Sergei Polunin: One giant leap for British ballet

Sergei Polunin makes his debut in Manon. The Ukrainian explains how he combines dance stardom with plans to open a celebrity tattoo parlour

Stage lights, says Sergei Polunin, can conceal as much as they illuminate. Perhaps it's just as well, because among this youthful Ukrainian's ventures into body art beyond ballet is a simulation of tiger scratches on his torso. "Nobody really noticed my tattoos," he remarks. "I put Sellotape or pancake make-up over them, but you'd be surprised how much you can't see when the lights hit."

What you can see of Polunin, the Royal Ballet's youngest principal dancer, is mightily impressive. Long-limbed, with a radiant openness about his upper body, a spacious musicality and an apparently weightless, stratospheric jump, at only 21 he's a persuasive candidate to be British ballet's biggest hope. One bedazzled critic, reviewing him in Rhapsody earlier this year, even declared him "better than Baryshnikov" – praise indeed.

This season is packed with vital landmarks and debuts for him: tonight, he makes his debut in Manon as Des Grieux, the luxury-seeking heroine's unfortunate lover. Soon there's his first Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet and an international cinecast of The Sleeping Beauty in which he is the Prince.

Polunin looks like a young man in a hurry, but in fact he is lucky to be alive. Aged eight, he contracted pneumonia; one of his lungs stopped working and the local hospital sent him home still ill after six weeks. The condition lasted a year. "My mum tried everything," Polunin remembers. "Eventually, I ended up seeing this guy who heals with his hands." After 10 sessions, by hook, crook or miracle, he was better.

He was born in Kherson, close to the Black Sea in Ukraine, where initially he joined a sports school to learn gymnastics. Pneumonia ended that: "I couldn't come back to gymnastics because the floors were too dusty for my health." The alternative was ballet. "Some of my friends were going to dancing school and, when one of them was auditioning for a ballet school in Kiev, my mother saw an opportunity for me to do that, so we could move to a bigger, better city.

"I'd always been one of the best in my gymnastics school, so I transferred to trying to be the best dancer, without knowing anything about ballet. I learned it as a routine. And even in Kherson, which had nothing like a ballet company, they respected dancers. It was so rare for a boy to be a dancer that everyone was impressed, even street kids."

Kherson, he adds, was desperately poor: "Everyone was living in the same poverty and there was no hot water or electricity after 6pm. I had pocket money for good marks, but at some point I had to give it away for food. We moved to Kiev with $10 in my mum's pocket; that was all. My dad went to work as a builder in Portugal and my grandmother went to Greece to support my mum and me." He and his mother lived in one room for four years in Kiev.

Next Sergei auditioned for the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg. It wasn't for him, nor he for it. "They were quite excited when they saw me dance but when they heard I was Ukrainian, not Russian, they backed off," he says. He speculates that this might be due to the school's funding set-up. "Besides, the whole city felt wrong for me. It was very cold and, in St Petersburg general, schooling is more important than dancing. I hated school." He is dyslexic, he says: "Homework was torture."

Now his mother suggested London and the Royal Ballet School. His father called an acquaintance in the UK who told them how to apply. Sergei was soon invited to audition but when the letter of acceptance arrived, it was in English and they could not understand it. "We thought it said we would have to pay £32,000 a year in fees, so we decided to forget the whole thing."

If his ballet teacher's dog had not played with another dog during a walk soon afterwards, he might not be here now. The two dog owners talked and became friends. "This friend knew English, looked at our letter and said: 'no, you need a sponsor, but you don't need to pay anything yourself'." The same friend put the Polunins in touch with UK contacts to help find Sergei sponsorship from the Nureyev Foundation.

Aged 13, he arrived at the Royal Ballet's junior school, White Lodge, in Richmond Park. "I'd read the Harry Potter books," he laughs, "and it felt just like that!" His fate seemed assured when he won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in 2006; and at last he entered the Royal Ballet itself, having graduated from its school two years ahead of his age group.

Now he's relishing the high demands of his biggest season so far. Des Grieux is a big challenge, he adds, for peculiar reasons: "I like strong characters, big steps and jumps. This role is a weak character, he's insecure and it's all adagio! It's very pure. I think my dancing comes over as a bit wild, even if I'm thinking 'pure'. The challenge is to make him interesting, without putting across the wrong type of character."

His Manon is Lauren Cuthbertson; together they created the leading roles in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland earlier this year and their partnership has attracted much enthusiasm. "I think our lines complement each other – we both look quite long," Polunin suggests. "And she's very spontaneous, which makes it exciting to dance with her."

Nevertheless, there's a sense that Polunin is champing at the bit. He's had invitations to make guest appearances with American Ballet Theatre and in Russia, and wasn't pleased to find that his Royal Ballet duties would not allow him to go. But he managed some moonlighting closer to home: last month he danced in The Phantom of the Opera when it was cinecast to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

His dream roles, he says, are "manly" characters that require immense drama; long-term, he has his eye on two MacMillan masterpieces, Mayerling's crazed Prince Rudolf, and the dark and devastating The Judas Tree. But he loves dancing Albrecht in Giselle: "The second act is so cleverly choreographed that when you're supposed to be at the point of death, you feel you really are."

He's hungry for life and experience. "I'm not good!" he declares. "I don't do many classes. Sometimes I don't eat all day, then have four meals between 8pm and 4am. I go to bed really late – if I just sleep I won't have a life outside ballet. And I have this idea to open a tattoo place. I'd like to create something classy, with open windows, maybe some celebrities coming in..." He is not joking. "It'll be 50-50 with this American guy who's a former gangster and learned tattooing in jail. I'm fascinated by that life. Once I went back to my old city and saw my best friend from childhood walking around with a gang, looking cool. I think I missed out by never having that street life doing stupid things."

There's another tattoo on his lower back, he says, in glass letters: "It represents my memories being washed away by rain." His parents broke up when he was 14. "I was very upset," he says. "After that I decided I was never going to think about anything bad again."

His life is literally inked into his body. Perhaps it is inked likewise into the power of his dancing.

Sergei Polunin dances Des Grieux in 'Manon' on 8 and 15 November, Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power