The last time he made headlines was with what some claimed were homophobic posts online (although he denies it). Sergei Polunin has been followed by controversy since he quit the Royal Ballet in London at 22. Can he remain the media’s favourite “bad boy of ballet?”
Polunin sits in the Number One dressing room at the London Palladium and tries to sum up the ballet Rasputin, which is getting its premiere there this week. He’s dancing the title part.
“I think often people know about Rasputin in Russian history – but know only a little bit.
“He’s an interesting man, who in general I think meant well. But he was a holy man and a healer and to heal you need to stay pure. (The choreographer) Yuka Oishi has made a very human story: Rasputin had his own demons and his own dark spot where he went in his head.”
Some critics might suggest Polunin, who’s 29, could be talking about himself. Since he abruptly quit the Royal Ballet, where he’d been the youngest principal dancer ever, he’s had a reputation for following his own path. Some think he’s damaged his potential as the great male dancer of his generation.
He’s a quiet talker prone to discuss life in big terms such as truth and spirit. He has good English but the flow of concepts remains Russian.
He says he doesn’t believe in regrets but he knows some people were hurt and angered by comments on masculinity he made on Instagram at the end of last year – though he insists they were in no way anti-gay.
He’d been about to appear with the Paris Opera Ballet and the comments read in part:
“Man up to all men who is doing ballet there is already ballerina on stage don’t need to be two. Man should be a man and woman should be a woman. Masculine and Feminine energies creates balance (…) Need a good slap to wake you up Unbelievable!!!”
The comments, however you interpret them, disappointed some fans. “I think what appeared after in newspapers and magazines can’t be justified by what I said online: it was more a matter of what people said against me in the company (in Paris).
“I was saying it’s important to have male energy in dance. I know that audiences love that individuality and the man must have strength. It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight: the man should have strength to take care of families and take care of loved ones.”
In another post he complained about overweight people. The Paris Opera Ballet withdrew its invitation for Polunin to dance Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake.
Polunin says the whole incident taught him to be wary of social media. There is still an Instagram account, “But now my team does it. I did Instagram for three months but then in February the energy went and I didn’t want to write any more.
“It was a weird, interesting experience and it felt like there was a certain karma that I had to go through. But actually I felt free after, free to dance.”
He says that when people first applied the “bad boy” label he decided he would play with it. “I wanted to show I was the worst but I should have listened to myself.
“People think the label helped my career but commercially I had a problem because certain companies didn’t want to associate with me. I dug a hole for myself.”
What excites him is creating new work, like the Rasputin ballet and the evening of short works in London.
“That’s what I’m about. But in established companies you usually get one new work a year and that’s it. For those companies dance has become about the past.”
Polunin says the classical repertoire can be physically too easy to dance. “And I miss the easiness of classical ballet. The contemporary programmes in London are harder and much more damaging for the body. With classical ballet you are relaxed mentally because it’s what you learnt but I want to push myself.
“And I am getting older. But that also means you are getting stronger in certain areas and you have more stamina. It’s an interesting conversation with your body.”
He’s not alone on stage in London. He’s with other dancers such as Johan Kobborg but it’s Polunin his audiences pay to see. “I’m channelling energy and I may just be standing on stage but they will get the story.
“They may get enlightened or upset but it will make them feel. That’s the artist’s job to make them feel what maybe they’re not going to feel outside.
“But I never know if it’s going to be my best show or I’m not going to feel it. Will it be a quiet performance or very emotional? But I will step on stage and I will trust the universe, I will trust the moment that it’s going to be right. I am trying to project a positive energy. It’s not about being modern or classical or about being sexy: it’s all about exchanging energies with the audience.”
Increasingly that audience is also seeing Polunin on screen or online. He took a role in the recent film White Crow and had a non-dancing part in Murder on the Orient Express. He stars in the French film Passion Simple, to be released later this year.
But undoubtedly his best-known dance is the video shot five years ago in Hawaii by the American photographer David LaChappelle. Polunin’s intense solo performance to the Hozier song Take Me To Church has been watched 27 million times on YouTube.
“I’m just at the beginning of the road with movies but I want to explore a lot more. A combination of acting and dancing makes sense as a dancer gets older but also it will popularise ballet.
“And on YouTube music videos are the most watched thing. It’s clear social media will be very important for the future of dance.”
His performance in Take Me To Church is a combination of huge energy, eroticism and despair. Can he continue to get so much passion into a four-minute format?
“I feel different every time I dance: it’s never the same. If parts of that video were sexy or sad I think I was just in that mood the day we shot it. I’d love to do a comedy ballet as well.
“For the first time ever now I am not in a fight with the dance: I feel comfortable with dancing. I do feel polarities inside myself of angels and demons, of white and black. It’s a matter of which road you want to take.”
Sergei Polunin is performing at the London Palladium until Saturday.