Sergei Polunin: I think everybody, all the older ballet generation, should be in jail

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Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian-born former Royal Ballet principal, is now 31 - Andrew Crowley for DT Arts
Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian-born former Royal Ballet principal, is now 31 - Andrew Crowley for DT Arts

Sergei Polunin is covered in tattoos, an eccentric autobiography of sorts inked across the ballet superstar’s body. “I have my teacher, I have my cat, I have Mickey Rourke,” says the Ukraine-born 31-year-old, who made headlines a decade ago by becoming the youngest ever principal at the Royal Ballet – and then, just two years later, by quitting. Tattoos, back then, were an obvious sign of rebellion, along with lots of drinking and drug-taking, and he has accumulated more body art since. His most notorious tattoo now is of Vladimir Putin: a full portrait of the Russian president adorns Polunin’s broad chest.

Yet if you really want to know Polunin, the key detail is that he is now removing them all – having looked at them while under the influence of LSD, and realised they meant “absolutely nothing”.

“It’s, like, 40 times I’ve been, and the blistering…” he sighs, sitting in the home of one of his powerful friends in one of the wealthiest corners of west London. “And every time I go there” – he means Russia – “and I get a thankful letter from Putin, it’s like: ‘Oh.’” He makes a naughty-schoolboy face, and laughs nervously. “And I’m removing it.” These days, though, he thinks it’s the inside of a person that’s important. “I’m just curious to see who I am.”

Who is Sergei Polunin? He has spent a lifetime looking, and even if he found an answer, I’m pretty sure he would immediately ditch it. Pure contradictoriness, a refusal ever to be one thing in one place, is at his heart. Ever since he quit the Royal Ballet in 2012, slightly bored by the achievement of being the best ballet dancer in the world, he has positively rollercoastered about: rehabilitating himself, dance-wise, in Russia, before ditching that too, and encountering a whole other level of fame thanks to the YouTube video he made of himself dancing to Hozier’s song Take Me to Church, a viral phenomenon that now boasts nearly 30 million views.

A 2016 film, Dancer, traced his extraordinary trajectory – the huge sacrifices made by his family in the Ukraine to help him fulfil his talent (his father went to Portugal to work, his grandmother to Greece), and the huge cost, as his parents split and Polunin felt ever more responsible and miserable in London. Everyone calls Polunin “the bad boy of ballet”, but he is also something of a little boy lost.

If the film hoped to draw a line under all that, Polunin undid it all again a few years ago, with a flurry of furious, erratic, apparently homophobic and sizeist Instagram Stories. Many new admirers cut their ties with him; he had to pay back some £100,000 in advances to those who now deemed him “cancelled”. And here we are, post-pandemic, and he is re-emerging as the happy and responsible father of a baby boy, Mir, born in January last year to Polunin and his partner, ice skater Elena Ilinykh, and with a new book that seems to be intended as a full-stop, a thank-you note and a request for parole. “A big part of creation is destruction,” he tells me today. No kidding.

Polunin's notorious tattoo of Russian president Vladimir Putin - Instagram
Polunin's notorious tattoo of Russian president Vladimir Putin - Instagram

Not that there is anything wild about the polite and smiling young man who leads me into a drawing room full of Balkan and impressionist art and cream-coloured Louis XVI chairs. This is the home of the millionaire entrepreneur Dan Tana and his daughter Gabrielle, the eminent film producer who made Dancer, but no sign of them today. No sign of Elena and Mir either: they are at home in Miami.

Polunin himself is all in black, a black Dolce & Gabbana hoodie over a black V-neck, through which the forehead of Putin peeks through. The most striking things about Polunin, though, are his eyes, huge orbs still full of boyish wonder, and his dancer’s grace. I have never seen someone cross their legs so well.

He confirms that his book “is closing a chapter in a big way”, a “tribute” to “good friends” whom he doesn’t, or won’t, see any more. If it is a lot more polite and conventional than you might expect, basically lots of photos and edited thoughts on the past, it was still typically dramatic in its execution, with Sean Penn called at the last minute and asked to give a preface. Penn is just one of Polunin’s surprising and starry friends: he has a fondness for tough guys such as Penn or Rourke – bastions of macho culture.

The first time they met, Penn had no time for him. “He was like, ‘I don’t wanna be intimidated’,” laughs Polunin. But once he saw Dancer, Penn called him up and raved. Polunin thinks it was because its story – which, among other things, is about a father losing touch with his family – resonated with Penn, who had just gone through a split with Robin Wright. “He just so connected to it, and he called his wife, and said, ‘Please, watch it’… and I think they tried to work on it, I guess, and be better for the children.”

He sighs. “And [then] of course I ruined everything for a couple of years.” Oh, yes: the social media self-immolation. How does he feel about it now? He launches into an epic ramble, fully 15 minutes long, an odyssey bookended by assorted online spats that seem to have driven Polunin slightly mad. In between, I get the story of the inking of that tattoo in London; a performance in Russian-occupied Crimea; visiting his family in the Ukraine; and spending his 30th birthday in Qatar, sleeping in its dunes, under the stars. If nothing else, it gives a flavour of Polunin’s nomadic, conflicted and discombobulating existence. But does this all explain how he ended up writing such rich aperçus as “females [are] now trying [to] take on the man role because you don’t f--- them”?

“That was more shooting myself in the leg, let’s say,” he says today of the more prejudiced-sounding posts. “It’s not, like, something I believe in,” he promises. That said, he doesn’t regret saying that women are happier when men have sex with them. “I do believe in that, actually – 100 per cent.”

It’s easy to dismiss Polunin’s dislocated notions, but it seems to me that it’s the fact that he himself seems so torn between East and West that makes him both weirdly sympathetic and quite incongruous. This is a man, after all, who chose for his son to be born in Miami so he could have a US passport, yet sports an image of America’s antagoniser-in-chief on his chest. But he sounds relaxed about all that. “What is nationality?” he asks at one point. “If you think bigger, it’s just brands.” He is, in short, a walking culture-clash, with the emphasis on “clash”.

He doesn’t think he’s homophobic, either. Instead, Polunin assures me that “in Russia, the gay community is strong. In politics, in entertainment, it’s one of the strongest communities. I don’t know why they’re not openly going about it – maybe to keep their power?” (D’ya think?) When he went to Moscow, he says, “there were lesbians kissing everywhere… I’ve never seen so many lesbians.”

You may have noticed that there has, so far, not been a lot of discussion of ballet. However, one awful recent story comes up: the sudden death of the 35-year-old choreographer Liam Scarlett, after accusations of inappropriate behaviour. Polunin says it is “very sad”, and that when Scarlett left the Royal Ballet, he got in touch with him straight away, “because I know how it feels… I just didn’t want a person [to] go too low. And I wanted him to know there is an option. But he didn’t reply at the time. And I guess this time, he just went too low.”

The thing is, Polunin goes on, “he was a good human. He would hug you, he could kiss you on the cheek, but it’s not like it’s bad, you know?” Is he saying that people misread Scarlett’s intentions? “For sure.”

Polunin in his pomp, on stage at Sadler's Wells in 2012 - Rex/Tony Nandi
Polunin in his pomp, on stage at Sadler's Wells in 2012 - Rex/Tony Nandi

“I think some people want to be victims,” he tuts. “Students, some of them are like 21 years old!” he exclaims. “It’s like, the students would go and hunt you, you know?” He repeats that Scarlett’s demeanour was “not that serious”. Does he mean that Scarlett was just affectionate? “Yeah, affectionate. You know – it’s like some loving beautiful dog who licks your face. You don’t go: ‘Let me investigate. Why did you lick my face?’ You just cuddle that dog if you want, or not.”

He adds, “I’m not comparing Liam to a dog. I’m just saying… he was a beautiful person. He wasn’t a bad person. And everybody knew everything – nothing was hidden.” He decides that “it just got too intense, this culture of cancelling things”, and that Scarlett should have been better taken care of. Oh, and the students should have been, too. Anyway.

Seen through another lens, doesn’t that scandal flag up how demanding and dysfunctional the ballet world is? “It used to be so bad,” he frowns. “I think everybody, all the older generation, should be in jail!”

Will the boom and bust never stop with Polunin? He says he never really wants to destroy things, he just feels obliged, and that Elena and Mir “give me grounding stability – happiness”. So, yes: “I really would love to be more stable. I think men in general should be more like this.”

Don’t women have to be strong and stable too? “They do,” he agrees. “Women are more… emotional, I would say.” Wait, I laugh – you don’t think you’re emotional? “Inside I am,” he says, still smiling sweetly. “But I’m an artist! I’m allowed!”

Sergei Polunin's book - Handout
Sergei Polunin's book - Handout

Free: A Life in Images and Words by Sergei Polunin will be published by teNeues next month (books-teneues.com). He will star in Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall on December 1