David Lister: Is this a case of a great but troubled ballet star being wronged? I don't think so

The Week in Arts

On Thursday, it was reported that Sergei Polunin, the Royal Ballet star who dramatically quit the company a week ago, has now lost his work permit, according to a Royal Ballet spokesperson. It would take a hard-hearted person not to feel sympathy with the brilliant 22-year-old. So, call me hard-hearted, because I'm afraid I don't.

Much of the coverage of this mysterious affair has focused on how this undoubted talent may have felt too regimented at the Royal Ballet, may not have been allowed to guest for other companies, and that such a free spirit would now either run the tattoo parlour that he owns and says he might make his career, or join a rich Russian dance company.

I don't think any of the coverage has focused on the rather more mundane fact that in making his dramatic exit one week before he was due to star in the Royal Ballet's current production The Dream, he has callously let down ticket-buyers who have forked out up to £100 a time to see him. It would be nice if Sergei could use some of the profits from his tattooing business to refund the disappointed fans.

I'm also a little unclear about this supposed ban by the Royal Ballet on him guesting because three days after exiting Covent Garden he was dancing in a pre-arranged guest performance at Sadler's Wells, all agreed to by the Royal Ballet. It rather seems to me that this has been a dramatic gesture by a talented but maverick young figure, either for no clear reason or for a very clear but as yet unrevealed reason, namely to join another dance outfit. It's also, of course, possible that he wanted to live the tattooing dream.

Maybe I'm too much of an arts junkie and not sufficiently appreciative of the joys of tattooing, but I'm doubtful that high streets will one day be full of Polunin Parlours transforming young bodies into psychedelic wonders. Rather, I suspect he will find happiness in dancing again, and his bank manager will be happy, too.

In the meantime, if, as a result of no longer having a work permit, he has to leave the UK, as the reports have speculated, then spare a thought not only for him, but for the audiences he has let down. Quite naturally, we consumers of the arts tend to sympathise with the talent and not with the bureaucratic companies that employ them. But talent can be selfish and thoughtless, too. And it is audiences who suffer, just as those same audiences at Covent Garden suffer from the constant and unreported absence of opera stars from performances through mysterious illnesses – those strange diseases that never seem to strike on press nights.

Polunin chose, in an old-fashioned term, to flounce out from a company which is on something of a high at present. He chose, in another old-fashioned term, to let a lot of people down, not least his most devoted fans. The next Polunin Parlour may well have to open abroad. But let's not turn him into a martyr to his art, or think of this as a disgraceful case of Britain kicking out talent. This time it's the talent that's to blame.

What 'handling' did this £1 buy?

My long campaign against booking fees in the arts, not least the meaningless "handling" charges, has always emphasised how much they irritate arts attenders, no matter how small the charges might be. A good example has been sent in by Nigel Surry, who was charged a £1 booking fee by the British Museum when he booked online for its Hajj exhibition. Mr Surry loved the exhibition and loves the BM, but rightly wonders why he was charged this, as there was no "handling" of any sort. He "assumes it was a way of generating extra income for doing nothing."

A British Museum spokeswoman tells me that the online service is run by a third party and the booking fees are used for maintenance of the online platform, but she "realises that people do get frustrated by the additional fee at the end of the process."

Yes, they do get frustrated, even when it's only £1. Simply incorporating the fee into the ticket price would leave far fewer irritated visitors.

Don't look now, but Keira's just gone and ruined all the mystery

In the wonderful 1973 film Don't Look Now, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland enjoyed a memorable sex scene. For decades movie buffs have debated whether the couple actually made love for real as the cameras rolled. When asked about it recently, Christie wisely said she wouldn't dream of interfering with a great film story by giving a definitive answer.

This week at the premiere of A Dangerous Method, the film about Jung and one of his patients, Keira Knightley was asked about the scene in which she is spanked (one of the more interesting scenes in a film I found tedious). She said they did it in one take, they had a vodka after and "he never really spanked me."

Keira, take a leaf out of Julie's book. Leave film fans a bit of mystery and some scope for years of debate. We don't really want to know that it's all done by smoke, mirrors and trick photography.



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