After finding himself the star of the ballet world, the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal. Polunin quickly found himself switching on the self-destructive button spinning out of control. Drugs, partying, no-shows all earned him the clichéd title of the bad boy. On closer inspection it’s easy to see, Polunin just had an aversion to being used as a puppet on strings. Dancing for a world he never wanted to live in.
In 2015 he retired, but it was the very viral goodbye that brought him back to the spotlight. Fast forward three years, he’s now starring in his second Hollywood feature, a Soviet/US political thriller Red Sparrow alongside Jennifer Lawrence in which he praises for her work ethic. Polunin has found his footing enjoying the newfound freedom he was very much looking for. From being mentored by creative icon David LaChapelle to his continual push to open up ballet. Polunin is still very much in the exploratory phase and at only 28 that’s what excites him most.
You’re known around the world for your career as a ballet dancer but we are talking to you today for an altogether different reason, your foray into the acting world.
Yes. It’s something I always dreamed of doing. I asked myself what I would really love to do other than dancing, and acting was the answer. I’ve always been passionate about film; it’s always been an important part of my life. I’ve actually created ballets based on movies so they have always been an inspiration. For example, in La Bayadére I played a warrior, so I was watching Gladiator a lot. Then in Mayerling, it was a love story with a lot of emotional stuff so I watched films like Barfly with Mickey Rourke just to get a sense of the character.
So your upcoming movie is called Red Sparrow. Maybe you can tell us a bit about it because I haven’t seen it yet – apparently, you haven’t seen it either?
That’s right I haven’t seen the film, but the experience was very cool. I was dancing with Jennifer Lawrence in the film. She’s an incredible actress and very beautiful.
Can she dance?
She learned. She put in a lot of hard work to learn how to dance. It was very easy to lift her because she was so light. She prepared a lot for the role and the feeling I got from her was like a dancer. She just had that energy about her, which was really cool.
Do you think it’s a similar process to dance, going through these different stages of emotion?
With dancing I do it probably without even thinking.
It seems like you are the type of person who is idolised by others, but you are also in awe of other people’s craft?
Yes I am. I like and I respect when people have something unique. I know how much hard work they have put in so I respect other dancers or actors. Sometimes when I can’t do something and see someone else that can I just think, ‘How?’ To me it’s like magic.
So are you going to be the world’s first Ukrainian movie star?
I don’t know. I just want to enjoy all these experiences and I’m always hungry for new adventures so I just say to myself that it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad; as long as it’s interesting I will be happy. Life should be interesting.
'Everybody hated me, even other dancers.'
On his old life in the Royal Ballet
So you’ve had this incredible creative relationship with David LaChapelle. I read somewhere that he had a vision for the future of ballet – has he helped you look at ballet from a different perspective?
He is someone that I think I was meant to meet. I look at how he lives his life and it gives me a lot of personal freedom because he taught me that you always have a choice. He doesn’t only work on one thing in particular; he’s very free in that respect.
I always watch people and he is someone that I watch very carefully. First of all, I am always amazed by how he works because he can come up with an entire creative vision in a couple of minutes. Ideas are very valuable in this world so the fact that these things just come to him makes him a genius in my eyes. I want to be close to someone like that so maybe I can think like him. His brain is amazing.
Do you have any other mentors who help you to articulate your vision?
I have a few important people in my life and David is one. Then there is my girlfriend Natalia Osipova, who I always listen to because I value her opinion. I listen to many people, like Igor Zelensky who was my mentor for many years, and the film producer Gabrielle Tana.
Do you ever look at athletes like LeBron James or Roger Federer and get inspiration from how they move?
First of all, I love sport so I watch a lot of it. I do examine them so I see the strength and the muscle type, but I’m actually more inspired by what type of person they are and the energy they give off. Like Roger Federer, he’s a very classy man and I appreciate that even more than what kind of tennis player he is. For me, that’s much more valuable.
Sergei Polunin preparing for his latest Project Satori
I wanted to talk about the time you spent in London. Do you reminisce about that time fondly or was it a difficult time?
It was an experience I learned from and I was making mistakes because I didn’t have a mentor or someone near that I could talk to. Everything I was doing was from my own experience, so, for example, I thought it was a good idea to keep taking painkillers because I had no idea they were bad for you. I was dancing on painkillers but it was killing my stomach, I was also doing cocaine. For a young person with no real life experience, you can just get taken in by the promise of these pharmaceuticals, when actually living naturally is much better.
But I can’t believe that you were the first and only principal ballet dancer to take cocaine, or maybe that’s crazy?
No a lot of people do take it, especially back in the 1970s and 1980s, but the problem with that is, while in the short run it might be amazing, in the long run, you destroy your life. You don’t dance as well anymore because it dilutes your vision, kills your heart. At the beginning, it all seems great and you are dancing much better because of the focus, but a couple of months later you get tired much quicker and it’s really a downward spiral from there. Of course, you don’t know that when you start taking it but then the paranoia kicks in and you start having issues in your personal life so it really affects you long-term.
I assume you don’t party anymore?
At the moment I’m working really hard so I’m starting to learn how to rest. Work was too intense for a while, which isn’t healthy so I needed to have some balance. Now I’m learning how to enjoy work and life.
Partying isn’t necessarily a bad thing but I just wish people could go out and dance without the need to take stuff. When you take stuff it just becomes about your own experience, shutting yourself off so it’s really set up to be alone. That’s what I enjoy about making movies because it feels like you are creating something together.
But being a principal dancer is very individualistic – you are a soloist?
It is and that’s what I hate about it. The whole industry is full of people who care about themselves so there is always competition between everyone – 90 people fighting for one role. It’s a really unhealthy environment and that’s why I started getting pissed off with the industry and thinking it wasn’t a good place to be. Nobody helps each other or cares about other people.
What I really like about you is that you had the guts to blow up the system in a way, at a time when the system loved the way it was.
Yes. I never thought it was a strength, I thought it was more out of weakness.
Photograph: Mario Sorrenti
But the Royal Ballet must have had something to say about the comments you have made regarding the state of the industry?
Yes. At the beginning, everybody hated me, even other dancers. I never wanted to go against the ballet industry, I just wanted to make it better and to me, it’s very obvious how to make it better. You can make the dancers’ lives better and make the industry as a whole stronger, but in general, the ballet industry is much weaker than others like film or sport. Dancers don’t get a lot of respect even though they work incredibly hard. Sometimes I will see a dancer and think that this is an incredibly talented and unique individual, but nobody knows about him because he doesn’t go in the press or on TV. To me that’s sad.
Do you think the Royal Ballet might regret taking you on now or maybe it was helpful for their image?
I don’t really know what they think but they are definitely upset with me.
In terms of people that you would love to collaborate with, I love that you think outside the box and want to experiment with new things. Are there people from different arts and disciplines that you would love to put together in a room?
I’m very fascinated by the film world so I would love a big director to do a ballet. I don’t want to say particular names because there are so many incredible people in the film world. La La Land was a great example of how people can love dance.
I am starting to see a lot of dance language move into movies. It’s a unique language that could be used in virtual reality and kids definitely understand it. You don’t have to know it but you watch it and understand it in the same way you understand music when you hear it.
In old Hollywood there were so many amazing dance movies, Bollywood has all this amazing dance content. It’s pure joy so it’s a cool language to use.
"He sent a note to David saying that he was very moved by it."
Hozier's reaction to Polunin's reinterpretation of Take Me To Church
I wanted to ask you quickly if Hosier ever told you what he thought of your dance in the video?
Not personally but he sent a note to David saying that he was very moved by it. I think he was very happy with it and one day I would love to do the dance live when he is playing.
If you had an opportunity to choreograph another dance in a music video, do you have a song in mind you would choose?
Not really. It always depends on the people you work with.
What projects do you have coming up? I know you are currently working on something in Belgrade and you have also just finished shooting The White Crow with Ralph Fiennes – maybe you could tell us about that?
Shooting this film with Ralph was not easy – it was very intense. There was dancing involved but it was a very interesting comparison because there was Oleg Ivenko playing Nureyev and I was playing Yuri Soloviev. Everyone knows who Nureyev is but the world doesn’t really know about Soloviev, even though he was an incredible dancer on the same level. They shared a room and were both premier dancers when Nureyev defected and became this celebrity and then Soloviev went on to lead a very tragic life.
For me it was interesting to play this incredibly talented person who everybody should have known about, but life is unfair sometimes.
Where do you see ballet going next? I know you have a vision for connecting all the dots and modernising the industry so do you think the time has come for the next stage?
I’m working on how to restructure the model so this year I really need to figure out for myself where it’s heading. I think a lot of interesting people like actors, composers, and directors now want to collaborate in ballet so something very special will come out of that. I need to work out how to generate these collaborations and show ballet in bigger venues and take shows to places where people don’t necessarily watch dance. I performed at Sean Penn’s Haiti gala in LA and people loved it. People will get it when they see it.