Ballet’s ‘bad boy’ Sergei Polunin bounds back on to centre stage

Dancer apologises for latest mystery walk-out but says he’s ready to return

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The Independent Culture

Gifted Ukrainian Sergei Polunin, dubbed “ballet’s bad boy” after he stunned the dance world with a public walkout from the Royal Ballet, today apologised for a more recent flight and admitted he has a “love-hate” relationship with the art form.

Polunin, who became the Royal Ballet’s youngest male principal dancer at the age of 19, disappointed London fans last month when he quit a production of Midnight Express at the London Coliseum just days before the first night. He revealed that a health issue had forced him to pull out. “I want to apologise to the audience because I couldn’t even explain at that time,” he said, before adding that he still could not give specific details about the specific ailment. “Not yet, maybe one day I will.”

The dancer, described as a “once in a decade” performer, apologised as it was announced he would perform Coppélia – the story of a man who falls in love with a life-like doll – at the Coliseum in London in July with the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, his “home” company. Asked whether audiences could rely on him to appear, he said: “You have to take things day-by-day ... but it’s pretty certain I will come.”

His Midnight Express exit followed an earlier much-publicised walkout on Covent Garden last year for which he has given a variety of explanations including the pressure of the art form and falling out of love with ballet. Asked whether that feeling had changed he said: “Not really, it’s a love-hate relationship,” he said.

His lifestyle choices were highlighted after he quit the Royal Ballet last year. With concerns raised over talk of clubbing, hard partying, skipping lessons, as well as his decision to buy into a tattoo parlour. He also talked about the distractions of London and the West, saying that in Russia “it’s great because you can concentrate 100 per cent on your work”.

Despite all this, Polunin rejected the “bad boy” tag. “It’s not being bad; it’s about trying to find yourself,” he said, adding that he had not necessarily found himself yet. “It’s strange how people take you,” he added and  insisted his decision to quit the Royal Ballet was justified citing his “rise” since he decided to leave one of the world’s leading companies. He says he is in demand around the globe and travels constantly. “I don’t have time to party; I’m always on the plane. I do miss the company feeling, and the partying. That is important sometimes.”

Vladimir Urin, general director of the Stanislavsky Ballet, said Polunin was not known as a bad boy in Russia, adding: “He is a good boy.” In Russia, Polunin has become a household name after appearing on a Strictly Come Dancing-style show focusing on ballet, seen by millions of Russians.

“Russia is probably the best place to work as a ballet dancer at the moment,” he said. There, tickets for his performances sell-out a year in advance. “It’s better for me there,” he said.

As well as dancing around the world, his plans include a documentary with 3D choreography for the cinema, in English, and he also aims to perform in Chechnya for the first time. “I want to do as much as I can,” he said.

Midnight Express was produced by Peter Schaufuss’s company, and Schaufuss is also involved in the forthcoming Coppélia. It was unclear how cordial the pair are. They sat together at the press conference and while a professional relationship remains, Polunin said they were not friends. “I always respect Peter as a dancer and as a director. We’ve never made friends but I respect him,” he said.

Schaufuss was “delighted” Polunin was dancing in London, adding: “Once in a while a dancer comes along with special technique, special powers, special talent. Not just good technique, but dancers who bring a special quality to the stage. Every decade has such a dancer, or two or three. It’s something you can’t learn … it’s genetic.”