Photo credit Rick Guest

Photo credit Rick Guest


Famous for making headlines - and heads turn - meet Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian wonderboy who rocked the world of ballet.

It all started in 1989, in the southern Ukrainian industrial city of Kherson, Sergei was born. The country that was falling apart. Ukraine declared its independence, the economy and society went down, but still there was hope amongst the suffering people. The extreme poverty and crime made it hard to see the better, but Sergeis mother Galina knew this boy had come with something unique, and was determined to give all the support possible to see her only child have opportunities.

Three years of age, he would start his career in the world of arts with small and enthusiastic steps. Gymnastics led to ballet, and at the age of eight he started at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute. The situation toughened up, and there were some sacrifices made by all. His mother Galina Polunina moved with him to a one-room in Kiev, while his father Vladimir Polunin moved to Portugal to be able to support them. Sergei's grandmother moved Greece for work, to be able to contribute financially.

After four intense years of ballet study at Kiev State Choreographic Institute, he turned 13. He had gone from school to practise repeatedly for 10 years. Sergei was tired, but there was no option to quit. He graduated like gold and did nothing less than aim for the top in the Metropol of Arts London. His mother sent off an application to the Royal Ballet School. Sergei was accepted, British soil would soon be under their feet, with new hope, more training and even more sacrifices.

Situated in Covent Garden, the Royal Ballet School was something else, like a dream to Sergei, "it was like being in a Harry Potter movie". Animals walked around campus, surrounded by wild nature, yet still in the centre of the city. It was magical. Unfortunately Galina met troubles with her visa and had to face the greatest sacrifice of her life, leaving her son behind just 13 years old in one of the biggest cities in the world. Then came the divorce, Galina and Vladimir's love didn't hold, the family was split in so many ways. With an artists heart, full of feelings, Sergei's soul started to bleed. And so did his feet. Frustration, anger and pain was a bad combination.

If you can live to 200, then do cocaine – it’s fine. But unfortunately, it breaks up families and it breaks up you. You get depressed
— Sergei Polunin

Sergei made a close group of friends at the Academy. This youth crew grew into troubled teenage profiles, his rebelling against the situation and system resulted in partying all night and having uncontrolled shout-outs through Tweets like "Does anyone sell heroin?". The natural state was distancing fast, like an inflatable floating swan drifting unsafely in rapid water.

After years of an intense relationship with the industry, Sergei has opened up about the life behind the curtain: “Some people go crazy. It’s constant pressure. People don’t eat well. They work a lot. There’s no rest. People lose their mind by 30. They really go crazy – especially ballerinas. It triggers something.” He compares the school of ballet to the army, too strict for an artist to really enjoy, like being caged like an animal at the Circus.

He found his methods of coping with the tension, to release the pain. Still performing on stage at the Royal Ballet, illegal substances became a part of his day for him to be able to cope with the situation: "Cocaine enhances the freedom of movement, it blocks your brain from feeling pain. Nothing stops you, and you can really push yourself". But this would get to his head, as it generally does.

The artist in me was dying
— Sergei polunin

At the tender age of 19, he became a first soloist at the Royal Ballet. In June 2010 at the age of 20, Sergei was entitled the Royal Ballet's youngest principal of all time. He danced with heartbreak and pain through two successful years under the roof of the Royal Ballet. 22 years old, on January the 24th in 2012, he announced his resignation from the company, with immediate effect, "I will come and get my things later". Sergei walked out, right before a premiere. This was the end. “The Royal Ballet is the best paid company, but the dancers get nothing. The stage crew get paid three times more than the dancers, and they have a job for life – dancers only have 10 years. The dance industry is unsustainable. There’s no agents, no managers and no money involved. Parents won’t want to put kids into it.”

The media hunted his story like blood thirsty wolves: "Drug abuse", "On the dark side of dance", "THE SHOCK EXIT". The headlines were not sympathetic. He got scarred, like his body with tattoos, illustrating his path. But he was liberated.

Russia was far away, and it was not an easy decision. Sergei met Igor Zelensky, the mentor he needed. He helped get him back on track. Named The Bad Boy of Ballet of all media, it was not easy to be accredited jobs, red lights were flashing when seeing his name. After appearing on a television show, winning first price, finding his new way in Moscow, Sergei slowly started returning into the industry, but this time on his own terms.

All my life, I didn’t want to be a good boy, to be the nice one. It is easier to have fallen, but then you start hating everything and you go deeper into depression. It took me a long time, a lot of fighting, to get to this strength and positivity, to realise that it is more powerful to be the good guy, to do something positive, to be the strong one, the one people can rely on, can follow. It took a lot of courage
— Sergei Polunin

February 9th in 2015, just about three years after the shock exit, a beautiful YouTube phenomenon was released. Sergei had just before this decided to completely quit the ballet and become an actor. He felt he owned the world an apology, he wanted to give back through a last dance, which he did, beautifully executed to Hozier's “Take Me to Church,” choreographed by his close friend Jade Hale-Christofi, filmed by none other than David LaChapelle (the world renowned photographer discovered by Andy Warhol at the age of 17). “I spoke beforehand with Mickey Rourke. He told me, before you act, you have to get empty. You have to be in a true state of being. I got into that emotional state. I didn’t know it was going to be for nine hours.” LaChapelle released the sequence, supposedly without conferencing with Sergei, and this came with a change - "I couldn’t leave dance. I had to come back!":

Today Sergei runs a programme called Project Polunin, a programme that aims to create new dance and ballet works for both stage and film, bringing together dancers, contemporary artists, musicians and choreographers from various creative backgrounds to work together, as one.

Dance is the hidden language of the soul. We dance as kids. We dance as teenagers. We dance in clubs
— sergei polunin

If you are hungry for more, Steven Cantor's winning documentary "DANCER" of Sergeis life, conveys the story behind the shock retirement and return to ballet. Although brutally honest, the genuine depiction of his journey still makes it beautiful, through private footage and pictures of Sergei and his family from a young age. The story is sad yet captivating and comes with a strong message.

Every story has an end, but in life every end is just a new beginning, and even though these are the final words, there is more to see: