Sergei Polunin: A Life Spent Dancing

On February 9, 2015 the latest rendition of Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” went viral. The video was a collaboration between Hollywood photographer David LaChapelle and Russian ballerino Sergei Polunin.

Filmed eighteen weeks prior in a warehouse in Hawaii, the video has garnered over 8,900,000 views on YouTube and 3,400+ comments as of March 30. Polunin’s unofficial Facebook page (run by volunteers) rose from 5,000 likes to 19,400+ since the video’s release.

Polunin has been a star in the world of classical ballet since his sudden rise to stardom at the Royal Ballet in London. However, it was not until the David LaChapelle directed video was released that people in the United States started to hear of Polunin. Hozier himself tweeted the video, and parodies of it on YouTube have reached upwards of 20,000 views. His small group of supporters has expanded to include a Facebook page, Twitter page, Instagram and a YouTube channel. He has, undeniably, reached a level of fame that now extends beyond the prestigious world of classical ballet and to the general public.

Sergei Polunin in London in 2013 photo courtesy of Allan Warren

Sergei Polunin in London in 2013 photo courtesy of Allan Warren

News sources such as the Huffington Post and aplus have mentioned the dancer, bandying about phrases such as “Russia’s ballet bad boy” and “Ballet’s Tattooed Bad Boy.” Naturally, my curiosity took hold and I used as many resources as I could to find out more about this “bad boy of dance.”

After hours of Instagram stalking and watching countless videos in Russian (The YouTube subtitles are dismal to say the least), I came across an article written by Julie Kavanagh for Intelligent Life in late 2012, titled “A Dancer’s Demons,” published just seven months after Sergei made the shocking decision to leave the Royal Ballet in London. The article was released quietly and seems to have been lost among the various attention-grabbing headlines. Yet it tells the compelling story of a young boy from Kherson, Ukraine who sacrificed his social life for a better life.

When Polunin was 15 years old, he moved from Kiev, Ukraine where he had been attending the Kiev Ballet School, to White Lodge in London, the dormitories for boarding students of the London Royal Ballet Lower School. To the young dancer, White Lodge was the equivalent of Hogwarts. England was a whole new country, a new language and new set of customs. Polunin barely spoke English and learned the language by listening to hours of tapes in his room.

Because of his incredible talent and obvious drive, he was fast-tracked through the hierarchical ballet school. Most of the time he was a few years younger than his classmates, which made it hard to bond with them. In 2010, he became the youngest male to ever be a principal dancer at the London Royal Ballet, and in 2011 he danced six parts in one year. In January 2012, abruptly and to the shock of many, he resigned from the Royal Ballet and is now dancing in Russia.

Polunin’s reasons for leaving are clouded. Confusing interviews were released with different stories and unsure answers. However, as Kavanagh uncovered, the leading reason seems to have been simple. He had a growing unhappiness with life and his place in it. In a six-minute documentary by Jem Goulding, titled “The Fragile Balance,” Polunin admits that his happiest memories are of playing with other children in Kherson. “I was in the streets, playing with kids, being free, doing whatever I want, no control, no responsibilities. And that was my happiest time.”

His mother chose ballet for no other reason than it was Sergei’s best shot out of the country. It was harder for people to social climb through academic education, but athletes, ballet dancers especially, are revered in Eastern Europe. That set the course of Polunin’s life. All of his time and his energy went towards reaching goals, goals that were always progressing. He was given no chance to be a child. Before he could possibly know what he loved and what he didn’t, his body was turned into a tool that could lead to fame and money, if he worked hard enough. But what happens when being one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world isn’t enough? Polunin admits that he wants “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.” And for Polunin, “To achieve all this, you need money. Money is what gives you power and freedom.”

To some people, this way of thinking may seem hollow. However, the majority of people in America can’t even begin to understand the poverty that Polunin lived through as a young child.

During Polunin’s time at the Royal Ballet and after, he appeared on multiple Russian TV and talk shows. He modeled for magazines, including a spread for Russian Vogue. He danced in a marketing video for Dior Homme which was directed by Bruce Weber, a leading American fashion photographer and film maker. Polunin’s heroes may seem unexpected and his dreams banal. He cites Mickey Rourke and Russell Crowe as his idols. He loves Jay-Z’s music and he wants to make it big in Hollywood.

Multiple false alarms have gone off in the ballet world, with Polunin threatening to leave ballet for good and move to Hollywood. However, he continues to dance, now at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, where he is currently their principal dancer.

Polunin says, “People are going to think what they want to think. I let them. You can’t control perception, it’s a losing game so I don’t play. I let them lose. Lose themselves in their own fantasies of what they want me to be. A rebel, an angel, a romantic, a heart breaker, a child, a man. Perhaps I am all of those things, perhaps I’m none, but what I am is for me to find out, not to be dictated to me. It’s for me to know.”

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About Amelia Levin-Sheffield

Amelia is a junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and writes for the student newspaper, The Paper Tiger. She also manages the Style section and is one of three co-managing editors of the on-line LWHS community news source, Hyphen. Amelia is a voracious reader and started writing in second grade after getting a flash of inspiration from a gnome sighting in the hollow of a tree in her backyard.

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