Why did Sergei Polunin walk out on a golden career with the Royal Ballet? Julie Kavanagh goes to Kiev and Moscow to talk to him, his parents and his mentors
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
ON JANUARY 24TH this year Sergei Polunin “woke up fine” and went to work. He was to spend most of the day at the Royal Opera House, rehearsing the climactic duet in “The Dream” in which he was to make his debut as Oberon. Anthony Dowell, who created the role, was coaching Polunin, and his Titania was the Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru—an exquisite artist whose harebell delicacy on stage belies a ferociously exacting temperament in the studio. Polunin was in an unreceptive mood. He had just left his first serious girlfriend, the Royal Ballet soloist Helen Crawford. “This was the second day and it suddenly hit me. Two years we were together and I’d really got used to her.” Cojocaru was not happy either. Frederick Ashton’s Nocturne pas de deux is a masterly rendition of the battle of the sexes, the new accord between the Fairy King and Queen enacted in mirror-image movements in which the two dancers must find total reciprocity of technique and emotion. There is also a notorious stumbling block when the ballerina is rotated by her partner like an open compass as her torso jack-knifes under her extended leg. Cojocaru made it clear to Polunin that he was not helping.
“I thought one more word and that’s it. I held tight, trying not to cry. And then my head flew off.” He announced that he was leaving, which Dowell took to mean leaving the room for a few minutes. But Polunin meant for good.
For the Royal Ballet his sudden defection was something of a backhander. After nurturing this extraordinarily gifted Ukrainian boy through both its junior and senior schools, the company made him a principal at 19 and gave him roles which most of his colleagues could only dream of. Oberon was to be followed a few weeks later by his Romeo debut, beamed live to cinemas around the world. The main impact, though, was a sense of loss. A dancer like Polunin comes along once every two or three decades; at 13 his potential was so evident that his teacher would pull up a chair and study him during class. “He’d say, ‘Sergei, show them how to do a rond de jambe.’” To see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection. Watching him back then at the junior school, where my son was a pupil, I was reminded of home footage I had come across while researching my biography of Nureyev. It was of the teenage Baryshnikov, who was also a living lexicon of classical ballet, articulating academic steps in ways which could hardly if ever be improved. Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars, adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity, while introducing a youthful masculinity of his own.
The 13-year-old boy I remember being touchingly grateful when we took him out for a pizza was now, at 22, the youngest-ever star of one of the world’s great ballet companies. And yet he was ricocheting out of control. It was partly the usual rebelliousness you expect at this age, combined with the accelerated trajectory of his career. But you could sense something more, some other motor for his behaviour, that lay beyond the arcane world of balletomanes. That was one reason why, within days of his departure, the story went global, picked up in America by the Huffington Post, the New York Times and the Daily Beast.
Polunin went to the dressing room he shared with two principals. “Just sitting. Hiding.” He kept ringing the administrator’s office to ask to see the director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, but got no reply. “I was there maybe three hours. Nobody came.” The idea of leaving the company had been preoccupying him for months, and the management was aware of “rumblings”. His mother had told him that if the Royal Ballet valued him they would have given him a permanent visa and an apartment; he was always being invited to guest abroad but not given permission because he was leading the repertory in London. He had even given in his notice a year earlier—also following a break-up with Helen Crawford. “They promised a lot of things, raised my salary. It was a really, really big jump. I told them I wanted to do movies, and they said they’d sort it out. But there wasn’t much of a change. So now, with situation in life not good, I thought it was the perfect time to go. This time I hoped they’d let me.”
In the end he headed along the corridor to Monica Mason’s office, suddenly feeling frightened. “He was very emotional when he first came in,” she says. “But as we spoke he quietened down.” Polunin thought it would be easier for her to accept his resignation if he said he wanted to give up dancing altogether. He told her he had been pushed into ballet from the age of three and had no real passion for it. “Is there anything we can do to keep you?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
Mason had championed him, but their rapport was professional. She wasn’t aware of the latest break-up with Helen Crawford, and this meeting—which he recalls lasting 20 minutes, she double that—was the longest they had ever spoken. “Sergei can be very restless. I’d known him come in and talk for ten minutes and then stand up and go. He’s quite mysterious and unfathomable. He doesn’t seek advice or let people get close to him, and yet he’s adorable. He’s never rude, and he has a kindness and gentleness in him. It’s very easy to get very fond of him.”
As Mason talked, she could not help wishing that she could tie him to a chair and keep him in her office for 24 hours until he had calmed down and realised what he would be losing. “His talent is so rare that one would have done anything to keep him. But he was adamant. I said, ‘Well, darling, where are you going now?’”
“I don’t know.”
“Sergei, please let’s talk again tomorrow.”
“No, no, please. I’ve decided.”
“Are you going to pack up your things?”
“No, I’ll do that another time.”