Sergei Polunin
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Sergei Polunin: “It’s like being in the army”

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Short Profile

Name: Sergei Vladimirovich Polunin
DOB: 20 November 1989
Place of birth: Kherson, Ukraine
Occupation: Dancer

Mr. Polunin, what can dance teach you about life?

I think what it teaches you is discipline, which is very important, and it’s fun when you’re in dance classes together with other people while growing up — but later it drains your energy for no reason. You have to be very strong inside because in ballet, being creative is told off. It’s ridiculous, but I just thought about this the other day: even if you look to your right when you are supposed to look to your left in a dance sequence, they will tell you off!

Does that really matter?

(Laughs) Exactly! It’s your soul that people want to see! And if you understand life at all, you understand that everything is in constant change: it’s never going to be the same movement ever again. But the people who dictate this in dance institutions are not necessarily looking at the bigger picture. You know only one thing — it’s like being in the army: you’ve been told what to do and you have to do it!

“They don’t teach you that ballet is much more than just dancing.”

You’ve been enrolled in this system since you were three years old. How do you break out of that kind of regimented behavior?

Well, that’s why ballet is one of the hardest disciplines — you kind of stay childlike, because you never really experience childhood, so you try to stay in that. Even in terms of your observation of the world, you don’t really see anything because you’re in the studio all the time! And you are with the same-minded people and with the same-minded teachers literally all the time. Everything is one way. You don’t really talk to people from different industries. And the teachers, they’re people who don’t really necessarily teach you what’s going to happen to you after ballet; they don’t teach you that ballet is much more than just dancing.

Is that something that you had to learn on your own?

Absolutely. I actually never thought of myself as a dancer — I was curious about life outside of ballet more. I wanted to achieve things. You know, it was only by travelling that I started to mature and to make my own choices, learn how to deal with people and understand how the industry works. For example, when I met David LaChapelle, it was strange to him to find out that I didn’t have an agent! (Laughs) But dancers don’t have agents, because the system wouldn’t want them to have the freedom or the power to make their own choices — it’s more comfortable to do what the company wants.

But it didn’t use to be like this. Dance used to be a progressive art form, in tune with contemporary culture — now it seems to be more segregated.

Right, and in ballet, the great dancers and choreographers like Rudolf Nureyev were always free spirited. Now everything is put in a box! Why are they telling me what’s English style and what’s Russian style in classical ballet — that distinction shouldn’t even exist! For instance, English style was never restricted. Dancers like Margot Fonteyn and Anthony Dowell were free dancers, and they were amazing. Now suddenly everything became so small. You don’t lose anything, in fact you gain a lot by having free-thinking people. I tried to work it out myself, which… Probably wasn’t as smart. (Laughs)

James McAvoy said that your ability to question authority and expand your horizon is dramatically reduced when you’re not exposed to culture growing up.

Exactly! That’s why it’s important to have mentors that could teach you about life experiences rather than only ballet class — they should teach you how to think! To think is to create and that’s what’s most important. Dancing is to me the only industry that hasn’t evolved in any way. But it doesn’t have to be like this! I think it’s important to change dancers’ mindsets as well. Dancers are motivated by their love for dance but they get paid really little, and that’s not fair. Not a single dancer can afford their own flat. You just work and work and then you end up with nothing. And that has to be changed because there is so much talent out there in dance today, and it has to be rewarded.

“When you have two heads, you can bounce ideas off one another — unless there are egos involved.”

Is that why you recently turned to acting?

Well, it’s a different type of reward. In acting you feel like a team, like you’re creating something together. So many things have to come together and you are not alone, you’re not all by yourself. And you’re not so far away from people, you’re close to people — because on stage you can’t really see anybody! When the cameras are rolling, it’s such an exciting moment. For example, in Red Sparrow I was dancing with Jennifer Lawrence while Francis Lawrence was directing, and I felt like I can add something to the big picture. It’s a joint effort, which is fun.

Is this type of collaborative creativity something you were missing when you were at the Royal Ballet?

For sure. When you have two heads, you can bounce ideas off one another — unless there are egos involved. But as long as there are no egos, you just create more! You figure out ideas that you can then take to the next level. And you don’t feel it’s all on you.

Has relieving that pressure given you the headspace to figure out what you actually want to do with your career?

Yes! If you distance yourself from something and you miss it, then you really find out if you really care about it. You ask yourself, “Am I okay to let this go forever?” and you have to listen to your gut feeling. Filming Take me to Church for example was a big moment for me. Through that, I found out how powerful something good and something light can be — instead of darkness and negativity. I personally always feel that fight within me. After that, I danced for free for a couple of months to regain the hunger for dance and the joy of dance: to dance not because I am being paid to or because somebody is telling me to, but because I wanted to do it.