BELOW ZERO WITH SERGEI POLUNIN

 ~ Posted by Julie Kavanagh, January 23rd 2013

SERGEI POLUNINI flew out of Heathrow a day before the "snow crisis", landing in Moscow in freezing fog and getting the connection on to Novosibirsk in Siberia. The plane skidded sideways on landing for five or six seconds and when it straightened out we all breathed again and applauded, but this was the only sign that we'd arrived in the city that describes itself as "The Snow Capital of the World".  

It was midnight GMT when we got to the hotel—6am the following day in Novosibirsk—and the breakfast waiter did a double-take when we ordered vodka and tonics with our red caviar blinis. I was there with my husband Ross MacGibbon and the producer Gaby Tana to do a recce for a documentary on Sergei Polunin, who I profiled six months ago for Intelligent Life. He had just walked out on the Royal Ballet, and no one knew what was going to happen next. Now he's the star of Moscow's Stanislavsky Theatre and an occasional guest artist with the resident company in Novosibirsk.

That evening we went to see him in a gala designed to entertain the participants of the 2013 International Snow Forum. There was a blizzard soundtrack in the auditorium, snowflake light projections and snow-themed singing and dancing. Polunin appeared with his regular partner Kristina Chapron in the grand pas de deux from "The Nutcracker", which provided most of the evening's excerpts. "I'm getting as much for this as I earned in two months with the Royal Ballet," he told us when we met him backstage.

Before going out to dinner Sergei took us to the apartment he uses a couple of flights above the stage. It's very basic—just a double bed and chipboard cupboards—but he says he prefers Novosibirsk to his luxurious Moscow life. ("It's a lot of fun when you know where to go.") When we walked across the empty raked stage looking out into the garishly lit, ornate interior, he stopped to tell us about Stalin's connection with the theatre.

He's matured a lot in the last six months. He's had to fight to upturn old-fashioned Soviet performance values, whether it be insisting on naturalistic stage make-up or on having costumes that allow him more freedom of movement. "I've learnt to take charge. In the Royal Ballet I was like a little kid, always trying to get away with things."

Two days later we saw him in "Giselle". During the first act, my husband muttered to me: "It's like hearing Ashkenazy play in a prep school orchestra". But we agreed that Polunin's Albrecht—a feckless modern youth converted into a penitent 19th century romantic—was a revelation. He was dancing in Siberia, away from the world press, and yet his technique was better than ever, his interpretation subtle and honest. As London audiences will see next month, Sergei Polunin continues to surprise.

Julie Kavanagh is a contributing editor of Intelligent Life and the biographer of Rudolf Nureyev. Her posts for the Editors' Blog include Skip Paris, Go to Lyon and Grace's British reception

Photograph Rick Guest