Sadler’s Wells I asked how he was feeling. ‘Harasho,’ he said. He was ‘fine’, like he always was. I thought he was making a big mistake, but he was happy because he was free.”
The Royal Ballet made it known that Polunin would now be performing without a work permit—a situation which again made news. While he went to dance in Japan for a week, Sadler’s Wells stepped in to help, securing an “Exceptional Talent” visa which allowed him back into Britain. In return, he agreed to a second “Men in Motion” programme on March 13th, and to help Putrov publicise the next programme in a series of interviews—or at least that was the intention. Putrov’s attempts to limit journalists’ questions to “Men in Motion” failed: all anyone wanted to know was “what made the ballet dancer jump” (Huffington Post).
After one such interview, I went with the two dancers to get something to eat. Instinctively solicitous, Polunin offered to carry my bag. With their long unruly hair, expansive Slavic posture and ten-to-two ballet walk, they made quite an impact, and a trio of girls turned round and giggled as we reached the restaurant. When Putrov ordered pasta and a glass of wine, and Polunin chose ginger ale and a chocolate brownie, there seemed far more than a decade between them. As there did again when they talked about the role of Romeo. Polunin was relieved not to be dancing him: “He’s not me. He’s romantic, insipid.”
“I think he’s very strong,” said Putrov. “Maybe he’s searching for something he can’t yet find.” Unlike Polunin, Putrov was mature enough to realise that a performer can change the interpretation of a role to suit himself. He has a voracious appetite for books and London culture, but Polunin, despite every encouragement, has never taken an interest in much except Hollywood movies and the music of Jay-Z. Another striking difference is their attitude to their families in Ukraine. Both are the only children of divorced parents. Putrov is in almost daily contact with his mother, even taking his laptop into the studio when he rehearses so that she can give him corrections via Skype. Polunin’s mother has not seen him on stage since he was a child, and keeps up with what he’s doing through his fan sites.
They are in regular contact, though, and Polunin had arranged for me to see his mother in Kiev. As her birthday was the day after our meeting, I was surprised he had no present for me to pass on. He did peel off several £50 notes from a slab of cash—for his mother and also some for his father, who lives in Kherson, south-eastern Ukraine, where Sergei spent his early years. What about getting her a card to put the money in? He shook his head. “When I was a child, she would force me to hand-make cards, so there’s no way I’m going to make an effort now.” I thought of the moment in Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” when she gets a birthday card from her daughter—a folded paper with a drawing of a smiley face—and tears it up, telling her it’s not good enough. Polunin says of his mother: “She was always criticising me, and so when I came here I decided, ‘Never again are you going to watch me.’”
With her gentle manner and strained, desolate face, Galina Polunina seems about as fearsome as Dasha, her son’s elderly Persian cat. They share a room in an ugly, Khrushchev-era concrete block, a long metro-ride from central Kiev. There is a double bed, an exercise bike, a huge flat-screen television, a display of ornaments and pictures, but no books. I sit on the sofabed where Sergei sleeps when he visits. After he left to train in England in 2003, Galina, who was only 35, fell into a long depression. Gradually, she made a life for herself in Kiev, where she now works as a wardrobe mistress at the opera house. She is not bitter about being unable to share Sergei’s success, knowing that her dreams for him have rebounded on her, but her eyes fill with tears when she says, “He keeps the memory of my strictness.” Her consolation is a trove of memories—a rich archive of photographs and videos recording every stage of Sergei Polunin’s young life.
He was born in Kherson in 1989, an energetic baby, so pliable that the midwife who delivered him exclaimed with alarm when she manipulated his limbs. He was walking at ten months, sleeping very little, and always on the move. “Serezha was like Spiderman,” says Galina. “He’d climb up the wall of the corridor and do somersaults over the sofa.” Her husband, Vladimir, was away in Moscow earning money, so it was left to Galina to find some kind of physical outlet for Sergei. He took his first dancing classes at three, but lasted only a few weeks as it was winter and he caught cold waiting for the trolley bus home. A year later, he was picked to join an afternoon gymnastics club. Galina tutored him herself for the entrance exam to a school renowned for its high standards—but he had not long been accepted when his gym coach told her that pupils wanting to advance would have to go to a nearby school, where the timetable was synchronised.
Academically, it was far inferior, but she made the decision to move him. “His teacher said to me, ‘You’re crazy—why?’ But this was a hard time for Ukraine. Conditions were horrible. It was hard to find nourishing food and there were problems with electricity and hot water. In the evenings we used to wash in the water I kept in a bowl on the stove. Even a good education couldn’t help you to make your way unless you had important government links. As a professional sportsman he stood a better chance.”
Between 8am and noon the six-year-old Sergei would attend School No 16 in a pedestrian street in an old part of the city, and then he would walk through Lenin Park to the gymnasium where he trained until 6pm. “I don’t remember eating.” In the evening he caught the tram home on his own, passing St Catherine’s Cathedral, where Potemkin is buried. Kherson’s football stadium is behind the gym, but Sergei never watched a match or even kicked a ball with the boys in the yard. There was no time and he had no energy. “Sometimes when he got back, he’d just fall down from exhaustion,” says Vladimir. “We’d help him undress and put him to bed. Galya was buying red caviar, just for Serezha, to make him special sandwiches for strength.”
Video footage of him at the gym shows a skinny seven-year-old whose innate dancer’s posture makes him stand out in a line of 25 boys. As he exercises on the double bars, his knees touch his nose, and he slides into 180-degree splits. His remarkable plasticity had particularly impressed his coach. “He was very good at stretching and did things very clearly,” says Anatoly Nikolaevich Yarushev, a short, wiry man with glinting gold fillings. “He has light bones, so he was a jumping boy and he loved taking risks.” Yarushev claims that only 3% of pupils go on to make a career as gymnasts, and at the time he reckoned Sergei could become what he calls an “international master of sport”. Galina was more ambitious still. “This is the mother of a future Olympic champion,” a smiling Vladimir remarks on camera, which was exactly what she had in mind.
The battle began. “Serezha’s first word to any suggestion was ‘Niet’. I would try to explain why he needed to do something, but he always fought back.” He was 12 when she began entering him in fortnightly competitions. “I hated them. The feeling of pressure, and my mum there watching and telling me off afterwards for not being serious enough.” Yarushev became the dominant male figure in Sergei’s life. When Vladimir returned home from Moscow, his son greeted him by saying, “Mama says that Anatoly Nikolaevich is my father now.”
The Polunins’ marriage had never been stable. They were both 20 when they met: she was a pretty blonde seamstress who had left technical school at 16, and Vladimir, romantically good-looking with ice-blue eyes, was a porter in a bread factory. Galina was his first girlfriend, and when she fell pregnant he agreed to marry her. With a baby to look after and hardly any money, they divided their time between their two families, but living with in-laws proved too much of a strain, and when Sergei was three they divorced. “I can remember my father saying goodbye as if he’d never see me again.”
A couple of years later they remarried, but with Vladimir returning from Moscow for only a few days every four months, life for Galina was far from easy. “Volodya was very soft and didn’t support me. If Serezha was naughty and I said, ‘I’ll tell your father’ he’d just laugh. As a partner, husband and father, Volodya wasn’t the man I needed. He was always sweet to Serezha and would give him money, which we didn’t have, to get a taxi instead of the tram. It was their little secret, and I was the bad one.” Again, Amy Chua’s book comes to mind. “I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore,” Chua told her mild-mannered American husband, who believed that their daughters’ childhood should be fun. Galina saw it as her duty to prepare their son for a brilliant future—even at the cost of forfeiting his love.
When Sergei was nearly eight, he caught pneumonia and one of his lungs stopped working. Three months of summer holidays and six weeks in hospital failed to cure him. “The hospital told me there was nothing more they could do,” says Galina, who was so frightened that she took him to a healer—an ex-tractor driver, said to have acquired psychic powers after being struck by lightning. “He took eggs from a bin and rolled them around my body,” Sergei remembers. “I guess he was taking the bad energy away.”
Two weeks later (“ten times of rolling eggs”) his health was restored and he returned to the gym. Young gymnasts who had been inferior to him were now far better, which demoralised him so much that his mother decided to give ballet another try. “When he came the second time, it was very different,” says his teacher, Galina Ivanova. “I could see what sports training had done for him—the incredible looseness, wonderful jump and strong feet. It was obvious that he’d had a male coach because it had given him character. He was also really disciplined.”
Galina was determined to get Sergei out of Kherson. “I saw that most of the kids spent their time on the street. The older ones would teach the little ones to smoke and do bad things. That was the lifestyle.” Both she and her friend Ludmilla, whose son Arthur was in Sergei’s dance class, wanted their boys to audition for the ballet school in Kiev; and Galina Ivanova, who would be entering her adopted son Erick, volunteered to prepare and chaperone them. “The night before the final round I couldn’t get Serezha to bed,” Galina Ivanova remembers. “While the other two slept, he kept practising a clapping sequence over and over again. It was fanaticism.”
Among the staff on the audition panel was Tatyana Mihailovna Martynenka. “Usually in the third round when the children improvise a piece, you still see very simple things, but when Sergei began dancing to a Pavarotti aria it was something truly outstanding. He had an extraordinary feeling for music and such rare natural co-ordination. It was the first time I’d ever seen a boy with such gifts and I had tears in my eyes as I watched him.”
The Kiev school accepted all three Kherson boys. Erick would become a boarder, while Sergei’s mother, Galina, agreed to take a room in Kiev to look after both Sergei and Arthur. Their husbands volunteered to pay for their keep by finding better jobs. On August 30th 1999 Galina arrived in Kiev, knowing nobody, with just $50 to last the first term. She had found a room on the 15th floor of a tenement block near the school, where for six months they had no television or washing-machine. Slowly money began arriving from Portugal, where the two fathers had moved to work on construction sites. For the next ten years Vladimir sent his wife and son cash he earned as a builder during the week and as a gardener at weekends. Galina’s mother also sent money from Greece, where she had found a job as a carer for an old woman.
Kiev’s State Choreographic Institute is a 1960s eyesore stuck way out in a rough suburb. Galina rarely took the boys into the centre—“We had no money to do anything”—and Sergei spent evenings in their one room with his toy soldiers and PlayStation. After a year, Ludmilla moved to Kiev to make a home for Arthur, and for the next four years Sergei was alone with his mother. Galina would walk him to and from school along a busy road and through a park notorious for its muggings; accompany him to extracurricular music and drawing lessons; tidy up after him in the boys’ changing room. “As soon as he arrived, he’d drop his bag, jacket, jeans on the floor. He’s always been very disorganised. The teachers didn’t like me being there, but I told them, ‘I’ve come to help you.’”
She often watched rehearsals and while knowing little about ballet, could tell when he wasn’t doing his best, and would lecture him afterwards. His old teacher, Galina Ivanova, believes her presence was reason in itself for Sergei’s half-heartedness. “All kids lose 50% of their performing qualities when the mother is in the audience,” she says. “But I never thought of Galina as a despot. She could tune Serezha like a violin.” He remembers only the hostility, particularly during homework sessions, when he claims his mother would cuff him on the head to get him to focus. “I think I may be dyslexic or have ADD or something, because I could never concentrate. I loved history—wars and Caesar and the Mongolians—but I never took schoolwork seriously, and my mum got called in lots of times. I was always the joker in class.”
In the studio he was the star. His teacher, Eduard Borisovich, would tell the boys, “ballet’s not a man’s job if you’re not a principal”, and anyone who wasn’t good enough would have to inform his parents that there was no point carrying on. Borisovich’s strictness bordered on sadism, his physical discipline brutish. “I was all right because I was the best,” says Sergei, the only pupil to whom Borisovich had ever given five marks out of five.
He was continually picked by the girls’ teacher, Tatyana Mihailovna, to partner her prize students in school performances, and she arranged extra coaching for him with a former principal, Nicolai Priadchenko. “He was beautiful on stage,” says Mihailovna. “Very sophisticated, very elegant, and he was passing this on to Sergei. He gave him a sense of characters with real emotions.” They worked together on classical variations, sometimes until ten at night; in Galina’s home videos you can see that Sergei was partnering girls on stage with convincing danseur noble decorum and the arrogance of a ruttish young stag. When he was chosen to dance the virtuoso showpiece “The Forest Song”, he was approached afterwards by Ivan Putrov’s father, a ballet photographer, who told him that his son had danced the solo ten years ago and was now performing at Covent Garden. “I think that’s what gave my mum the idea.” Galina sent photographs and a videotape of Sergei to the Royal Ballet School, and in the winter of 2003 he received an invitation to the final audition in London. In his case the test class was just a formality. “I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions,” says the director, Gailene Stock. “Before he’d even done a plié I thought, ‘That’s it.’”
After the dilapidation of the Kiev institute, White Lodge, the Royal Ballet Lower School in Richmond Park, must have seemed like the palace it almost is—it started life as a hunting lodge built for King George II, and has a view extending over the formal gardens to Queens Ride, Pen Ponds and beyond. It was not beauty, though, that first impressed Sergei, but the camaraderie of the dorm. “The last book I read was Harry Potter, and it was like a scene from that.” Galina had accompanied him to London for three days in March 2004, but from the start of term in late August, Sergei was on his own. Because of the standard of his dancing he had been put in a class of pupils two years older, and he was let off academic work as he didn’t speak enough English, doing twice as much ballet instead. Left on his own for hours with English linguaphone cds, he could have felt alienated, but Pippa Hogg-Andrews, the Lower School principal, does not recall him being homesick: “he fitted in beautifully.”
Sergei told Galina how tame the boys were—in Kiev he was often involved in fights—but he was determined to behave well. “Any mistakes and I thought I’d be out of the country. This was too good an opportunity to miss. I did a lot of extra work on my own. When the others went to eat, I’d practise splits and stretching and watch ballet videos—Baryshnikov in “Don Q”, Vassiliev in “Spartacus”—I learnt the steps by freezing the frames.” He thought the others must hate him for being constantly singled out in class, but my own son was at White Lodge at the time and insists that all they felt was pride. “Everyone looked up to Sergei. His dancing was insane.” Pippa Hogg-Andrews says much the same. “There was a unanimous realisation that someone with prodigious ability was in our midst, and he didn’t strut about as though he knew that.” Polite with the staff, easygoing with his peers, Sergei also had a soft spot for insects and rodents. He would rescue a wasp that someone was trying to kill, resuscitate a mouse caught in a trap or take a beetle to the safety of a tree in Richmond Park. “I believe that if you’re good to nature, then nature will protect you back.”
In autumn 2004, when he moved to the Upper School in Covent Garden, he was told that he had to spend two and a half years living in residence, instead of the usual one, because he was under-age. There was still an adolescent gangliness about him, and he had so little strength for pas de deux that girls dreaded being partnered by him. He struggled with the speed of the steps—especially the intricate footwork at which English dancers excel—and showed no enthusiasm for contemporary dance. He was told how important this was, how it would help to give him more freedom of movement, but he was only interested in classical variations, which he practised alone for hours after everyone had gone home. “The janitor used to tell me off. He’d say, ‘Sergei, I need to go. I’ll miss my train.’ Finally he complained.” When Sergei was 15, he was told that his parents had divorced for the second time. “I cried for two days. After that I decided never to let them or anyone else hurt me again.”
For his final six months at school, Sergei was allowed to move out into shared digs, where he found himself living in impressive squalor. There were plates of congealed leftovers moving with maggots; mice and the odd Chinatown rat skittering round at night; floors dotted with upturned mugs to trap cockroaches. “Two boys left because they couldn’t stand it. I love nature, so I didn’t care.” Polunin admits he went “a little crazy” at this time, experimenting with drugs and missing morning class. “Gailene told me, ‘You can leave now, or behave and stay for graduation.’” Which he did. There was no visible effect on his dancing, and at the student matinée Sergei was the figurehead, performing the Nureyev signature solo and duet from “Le Corsaire”. His schoolmate Valentino Zucchetti had 22 relatives from Italy watching the show, but no one came from the Ukraine to see Sergei. It would have meant him arranging visas for his parents, and finding separate places for them to stay. He says he didn’t care that none of his family was there, but that night he took too much ketamine, a horse tranquilliser known to ravers as Special K. “Falling into a K-hole” can leave the user not only emotionally numb, but incapable of movement—a dancer’s nightmare.
Once he had joined the company in 2007, Polunin was fast-tracked through the ranks. He made his debut on the Covent Garden stage holding a spear in “La Bayadère”, but within weeks he was performing the show-stopping Bronze Idol solo, and a little over a year later was dancing the lead. By now, with newly acquired muscular heft and strength, Polunin had such physical force on stage that he could trigger goose-bumps even when standing still. Although he did his share of corps de ballet roles—footman, cavalier, fairy escort, Prince’s friend—by August 2009 he had been promoted to first soloist, and to principal a year later. In 2011 he was given six major new roles. It was too much too soon, leaving him no time to explore a character or discover nuances in the steps. When I saw him dance “Rhapsody”, created by Frederick Ashton to showcase Baryshnikov’s brilliance, all the crazily off-kilter tricks were there, but none of the impish grace notes. Des Grieux in “Manon” was a part he wished had been saved for later, but Monica Mason is convinced that Polunin would not have been happy if she’d held him back. “Talent must out. It was a no-win situation.” Confirming this, Polunin says that he could have done it all a year earlier, and in a four-month period when he was cast in “a lot of rubbish”, he fell into a slump. “I played games all night with Jade. I never slept and I never worked.”
But carrying the show meant that he could not have a youth. His happiest memories are of being wheeled about in his buggy, aged two, by the teenagers in the yard, who let him play with their guns. Now he began recapturing Kherson’s delinquent culture in north London’s underworld, staying up all night at “epic parties” and putting money into a tattoo parlour run by a new friend, a young man with a complex past called Anthony Lammin. Polunin’s torso is scored with tattoos from this period: references to died-young role models James Dean and Heath Ledger; random words and phrases (“I am not a Human/I am not a God/I am hwo [sic] I am”); a crucifix; a howling wolf. More unsettling, though, are the wide, red stripes of scarification that he calls “tiger scratches”. He incised these himself. “Tattoo was bad orange colour, so I cut to take the colour out.”
With no inclination to attend company class, Polunin often warmed up in a disabled lavatory at the Opera House, as this bought him an extra half an hour in bed. “There was nothing we could do,” says Mason. “They’re young adults: we don’t take a register, and we trust them to do the right thing for their physical health.” In the final two years at the Royal Ballet, he rarely bothered to jump in class, turned up late for rehearsals—“It was fine because it was me”—and gave only 20% of himself in the studio. Some partners were more understanding than others. “I have to say it’s really hard to work with Sergei,” Tamara Rojo told me. “He’s unreliable. You never know if he’s going to appear. He doesn’t sleep and so often he’s really tired. But then on stage it’s worth it. That’s where it all happens for him.”
By 21 Polunin had reached the pinnacle of his career; and it was not what he expected. “You think you’re going to be on top of the world but it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, is this it?’ There was nothing else to prove.” He began looking for ways to augment the rush of performing, relying on stimulants such as Guarana Ginseng—or stronger. “Lots of times I performed on coke. You have unlimited energy. You don’t get tired and you don’t get bored.” Colleagues turned a blind eye, because Polunin’s performances were always exciting and he filled the house, but news of his cockily provocative tweets—such as “Does anybody sell heroin? Need to bring my mood up”—had reached and alarmed his family. (He meant it as a joke, and showed it by adding another tweet 20 minutes later saying “pizza will probably do for now”.)
His upside-down clock was also taxing his home life. Until Helen Crawford, he had not sought out the company of girls. “I’m more of a guy’s guy, but she was the first girl I respected as a person, as a friend. She became bigger than family, in a way.” Nine years older, Crawford had begun thinking about having children, which was out of the question for Polunin. He decided to end things in time for her to find somebody else. “I split up because I thought it would be better for her, but I also wanted to be free.” Picturing his life in ten years’ time, he could see only domestic and professional stagnation.
“I thought if I do my best in Royal Ballet, then maybe I’ll be as successful as Anthony Dowell, which isn’t good enough for me. Because my goal is not to become millionaire, but multi-multi-millionaire. It’s why I pushed myself so hard. I always wanted to buy my family each a house, and have a street of houses which I could give to my friends. I want to help people that I like. I got involved with the tattoo parlour just to help Anthony [Lammin], because I really like him. He did bad things, but I always look at people and find like a soft side to them. My grandmother’s coming back from Greece and I need money to give her; I want to help my gymnastics teacher; I have a wish to go to Ukraine and take a boy like I was and give him a start. To achieve all this, you need money. Money is what gives you power and freedom.”
He had adopted “the Apple guy’s remark” as his motto: Steve Jobs said that if you think of each morning as the last day of your life, and don’t like what you’re doing, then you should give up now. Which Polunin did—and all in one week. As he put it: “Girlfriend, Royal Ballet, tattoo parlour: deleted.”
There was a buzz of anticipation in the foyer at Sadler’s Wells for the second “Men in Motion” programme on March 13th, and not just because Kate Winslet was in the crowd. Once again Polunin had filled the house, but he was on poor form. A new solo had been inspired by James Franco playing James Dean, and Polunin certainly looked the part in a tight white t-shirt and second-skin denims. But ten minutes of soulful emoting mixed with Soviet bravura did not merit the bombastic billing of “a world premiere”, and he messed up the ending, prompting nervous titters in the auditorium. He laughed about it in his dressing room afterwards, clearly unconcerned. “You’ll meet Anthony,” he said as we made our way to the stage door, where a good-looking black guy in his late 20s was standing apart from a cluster of fans who had waited over an hour for Polunin. After an exchange of teasing banter, Lammin went off into the night. “Did you see his scar?” Polunin asked.
Over dinner and a couple of beers, he talked about his immediate plans. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of him: there was an offer of a Nijinsky play, a new musical choreographed by Gillian Lynne, an invitation to appear on “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”. Not having an agent or manager (by choice), Polunin was making every decision himself. He was already caught up on the gala circuit, with one performance scheduled in Georgia, followed by two in New York. But what he wanted more than anything was to star in a movie, and he was thinking of asking Baryshnikov’s advice about combining the two careers.
Over the next couple of months, with no company behind him, Polunin had become more conscientious about doing class. But it was on his own terms, and he would work alone in a Sadler’s Wells studio between eight and ten at night. His tweets, though, did not bode well: “Today is big party night!!! As long as my heart doesn’t give up on me.” “Charlie Sheen wish to party like us. Only gods can survive amount I take!!!!!!!! That makes me closer to a god.”
At the end of March, he called me to say that he wanted to go to Kherson. The healer who cured his pneumonia had been in touch with Vladimir and told him, “Your son should be in America.” Polunin needed to hear this for himself. It had been a decade since he had last been to his home town, and he was much missed by his family. (When I was in Kherson and showed Vladimir’s mother a picture of Sergei on my iPhone, she kissed the screen.) In his absence, Kherson had begun to flourish: there is a new four-star hotel, a pseudo Emporio Armani boutique, and on the bank of the River Dnieper, where he swam as a boy, there is a billionaire’s mansion opposite the wooden shanties of the docks. Polunin found everything else as he remembered it—even the same simmering borscht smell as he walked into his babushka’s house. He and Vladimir took a boat out on the river, and he visited the gymnasium, where he posed for photographs with Anatoly Yarushev and his pupils. When one boy arrived too late for the group shot, Sergei had a picture taken of them together, which he posted on Twitter. The point of the visit, though, was to consult the psychic. “He told me that I would get two contracts in America.” He laughs. “But I didn’t.”
It was not pre-destiny, but the Euro crisis, that decided Polunin’s fate. He was due to guest in Spain with Tamara Rojo but the performances were cancelled because of lack of funds, and so instead he went to St Petersburg. His idea after that was to go to ABT, even though the director, Kevin McKenzie, had made it clear that he did not want him full-time. “Because of reputation,” Polunin presumes. “But money wasn’t good. He didn’t say a price, but I knew they didn’t have money.” Intent on making a new start, he had cancelled his Twitter account. But things weren’t going well; Polunin was unimpressed by St Petersburg, and edgy about having to wait to perform with the Mariinsky in June. “It was way more boring than when I was bored in London. It was a new city for me and I wasn’t excited by anything, really.” But while he was there, he got a call from Igor Zelensky, the new artistic director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre, who suggested they meet for a drink.
All his life—from the teenagers he played with as a toddler, to Anatoly Yarushev, his gym coach—Polunin has tended to hero-worship older males. Zelensky, a magnetic Georgian and former principal with the Kirov, New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet, was one of the models Polunin had studied on video at school. They had spoken briefly two years earlier after Polunin appeared in a gala in Paris, but he, like many young dancers, had felt intimidated by Zelensky, a man who is reputed to be in Vladimir Putin’s orbit and has powerful oligarch friends. “He was such a huge thing for me.”
When they met in a St Petersburg bar, Zelensky’s aim was for them to establish a rapport. “He didn’t really say anything but he knew I was going to like him,” Polunin says. “As a father figure. And he was right. That’s what really convinced me. It’s him.” There were promises too. If Polunin remained with the Stanislavsky for four years, the company would buy him a million-dollar apartment; he could form a new partnership with Kristina Shapran, last year’s star graduate of the Vaganova Academy; there would be time to guest abroad; and in Moscow he would be given his own European repertory, with works such as Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand”, Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling” and Roland Petit’s “Jeune Homme et la Mort”. “We made big plans,” Polunin says.
On a hot July evening, I met him in a Moscow café near the theatre. Denis Simachev Shop & Bar is a favourite Zelensky haunt, a weird place with props that include an authentic American electric chair. We sat at a table on Stoleshnikov’s pedestrian street of designer shops, watching Muscovite girls circumventing its cobbles in their Louboutin heels, as Polunin joked about their “walk of shame” outfits. He ordered Tarhun, a Georgian green fruit drink, a caesar salad and a steak, and as he tucked in, I was struck not only by his physical transformation—luminous skin, shining eyes—but by how grounded he’d become. He had never thought of Russia as an option, but what needed to happen had happened. In Zelensky he has found not only a friend and mentor, but someone with a wild reputation of his own, who is nevertheless fanatically serious about his career. Polunin has also been embraced by Zelensky’s family, and would be staying with them in St Tropez in August. “Always what I needed was a person who believed in me. Like a teacher. I don’t need them to say anything. I just need their support.”
Ballet thrives on baton-passing from one generation to another. Zelensky was guided first by Chabukiani, the embodiment of heroic Soviet virility, and then by Nureyev, who called him his “little brother”. Zelensky knew all about the talented Ukrainian kid on the brink of self-destruction, and he was determined to do something about it. We met at Denis Simachev, sitting beneath a vintage lavatory cistern in one of the booths, as it was too sunny outside for Zelensky. From his gruff telephone manner I’d envisaged a swarthy, macho figure, but his hair is gingery, his complexion almost albino-pale. “I hear from people all these things about Sergei, but I don’t want to know what went on before,” he told me. “Someone like him can be ripped apart if doesn’t concentrate all his energy, emotion and testosterone in one direction. I told him, ‘In our business you really have to be disciplined. There’s nobody who parties and improves.’” Their white nights together are different, he says—“higher-quality, healthy”, by which he means fine wines and no drugs. “I can party worse than Sergei, but the next day I work.”
On July 8th, Polunin made his Moscow debut as Franz in a new production of Petit’s “Coppélia” (above). With its fake wood and velour seats, the Stanislavsky has none of the opulence of the Mariinsky or Bolshoi theatres, but the house was sold out and extra seats had been added in the aisles. Kristina Shapran, a lyrical ballerina with long slim limbs, was miscast in the soubrette role of Coppélia, and she is hardly a dream partner for Polunin as she towers above him en pointe. This, though, was his night. Never had he danced with such playful bravado, and there was something else—a heart-bursting elation so catching that the audience, craving more, was still applauding long after the house lights had come up.
Zelensky told me that the Russian minister of culture had been amazed that he managed to get Polunin. “I said it had taken money, and it will take a lot more if we want to hold young talent in this country.” But it’s still early days and he’s careful not to exploit his new star. He knows that Sergei has a good relationship with the Royal Ballet’s new director, Kevin O’Hare, who has signed him up to return as a guest next March, reprising “Marguerite and Armand” with Tamara Rojo as she leaves the company. “Of course,” Zelensky says, “he must dance round the world, but not waste energy on galas for money.” Zelensky’s priority is to make Polunin’s name in Russia, which should happen during the six-month transmission of a weekly television dance programme featuring six young couples from leading companies. “Sergei is going to be very famous here—he’s already famous from last night. And that was nothing to what he can do.”
It’s no exaggeration. After “Coppélia”, he appeared on chat shows and was praised by an eminent Russian actor, Konstantin Raikin, who said on television how articulate he was. “So at last I can speak my own language.” He had also had an offer from the Bolshoi. “Amaizing [sic] conditions, but not going to take.” he texted. “My salary got twice up as well.”
On my last evening in Moscow, I walked with Polunin to his flat. He had gone from sharing a bed in Archway to borrowing an oligarch’s cavernous, three-bathroom apartment with a security guard at the door. It’s a soulless place, but he could take his pick of the bedrooms, and the one he chose was uncharacteristically tidy, his clothes still stored in a suitcase topped with boxes of new designer shoes. Galina would be impressed. Sergei had asked her not to come to Moscow for his first performance, but she had read about his success on Google News. “I spoke by telephone with him and I feel that he is happy now and I am very glad. I love Zelensky—he saved Serezha.”
After one more performance of “Coppélia” on July 27th, he would be going to Kherson, and this time it would be different, with his mother, father, uncle and both grandmothers there. “Finally, all family together,” he told me. In Kherson, Vladimir had spoken wistfully to me about being reunited with Galina—“I see her in my dreams all the time”—and now it seemed that this could well happen. They were planning a holiday together on the Black Sea. “We know how happy it will make Serezha,” he said, “but we’re not doing it just for him.” Wouldn’t it be great, I asked Sergei, if his parents, who had married, divorced, married, divorced, were now to marry again? “Yeah,” he said with a grin. “Third time lucky, maybe.”
At his suggestion we went to dinner at the Pavilion, a restaurant on a lake renowned for adventurous Russian cuisine. After drinking several bottles of first-growth claret with Zelensky—“You get no headache, nothing”—Sergei had
developed an interest in wine, and he sniffed the cork of the bottle we ordered, detecting a whiff of cocoa. The two of them had stayed up most of the night before, sitting talking until Sergei’s energy subsided.
I told him that I’d never seen such euphoria on stage. “Please tell me that wasn’t ginseng, or worse!”
“No, no. It was me.”
“But you hate ‘cheerful ballets’. So what’s different?”
“Stage been taken away. Three months I’m without adrenalin. You get hungry for that.”
“But Sergei, in January you were thinking of giving up.”
“Yeah.” A giggle. “Yeah.”
“So this is fabulous, isn’t it?”
“Oh yeah. Definitely. I think what you saw was just hunger of person who wants to dance.”