Finding freedom in scandal

Internationaly acclaimed mega-star dancer Sergei Polunin to perform ‘Sacre’ in Israel.

July 17, 2019 20:29
Finding freedom in scandal

SERGEI POLUNIN in ‘Sacre Paradox’. (photo credit: DAS NEVES PHOTOGRAPHY)

For most celebrities, a media scandal is the stuff of nightmares, but for Sergei Polunin, an Instagram comment turned tabloid-fodder presented an unexpected opportunity for enlightenment. But then again, few celebrities and even fewer ballet dancers have the bad rap that Polunin had accrued during his star-studded ballet career.

Many will recognize the acclaimed dancer from David LaChapelle’s video to Hozier’s Take Me to Church. Dressed in tights and sporting an impressive assortment of tattoos on his bare upper body, Polunin seems to defy gravity traversing a sun-washed, empty building. Critics wrote of Polunin’s “dance with his demons” in the clip, something that Polunin had done quite a lot of in the two seasons he danced with the Royal Ballet in London. Polunin’s attitude and extracurricular activities won him the title of “bad boy of ballet,” something the artist finds laughable now.

“It’s funny,” he says over the phone. Polunin, 29, is in a taxi on the way from London to Moscow. His low voice and easy manner betray a small chuckle.

“I don’t really think about that title that much. I don’t put it on me. I remember who I was as a child and I always stayed the same. I have a good knowledge of who I am. When I feel like ‘the bad boy of ballet’ it’s more about what the newspapers publish. It’s their thinking, not mine.”

Polunin was born and raised in the Ukraine. He began gymnastics at the age of four and quickly transitioned to ballet. His physical prowess and work ethic won him a place at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute and later at the Royal Ballet School. After racking up the Prix de Lausanne and the Youth America Grand Prix, Polunin joined the Royal Ballet. At 20, he was the youngest ever principal of the troupe. His childhood rise to fame and tumultuous relationship with dance are documented in the film Dancer by Steve Cantor.

Since leaving the Royal Ballet in 2012, Polunin’s career became, at once, more charged with fame and less stable. He moved from one company to the next, guesting with world-renowned troupes and choreographers. He won prizes and collaborated with acclaimed artists, LaChapelle among them. Then, in early 2019, Polunin received the invitation of a lifetime, to dance Swan Lake with the Paris Opera Ballet.

Some 48 hours later, after catching wind of a particularly sexist and homophobic outburst of Polunin’s on Instagram, the Ballet revoked the invitation.

“I had three months where I was on social media,” explains Polunin. “It was a really strange experience. After my Instagram experience, I felt I served my karma and I felt I became free to dance. I accepted the dance fully. When I dance now, I don’t feel a fight with dance itself. I feel comfortable. I feel free to dance.”

Though his life was interwoven tightly with dance for as long as he could remember, it took a disaster to free Polunin to truly enjoy his craft.

“The ballet world is a small restricted world. It’s very conservative and held back in a way,” he says.
Being on his own has opened Polunin’s eyes to the hierarchical structures of the ballet world, something he hopes to change in the near future.

“Basically, you have one person in the theater, the director, who decides your whole life and career. No one asks you what you want to do. There’s no one to fight behind you for your finances, your choices, your artistic choices… you have to do it yourself; you don’t have the power or confidence to do that. No other industry works that way anymore. Ballet has a lack of agents and managers and it kills the competition. There is nobody to fight for the dancers’ rights and it creates this,” he pauses, “it’s a bit of slavery in a way. Dancers never got their voice. It carries on being a dictatorship and never got to be a choice between dancers and the institution. That isn’t right. Dancers don’t have any alternative yet. I want to create that alternative. It will raise the game for the dancers. I would like to work within the system to create a union for the dancers.”

Alongside his social agenda, Polunin is rejoicing in his ability to dance what he wants. He chooses the choreographers he wishes to collaborate with and the content he is interested in dancing. This September, he will visit Israel for the first time to perform Sacre in Tel Aviv and Haifa. The piece is based on the life of Vaslav Nijinsky and was choreographed specifically for Polunin by Japanese choreographer Yuka Oishi.

“I met Yuka Oishi and we started to collaborate. I didn’t really think about Nijinsky prior to dancing Nijinsky. When I danced him, I felt him. I felt the person and how life is circular. When we created the work, we did it where Nijinsky lived in Switzerland. The choreography also combines his movements that he choreographed with new material. It’s very interesting, you kind of connect to this universal thing,” says Polunin.

As for what the Israeli audience can expect to see in this one-man-show, Polunin is as curious as anyone.
“I don’t really prepare. The most important thing for me is to go on stage. It’s not about rehearsals or thinking about it or preparing it. It’s about stepping on stage and the magic happens. I don’t know what experience will happen. It’s as new to you as it is to me. It could be a sad performance; it could be more uplifting. It could more minimalistic, more energetic and crazier. But I only find out when I go on stage.”

Sergei Polunin will perform Sacre at the Haifa Auditorium on September 12 and at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium (Heichal Hatarbut) in Tel Aviv on September 14. For more information, visit 

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