It's hard not to resent Sergei Polunin a little bit. After walking away from his principal position at The Royal Ballet at age 23, frustrated—as he later told Dance Magazine—by the lack of support, money and exposure he was getting as a ballet dancer, now it looks like he's having his cake and eating it, too.
Polunin modeling Marc Jacobs for Numéro Homme
Not only is Polunin dancing again—under Igor Zelensky in Munich's Bayeriches Staatballett, and with girlfriend Natalia Osipova in her program of contemporary works—but he's also getting the Hollywood attention (and paycheck) he's always wanted.
In addition to starring of his own bio-doc, Dancer, Polunin recently confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that he'll be appearing in two major upcoming movies: the spy thriller Red Sparrow, featuring Jennifer Lawrence (who plays a ballerina-turned-Russian spy who falls for a CIA officer) and the whodunit classic Murder on the Orient Express starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench. For now, Polunin's roles in both movies are unknown. But we're keeping our fingers crossed they include some dancing.
Don't let yourself get too bitter. Sure, he's landed numerous priceless opportunities in spite (or maybe because) of his "bad boy" reputation. But watching Dancer, you realize he's struggled the same as every aspiring dancer. What's more, he's determined to give back: He says his new Project Polunin is designed to be a company to support other dancers by setting them up with resources like scholarship funds, lawyers looking out for their interests and agents who can connect them with other industries—like film.
Love him or hate him, it's hard not to be intrigued by Sergei Polunin. When someone with that much talent quits The Royal Ballet to become part-owner of a tattoo parlor, only to then star in a splashy David LaChapelle-directed viral video and start dating fellow ballet wunderkind Natalia Osipova, you can't help asking, What's going on with this guy?
A new documentary about Polunin's troubled path, Dancer, comes out both in theaters and on demand this Friday, September 16. The sympathetic portrait sheds some light on the forces that led to his conflicted love-hate relationship with ballet. Fresh off his So You Think You Can Dance appearance earlier this week, Polunin sat down with Dance Magazine to talk about the film—and why he keeps dancing today.
What's it like to watch a documentary about yourself?
I didn't want to see it. But I was hanging out with David LaChapelle in LA, and he was like, Oh, we're going to watch it tonight with some other dancers. I had like nine beers. I was sitting next to him, squashing his leg. It was really intense. I wanted to see myself from an outside eye, but you can't really, because it triggers something raw inside of you.
Footage from boyhood
Had you seen all that old dance footage?
No—I didn't even remember that my mom had a camera! It was such a strange thing for her to do.
Does the film feel like an accurate depiction?
It's really real. It's a human story. Rather than digging into one thing, it had many layers. I want dancers to see it. It shows how much a dance career takes for parents, too.
In the film, you say you considered "Take Me To Church" your goodbye to dance. What made you continue?
Well, at that point I did not like dancing; I was upset with the industry. You know, footballers and actors get so much money, have so much exposure and I don't think dancers are less talented, and if anything, they work much, much harder. But you don't get that same reward. So I was really upset. I had to decide if I wanted to stay in L.A. and become an actor.
Filming "Take Me To Church" took nine hours. And to open myself up for this piece, I got very empty, like really emotional. It gave me nine hours of just thinking about what I'm leaving behind. I felt really sad. Then I saw David and how much he loved dance, and I thought, This is strange, maybe I'm missing something.
A rehearsal scene in Dancer
After that shoot, I got strength back to do something. I went back to Russia, and told Igor Zelensky at Stanislavsky Ballet that I don't want to get paid, I just want to do it for the love of dance. I had to understand that I liked doing it for that reason rather than for anything else.
Igor is now director at Bayerisches Staatsballet, and has made you a "permanent guest artist." How much will you be dancing there?
Whenever I'm free. I was lucky to have Igor to come back to when I was traveling to America to try other things, search for things. It's like a cushion.
What inspired you to start Project Polunin?
Talking to David, I realized every other industry has support—agents and managers. You give a small percentage, but you gain protection, knowledge, connection. Most dancers don't have that. And there are sharks who'll use you. So we built a company to support dancers called Project Polnuin. It's so many angels—bankers, lawyers donating their time, we have a board to develop a structure, and we'll connect dancers with other industries like fashion, movies, music. We want every dancer to join it. We're just at the beginning of the journey.
When I left Royal Ballet, I had no one I could ask for an opinion. I didn't know what I was searching for. I wish I had someone who would say, "You should do that audition." "If you want to model, this is the company that will develop that." "What's your ability? How do you see yourself?"
Footage from the wings in Dancer
Do you think this film will change the way you're seen in the dance world?
When I meet people now, they're much warmer. I don't think any human is a bad person, they're just misunderstood.
Get Your Summer Festival Fix
What's new and alluring at the country's biggest events.
American Dance Festival
ADF's month-and-a-half-long celebration is packing in 61 performances by 26 companies and choreographers. Of special interest are the premieres, including John Jasperse's newest piece, which boasts such stellar performers as Maggie Cloud and Stuart Singer, and the Footprints evening, which features new works by Beth Gill, Dafi Altabeb, and Lee Sher and Saar Harari. June 16–July 30. americandancefestival.org.
Improvisers Angie Hauser and Chris Aiken. Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy Bates
Bates Dance Festival
Though a mix of established small troupes will visit Bates (Dorrance Dance, Doug Varone and Dancers and Kate Weare Company), its most adventurous programming happens in the DanceNOW and Different Voices evenings, which include Houston's Hope Stone Dance, improvisers Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser, performance artist Sara Juli, and others. July 9–Aug. 6. batesdancefestival.org.
Reggie Gray and Peter Sellars' unlikely collaboration, FLEXN. Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow
Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
Jacob's Pillow always gives dancegoers a dependable mix of classical, contemporary, modern and world dance. This summer features some fun collaborations: a premiere by tap dancing trio Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith, a post–Restless Creature program for Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks, and FLEXN, the much-talked-about project between flex-dancing pioneer Reggie Gray and theater director Peter Sellars. June 18–Aug. 28. jacobspillow.org.
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail
Vail International Dance Festival
This year's lineup—the 10th under Damian Woetzel—boasts its usual list of cool kids, from Tiler Peck to Lil Buck. But Woetzel has chosen an unexpected mix for the annual NOW: Premieres program: Jodie Gates, Lil Buck, Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, Matthew Neenan, Claudia Schreier and Shantala Shivalingappa. Isabella Boylston is the artist in residence, and BalletX the company in residence. July 30–Aug. 13. vaildance.org.
POB in Approximate Sonata. Sébastien Mathé, Courtesy POB
Forsythe Says Good-bye to France
When word got out that Benjamin Millepied was leaving the Paris Opéra Ballet, we also learned that William Forsythe, who had been appointed associate choreographer under Millepied, was leaving his post, too. This doesn't mean he'll never return, but his presence will certainly be limited. His final premiere as an official staffer is a collaboration with the soulful singer-songwriter James Blake. Restagings of Approximate Sonata and Of Any If And round out the all-Forsythe program. July 4–16 at the Palais Garnier. operadeparis.fr/en.
Jason Kittleberger, James O'Hara and Natalia Osipova in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's new work, Qutb. Alastair Muir, Courtesy Sadler's Wells
Osipova and Polunin Team Up
International ballerina Natalia Osipova has recently been exploring of-the-moment contemporary work, and her current project pairs her with another big gig-hopping name, Sergei Polunin. At Sadler's Wells, June 29–July 3, the two will premiere duets by Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita. Also on the program is a new trio for Osipova and freelance dancers Jason Kittleberger and James O'Hara, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. sadlerswells.com.
Karole Armitage's last project for Opera Saratoga, Dido and Aeneas. Gary David Gold, Courtesy Opera Saratoga
Armitage Takes the Opera
Saratoga Springs, NY
After directing and choreographing the warmly received opera Dido and Aeneas at Opera Saratoga last summer, Karole Armitage returns this year to lead The Witches of Venice, composed by Philip Glass. The libretto, by Beni Montresor, is about a boy grown from a magical plant who is looking for a companion—and encounters many adventures on the way. Members of Armitage Gone! Dance will join Opera Saratoga's professional singers as well as members of its Young Artist Program and the Capital District Youth Chorale onstage. July 2, 11 and 17, Opera Saratoga. operasaratoga.org.
Polunin modeling Marc Jacobs for Numéro Homme
Ballet's favorite bad boy, Sergei Polunin, is in the limelight again. He's the subject of a new bio-doc, called DANCER. The international trailer was just released this week, and it's as dramatic as you'd expect.
Fittingly, the background music is none other than Hozier's Take Me To Church—you'll remember the music video because it featured Polunin dancing like a wild man (and racked up almost 15 million views). The trailer gives us even more tantalizing glimpses of Polunin dancing—in the studio as a kid with unbelievably beautiful lines, onstage as a professional with unbelievably high jumps, at home goofing around with unbelievably endless turns. It also hints at his tortured backstory, and how he grew so disillusioned with dance that he walked away from his prodigious Royal Ballet career at only 25.
(There's also plenty of shirtless footage to check out his many tattoos.)
Screen Daily reports that the feature-length documentary will be shown to potential buyers at Cannes before an anticipated fall festival debut.
In other Polunin news, he told The Guardian this weekend that he'd now like to re-join The Royal as a guest artist, presumably so he can dance more often with his girlfriend, Natalia Osipova. The pair will be performing works by Arthur Pita and Russell Maliphant together in a program Osipova commissioned herself, which opens at Sadler's Wells in London next month. We're keeping our fingers crossed it makes its way stateside. If not, at least it seems like DANCER has plenty of performance and behind-the-scenes clips of Polunin we can enjoy.
Music videos are embracing concert dance more than ever.
It was the music video the world couldn’t stop talking about. Sia’s “Chandelier” featured “Dance Moms” star Maddie Ziegler moving with reckless abandon in a forlorn apartment. The video became the 17th most viewed on YouTube, and won the award for Best Choreography at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. After two more collaborations, Sia’s projects starring Ziegler and choreographed by Ryan Heffington have collectively garnered over a billion views on YouTube.
Though we don’t yet know who will take home a VMA this month, one thing is for certain: Dancers are no longer just a backdrop. They’ve become the heart of many videos, like in Taylor Swift’s dance mash-up “Shake It Off” and Carrie Underwood’s splashy “Something in the Water,” featuring the dancers of Shaping Sound.
Pop culture and dance have already come together in television, on shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Breaking Pointe.” But music videos, generally with a three- to four-minute window, pack in only the most impressive movement. It’s a quick dose of culture packaged for consumption. “What we have been creating these past few years are products of evolution and sit in the confines of current culture. There is no chance I could have created this work a decade ago,” says Heffington, who has also choreographed for Arcade Fire, FKA twigs and Florence + the Machine. “The more people see dance in music videos, the more they can relate to it.”
But is boiling dance down to a few minutes of flash good for the art form? The success of a music video is generally determined by its director, says Jade Hale-Christofi, who choreographed a viral video to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,”danced by Sergei Polunin. He says that director David LaChapelle’s understanding of dance helped give himself and Polunin the freedom to develop a powerful final product. “If it’s done right and it’s done with care and love for the art, more dancers would definitely go into music videos,” he says. “Anyone can look at it and understand the piece. And I think that if you can inspire enough people to watch ballet, that’s a great thing.”