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.
The cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise in rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed
Akram Khan loves to dive into genres he is unfamiliar with. While his own movement vocabulary is a hybrid of kathak and contemporary dance, he has choreographed a new Giselle for English National Ballet, collaborated with flamenco artist Israel Galván and made a dance theater duet with film star Juliette Binoche. Now, in between touring Xenos, his final full-length solo, and several other projects, he's found time to tackle kung fu. Khan is part of the collaborative team behind Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a blockbuster musical based on themes of migration and the fight for survival, running June 22–July 27. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a score that remixes songs by Sia, it's part of the inaugural season of The Shed, a new venue in New York City.
I'm a Broadway dancer with a long second toe and the nail is always bruised. I had thought switching from pointe work to dancing in character shoes was the answer—I felt great for several years until recently. What's the problem?