~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, August 17th 2012
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
One evening in the depths of winter, a young man turned up in our office. He made no grand entrance and with his long hair, rough skin, ripped jeans and white T-shirt, he could have been just another student looking for work experience. But one thing marked him out as an unlikely junior journalist: something in the way he moved, the careless grace of the natural athlete. It was Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian dancer and subject of our latest cover story.
A few weeks earlier, he had made headlines around the world by walking out on a golden career with the Royal Ballet at the age of 22. Our contributing editor, Julie Kavanagh, knew him a little as her son had been a contemporary of his at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond (which, to Sergei, seemed like Hogwarts). She was at ballet school herself and went on to write the definitive biography of Rudolf Nureyev. At Intelligent Life, she is a contributing editor with a speciality as a profile writer, and here she spotted an opportunity for a revealing long-form piece, looking into what had gone wrong and seeing what Sergei did next. With his love of tattoos and scarification, his stroppy tweets and round-the-clock restlessness, was he a lost boy or a member of that endangered species, the youthful rebel?
Commissioning a profile usually involves weary negotiations with a publicist or agent, whose instinct may well be to say no to any request for access beyond an anodyne meeting in a hotel room—often with the publicist present, as a sort of verbal minder (we need a new word for this dismal role: busybodyguard, perhaps). Polunin, refreshingly, had nobody representing him, so Julie dealt with him direct. Over six months, she had several meals with him, exchanged countless texts, watched him perform and rehearse. She went to Kiev to meet his parents, Galina and Vladimir, who have married and divorced each other twice. She talked to his former coaches and mentors and his last boss at the Royal Ballet. Finally, when Polunin moved to Moscow in mid-summer, she went there to watch him dance and see his new flat (“uncharacteristically tidy”). The resulting feature is a painstaking mosaic of quote and observation. It turns out to be a universal story—about a gifted boy, a driven mum, an amiable but often absent dad, the need to succeed and the urge to rebel, and the price we pay for each. You don’t have to know anything about ballet to find it absorbing.