Where were you when you heard that Sergei Polunin had left the Royal Ballet? I was just about to take my seat at a studio performance at Covent Garden where London’s balletomanes were huddled miserably in the aisles, open-mouthed with dismay at the news. His colleagues were equally nonplussed – “he was fine yesterday”, said one.
Reports of a ballet world “in shock” might sound like overkill – nobody died, for heaven’s sake – but the sudden loss of this extraordinary young star was proving hard to bear and almost impossible to fathom. Why on earth was he leaving? Where would he go? And (the show must go on, after all) who could they possibly cast in his place?
Polunin’s unprecedentedly abrupt departure was front-page news, but the 22-year-old star has long been food for headlines. His teenage debut as the snorting, tiger-slaying hero in the 1877 melodrama La Bayadère prompted comparisons with the young Rudolf Nureyev and, for once, the hype was justified: the same supercharged classicism; the same haughty sensuality; the same instinctive mastery of stagecraft.
Polunin’s silky technique, drill-bit pirouettes and cat-like jump were a credit to his schooling, but his most exceptional qualities were not learnt in the studio. Even at 19, he knew how to infuse every step with motive force and give a gesture dramatic weight. Ballet’s princes spend a surprising amount of time standing about shooting their cuffs and generally looking spare but Polunin has only to tilt his chin or wave an imperious hand to take total command of the stage. Nobody taught him how to do that (if they knew the formula, they’d bottle it).
Young Royal Ballet soloists often bemoan the years wasted while they blush unseen in the chorus but Sergei Polunin’s prodigious talent meant he was fast-tracked through the ranks. At only 19, he became Covent Garden’s youngest-ever male principal dancer and began systematically working his way through the great roles of the repertoire – to universally ecstatic reviews.
Adulation, rapid promotion and regular crowds at Floral Street’s stage door could easily turn a young dancer’s head and result in preening, self-regarding performances, but if Polunin was vain he didn’t let it show on stage. He never consciously stole a scene and soon proved a considerate and versatile partner. In the five short years since his graduation he has been paired successfully with almost all of the Royal’s female stars – Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Alina Cojocaru – but the most exciting match was made last October with the Spanish dancer Tamara Rojo in Marguerite and Armand.
The one-act piece had been tailor-made for Margot Fonteyn and gorgeous, pouting new arrival Rudolf Nureyev by Frederick Ashton in 1963 but Rojo and Polunin made the ballet their own. Rojo (who ought to know) is unstinting in praise of her new partner. “Dancing Marguerite and Armand with Sergei was one of the most wonderful experiences of my career,” she told me yesterday. “He is a truly special man and I really hope I get to share the stage with him again.”
Her audience felt the same way, electrified by the urgency and naturalism of the two stars; many happy hours were spent in games of Fantasy Ballet, re-casting every revival with this thrilling new partnership. Their admirers hungrily scoured the schedules and crowded the blogosphere: when would the pair be dancing next?
It looks as if we’ll all have a long wait. Tuesday’s resignation was “with immediate effect” and he will dance none of his scheduled debuts: no Oberon; no Romeo; no La Sylphide; no A Month in the Country. This cruelly abrupt departure leaves a lot of disappointed ticket holders (his dates were all completely sold out) although it remains to be seen whether London’s well-bred ballet-goers will be moved to stamp or boo when he takes his bow at a boy’s own ballet gala, Men in Motion, at Sadler’s Wells tomorrow night, directed by Ivan Putrov, who also left the Royal Ballet in less than ideal circumstances.
A riot at the Wells is unlikely. For the moment the mood of the fans is one of baffled disappointment (“Now I know how it felt when The Beatles split up,” wailed one), all struggling to comprehend how anyone blessed (or burdened?) with such a unique talent and given every opportunity to nourish it should cut and run with so little consideration for his teachers, his fans or even his own career. He had the Covent Garden repertoire in his pocket, the ballet world at his feet – what the hell happened?
Dame Monica Mason, licking her wounds at the loss of her biggest star during her final season as the Royal Ballet’s director, is refusing any comment beyond a rather terse press release. Polunin himself is not taking calls and even his inane tweets (“I got some sick tattoos”) have dried up. It’s tempting to look to his rags-to-(relative) riches background for answers but it’s a career path that many performers share.
Born in the small town of Kherson in the Ukraine, the young Polunin started out as a gymnast, but the switch to ballet (aged eight) led to an audition with the Kiev State Ballet school and a move to the big city, where he shared a one-room apartment with his mother (who has yet to see him dance professionally). A video audition led to a sponsored place at the Royal Ballet School followed by a job with the company and a new life in London.
Was it all simply a case of too much too young? He’s clearly a complicated and contradictory character. He wanted every role he could get, then complained of feeling “constricted”, demanding to be released for lucrative guest appearances (“that is where you make good money”). Polunin is hardly the first dancer to want to make the most of their golden years. If this was the problem, it’s a pity he and Monica Mason weren’t able to thrash out a compromise before it came to this.
And where will he go? He was hinting at New Year that 2012 would be “controversial” and he’s unlikely to have made such a major decision on a whim but, if there is a grand plan, it was still unvoiced 24 hours after the shock announcement. First thoughts as we stood chattering in Covent Garden’s basement studio were that he might have been lured to St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky ballet. The company, bankrolled by fruit magnate Vladimir Kekhman (alias “Mr Bananas”), recently poached the Bolshoi’s star couple Vladimir Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova for vast sums and a flexible contract, but it seems hard to believe that a hip Ivy-goer like Polunin would want to retreat back East. The word on the street (well, Floral Street, anyway) is that he may be thinking of dancing for American Ballet Theatre – not exactly a step up.
At the time of writing the young star was holed up in darkest Holloway, in the bedroom above the tattoo parlour he co-owns. Google “Sergei Polunin” and the word “tattoo” comes third in the list of suggestions. There is a school of thought which insists that the tattoo count is in inverse proportion to IQ. Sergei Polunin has lots of tattoos (all masked at vast expense by the make-up department).
Dermal decoration is pretty rare in the ballet world, so much so that one company insider mistook the bear claw “scar” that runs across his chest for a horrific instance of “self-harming” – which I suppose it is, in a way. The giant crucifix tattoo on that beautifully muscled forearm is hardly the smartest choice for a man whose body is on constant display (there’s a lot more topless ballet than you’d think). Most ballet dancers don’t even dare sunbathe in case it’s wrong for a role. My spies tell me the latest acquisition, done by a rather confused Russian tattooist, reads: “I am hwo I am” (let’s hope he got a discount).
And how will the Royal Ballet manage without him? Don’t let the “Dream turns to nightmare” headlines depress you too much. Re-assigning his performances is the least of the Royal Ballet’s worries. Dancers come and go, injuries happen, understudies rejoice. Steven McRae will dance Polunin’s Oberons as well as his own in The Dream (very nice, too) and hungry young soloists will be jumping a little higher and landing a little neater in morning class, buoyed up by that ill wind.
Meanwhile, as the dust settles, a fellow critic assures us that it’s “no great loss”. Perhaps. But when I look at those pictures and re-run those ballets in my mind’s eye, it feels like a very great loss indeed.
From The telegraph