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Sergei Polunin

Polunin Does a Flit from the ROH

Dateline: 27th January, 2012

Carefully nurtured golden boy Sergei Polunin, Principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, has stunned the ballet world for all the wrong reasons - he has resigned 'with immediate effect'. No swansong, just a great leap into the unknown, as far as we know, for he's not telling, not yet. Gone to earth in the North London tattoo parlour he half owns, he is letting others do the talking. And talking they are.

Quite a skilful move as regards publicity... Polunin's profile has burst out of the ballet world into the world of media gossip, and the Internet has been buzzing since Tuesday afternoon, when he dropped his bombshell. The newspapers picked it up the following day, as well as national television news.

Wednesday night Channel 4 News had Tony Hall, Royal Opera House chief executive, and Ivan Putrov who quit the Royal Ballet in 2010, offering some sort of explanation. Ukrainian compatriot, Putrov, in whose Men in Motion programme Polunin is to dance at Sadler's Wells this weekend, talks of the sense of liberation he himself felt when he left the company. Hall says the door is always open.

Speculation is rife, as is comment, both scathing and shell-shocked. When even style guru Stephen Bayley is writing about you and your penchant for 'gulag' tattoos, it just goes to prove, again, if proof were necessary, that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

But things don't add up. No advance warning signs, no holding him to his contract, Polunin resigns 'with immediate effect'… Known for his 'bad' boy lifestyle, burning the candle at both ends, missing classes, silly tweets, fellow dancers say he has been knuckling down lately, but perhaps the pressure of expectation has proved too much.

Or maybe the young man, still only 21, is chafing at the bit. Too much discipline, he wants to spread his wings. Dedicated to dance from a very young age, he has said he missed out on the naughty boyish years, knocking about with his pals… that he wants to give up dance at 28…

Is this a delayed teenage tantrum, the wilful petulant behaviour of a troubled angry soul, the split up with his girlfriend, Slavic moodiness? He's pleased his elders and betters long enough, and perhaps now he wants to be his own master, grab his chances with a lucrative freelance career. The world beckons.

Does he intend to follow the money to ABT or to the rich and bountiful Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg where Rosneft is its General Partner? Golden couple Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev shocked the Bolshoi Ballet last year in exactly the same way when they decamped to St. Petersburg from Moscow. Is he, as my partner suggests, the Carlos Tevez of ballet?

Born in Southern Ukraine not far from the Crimea, in Kherson, Polunin initially trained as a gymnast, and indeed his dream was to try for an Olympic gold medal, but his mother thought ballet had better prospects.

With much parental sacrifice and encouragement, he moved to Kiev, living in one room with his mother, to join the State Ballet School. He won a Rudolf Nureyev Foundation scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in 2002, and was accepted into the Royal Ballet School in 2003 at the age of 13. Four years later he was named Young British Dancer of the Year. At the end of the 2009/10 season aged only nineteen he was promoted to Principal, the youngest male dancer ever to be made Principal at the Royal Ballet. A meteoric rise…

He seemed to be going from strength to strength last year, and one had the sense he was knuckling down. A superbly sensitive Armand with Tamara Rojo in Marguerite and Armand, and a sensational Des Grieux in a spine-tingling partnership with Lauren Cuthbertson in Manon, he was beginning to grow in stagecraft and maturity.

Scheduled to dance in Frederick Ashton's The Dream with Alina Cojocaru next Wednesday (1st February), and in Romeo and Juliet on 22nd March (to be broadcast live to cinemas) - a hugely anticipated Romeo to Lauren Cuthbertson's Juliet, he has let down not only his ballerinas but Dame Monica Mason in her last season as Artistic Director.

It seems she has been very understanding: "This has obviously come as a huge shock, Sergei is a wonderful dancer and I have enjoyed watching him tremendously, both on stage and in the studio, over the past few years. I wish him every success in the future."

Do watch the World Stage video on the above site - the filming of a promotion still on the Black Sea coast for the Royal Ballet programme. You'll see what all the fuss is about. That soulful Ukrainian face, those eyes, that leap… Or try Alina Cojocaru, Sergei Polunin, James Hay in Les Lutins, the Royal Ballet in Cuba in 2009, on YouTube.

There is talk of the Australian Steven McRae, another star in the Royal Ballet's firmament, taking on Polunin's roles. McRae has been dancing spectacularly recently, and he would be an excellent choice, as long as this is not overload for him, not very long recovered from serious injury.

As they say, no one is irreplaceable, but the disappointment is palpable. I was so looking forward to his Romeo. Talked of as the next Nureyev or Baryshnikov (I'd plump for the latter), the young man would rather be what…? Only time will tell.

Vera Liber

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©Peter Lathan 2012