Not long after Natalia Osipova danced with Sergei Polunin for the first time, she and I met backstage at the Royal Opera House. The rumour from Milan, where they performed “Giselle”, was that the love they revealed for each other on-stage came straight from the heart. Osipova smiled but stayed silent. On the other hand, she couldn’t stop talking about the wonder of dancing with him. “Different partners are like different lives and your character changes depending on the partner. Dancing with Sergei for the first time, everything changed. I had never danced Giselle in that way before,” she said. “He has a very different energy flow. I often feel like I am the boss, and I know what I am doing and where I am going. I am the lead. Maybe this is not right, but it is how it is. With Sergei it was different because he is so natural on stage and I just followed his lead.”
For Polunin, dancing with Osipova was also a new experience. “It was the first time I cared about the person. It was a natural feeling. And because it was natural, it was easy,” he told me later. “I watched where she was stepping and I made sure everything was fine. Before I was in my own world. And it is nice because you have a purpose being there when you care about someone. Otherwise you just go on-stage, it is not like a real thing. I think people can see it. The way someone looks at someone. On-stage you are naked. They can see who you are.”
It’s not unusual for dancers to be lovers. Ballet is such an all-consuming activity that relationships inevitably blossom within the confines of its world: Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks, formerly of English National Ballet; Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, who left the Royal Ballet together in 2013; Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy at American Ballet Theatre; Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild at the New York City Ballet. All are partners in life and art. Sometimes, indeed, the artistic partnership outlasts the romantic one. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares both continue to dance at the Royal Ballet although their marriage is over; Osipova performed with her former lover Ivan Vasiliev long after their relationship hit the rocks. He is now married to Maria Vinogradova, another Bolshoi ballerina.
What makes the partnership of Osipova and Polunin fascinating is their high profile in the dance world, and the way their love seems so intricately bound up with their art. Audiences flock to see them, hoping to glimpse into their souls.
Who they are is complicated by the difference in their temperaments and career trajectories. Polunin has been branded a bad boy ever since he walked out on the Royal Ballet in 2012, turning his back on the company that had nurtured him since childhood and on the prodigious talent that had made him a principal dancer at the age of 19. He talked of performing on cocaine, of crying every morning; he screamed his sadness through the tattoos that spread over his body.
In person, he is less rebel than lamb, his gentleness and anxiety immediately striking. What you sense is his reluctance to embrace his talent for dance, which has made him a star but also trapped him. In the new film, “Dancer”, which traces his progress from his native Ukraine to his current worldwide fame, he explains at one point: “I didn’t choose ballet. It was my mum’s choice.” His ambivalence about dance explains why he announced, almost as soon as he met Osipova in 2015, that he would dance only with her. “I don’t love dance enough just to dance. I am prioritising dancing with her. It’s nice because you have a purpose there when you care about someone.”
Osipova is travelling in the opposite direction. With her long dark hair pulled back from her face she can seem stern and withdrawn, a distance emphasised by the fact that despite having worked in America and Britain for six years, she still chooses to speak mainly through an interpreter. But when she laughs – which she does a lot – she’s like a girl, mimicking people, chatting away in Russian with great animation.
She loves Polunin, that’s clear. “He is very sincere,” she told me once. “I think he is a person I can always trust; in any situation I can rely on him. He is strong and very charismatic but as a man he is gentle and kind. I have never before felt this attitude towards me.” But she also loves to dance. “I really can’t live without it.” She left Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and came to the Royal Ballet, (via the Mikhailovsky and American Ballet Theatre), in April 2013 and she is still full of ambition. “I like my work, I like my job and I concentrate on what I do. Sergei is probably the most talented person in the ballet world I know. But I have to work hard to achieve success.”
This profound difference in attitude becomes clearer when I watch them working together on the programme of contemporary dance devised for her, and produced by London’s Sadler’s Wells, with which they have been travelling the world. In the studio of the choreographer Russell Maliphant, I glimpse the instinctive synergy with which they move together as they spin in a pattern of dazzling turns, revelling in their prodigious prowess, their speed and lightness. But it’s Osipova who drives the rehearsal, working obsessively to shape her classically trained limbs to new contemporary demands, while Polunin stretches out, cat-like, or throws off an elegant jump.
In another studio, on another day, I watch them work with Arthur Pita on a tiny narrative ballet about doomed lovers, set to the songs of the Shangri-Las. Polunin relishes putting on 1950s poses, flicking his hair and clicking his fingers, but rarely seems to be dancing full out. In contrast, Osipova is focused and intense. While he lies on the floor, she is studying a book of song lyrics or repeatedly practising a step. “We are such different people,” Polunin said. “Incredibly different in every way.”
Working together on such a challenging programme causes tension. Voices are raised, rows break out. “Of course we quarrel quite a lot because we both have tempers,” Osipova explains. “It is difficult to find this harmony because we do have different opinions about work.” Polunin admits that collaborating so intensely in an unfamiliar idiom was a challenge. “It’s still hard to work hard together. Because at work there is more pressure and if you know someone really well you’re more aware of what they’re doing. When we dance the classics, that’s so easy and fine. But with the contemporary it is more challenging for me; that’s when it gets a bit rough. It is fun, but it’s tough on the body. And there are a lot of ways to go wrong; you can hit each other accidentally and sometimes the energy gets very intense.”
The programme he is now putting together for Sadler’s Wells in March, under the title “Project Polunin”, will be much more classical, a way he sees of playing to his strengths. Osipova will be involved, though she is juggling her commitments to him with her devotion to the Royal Ballet, where she will perform Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling” in April. The pair also continue to make guest appearances in classical ballet in Italy, Russia and Germany, though they have not yet performed a traditional ballet together in Britain. Smuggled clips on YouTube catch the flavour of their rapport, the way her head gently curls into his neck as they dance “Giselle”, the extreme tenderness with which he gives her his hand.
Their coming together fulfilled something in them both. “When I dance with him, it is really something special,” Osipova said. “Strange but wonderful at the same time.” But it is more than that. They now live together in London, but if they want to see each other, the fierce demands of ballet mean that they must carve out space to dance together. As Osipova put it, “to live together Sergei and I have to work together as well.”
Polunin acknowledges that he has benefited from her dedication. “She is very inspiring to me,” he says. “It’s amazing how much she knows about dance and I gather so much information from her.” But he also admitted that towards the end of last year, his mind was “25 per cent” on performance: he was focusing on the film about his career that was about to be released and on an organisation he is founding, also called Project Polunin, with which he hopes to “change the way the ballet industry works”.
His aim is to create a platform to give dancers, like opera singers and actors, access to lawyers and managers, and on which, rather than being tied to a theatre, they have the freedom to work with artists from other disciplines. It’s an ambitious plan, but one that fires his restless spirit. “It seems to me that ballet is just stuck. Theatre and opera have evolved and ballet needs to. It’s important to keep the classics alive, but we have got to create something to shake things up a bit.”
His searing performance to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”, which was choreographed by his friend Jade Hale-Christofi and filmed by the photographer David LaChapelle and with which “Dancer” culminates, is part of that. On YouTube the film has already been watched by some 17m people. He admitted that when he shot that video he was on the verge of giving up dancing; now with Osipova by his side, and his eyes fixed firmly on his dreams, he is ready to carry on.
Dancer will be released in 32 countries this spring.
Project Polunin is at Sadler’s Wells, London, from March 14th-18th.
Mayerling is at the Royal Opera House, London, from April 28th