Philip Hensher: Sergei Polunin and a lesson for Labour

Institutions need stars, and stars don't necessarily like institutions

Related Topics

I wouldn't be surprised if Monica Mason, the director of the Royal Ballet, were feeling pretty furious the last couple of days. Her young star, Sergei Polunin, walked away from the company two days ago without a word. There had been no particular sign, apparently, that he was unhappy or thinking of leaving; there were no negotiations that had broken down.

It doesn't appear as if he gave the company anything to negotiate over.

He has just gone; whether to another company for more money, whether just to do something else with his life, or whether he just wants a sit down with his bunions, nobody knows.

Bewilderment seems to be the mood, but fury is bound to follow – plenty of employees of the company would have indirectly benefited from Polunin's rising fame. For the moment, Polunin's following was confined to those who are interested in ballet. He is still very young, and has only been dancing a very few seasons. Word, however, had begun to spread.

In all these conventionally confined worlds, there is a moment where fame spreads outside the charmed circle of the usual audience, and large numbers of the general public start to think that they must find out what all the fuss is about.

It happened with Moira Shearer, Fonteyn, Nureyev, Darcey Bussell, Carlos Acosta; it looked set to happen all over again with Polunin. For a theatrical company, a performer like this is an authentically gold-egg-laying goose, and their loss at a whim is a serious blow.

It is an unfair truth about human nature that we are only properly interested in single, maverick figures. We understand about crowds; we train ourselves to value statistical and cumulative events. But all that can gain the interest of most of us is the exceptional individual. I think only once in history was a British decoration granted to a people, when the King gave the island of Malta the George Cross during the war. For the rest of it, we celebrate individual achievement, and understand the world through people who may be very unlike the rest of humanity.

When political change occurs, is there any way to understand it other than through the lone human? The horror of the napalm attacks during the Vietnam War comes down to Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl fleeing her village with her clothes destroyed and her skin dripping off her. The protests in Tahrir Square, and the subsequent brutality of the suppression, will come down in the end to the poor woman who was thrown to the ground, her veil and robe torn off her so that she lay between the feet of thugs in her underwear. We don't even need a name, just a sense of the individual: the man who stood before the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 in silent and peaceful opposition has never been identified. But that is when we started to understand what Chinese democracy might mean.

Institutions, movements, communal excellence rest on the individual. Only the most refined admirer of the ballet ever bought a ticket to admire the corps; no one ever went to see a King Lear because they heard that the spear-carriers were astonishingly good. And, despite everything, possibly no one ever cast a vote solely because they believed that investment in the public infrastructure was currently inadequate, that public expenditure ought not to rise above 40 per cent of GDP, that immigration policy ought to be overhauled. People may tell you that they do; but the message gets across, and succeeds, with a maverick and unique star to convey it – a Thatcher, a Blair, a Wilson, even.

Without that, a political message is left with the support of the season-ticket holders, who go to everything, and the hard-core obsessives who can tell you all about the position of the feet in the third row of the corps de ballet, so to speak. This may be the problem for the Labour Party at the moment: they have not yet found the maverick star that they can make their peace with, and have settled for someone who, clearly, all his life has had to raise his voice to get a hearing in company.

Institutions need stars, and stars don't necessarily like institutions. A great Archbishop of Canterbury was once found in bed chanting, "I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England". Blair, clearly, didn't like parliament one bit, and the Labour Party not much more; when Thatcher resigned, Raphael Samuel wrote an essay pointing out that all her thinking – provincial, non-conformist, anti-aristocratic – hardly sat at all within the Conservative traditions. Our understanding is lured by what Browning called "the dangerous edge of things – the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist".

Large public institutions can only be kept going by the presence of the brilliant and perhaps unpredictable. We understand large movements and historic moments principally through the sight of an individual at the centre. But institutions don't consist of singly charismatic individuals; historic change happens to all of us. It is up to institutions to make peace with its mavericks, to make a space for the individual; it is sometimes up to the individual to make sense of the institution.

Sometimes that means not walking out, as Mr Polunin may in time discover.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most