‘I tell myself: You’re a penis’: Sergei Polunin on drugs, bad tweets – and his Putin chest tattoo

Dancers sweep across studio seven at London’s Pineapple Studios, skipping through Prokofiev’s rhythms. Choreographer Johan Kobborg shouts for more gusto. “Throw her!” he says to one man handling his partner too tentatively. To the side stands the tall figure of Sergei Polunin. Dressed in black with a rock star vibe, a faded tattoo visible on his hand, he eyes himself in the mirror before flying into the centre and launching into five or six pirouettes, like a bird of prey swooping into a flock of starlings.

This is Kobborg’s new production of Romeo and Juliet, which Polunin danced with star ballerina Alina Cojocaru in Verona pre-Covid, now being remounted for London’s Royal Albert Hall. It marks the end of an eventful couple of years for Polunin, and perhaps a turning point.

Known as a technically brilliant but erratic dancer, Polunin was the youngest principal at the Royal Ballet, 老龄化 19, 但 walked out of the company two years later. He made headlines for the 30m YouTube views of his Take Me to Church 视频, but also for missing shows, for his critical flops, his misguided tweets (从 drug chathomophobia) and his chest tattoo of Vladimir Putin’s face. 但在 2019 he met Olympic figure skater Elena Ilinykh, and their son, Mir, was born in January 2020. It’s made him grow up, he concedes. “Kids change us in a positive way, for sure,“ 他说. “Because you connect to them with energy, you have to be right with yourself. If I get angry, a child feels that energy.” He’s even getting rid of his tattoos as he wants to be “clean”, and is halfway through an agonising two-year process of getting them lasered off.

Since leaving the Royal Ballet, Polunin’s focus has been on making new dance and new stories, but this Romeo and Juliet is a return, of sorts, to classical ballet. “I had said, ‘Never in my life will I do a Romeo & Juliet,“ 他说, laughing. “And a week later I was like, yeah, I’ll do it.” The reason was to work with Kobborg, the lauded Danish dancer and choreographer who spent 14 years at the Royal Ballet but who, like Polunin, is now independent. “You have really good choreographers but they are locked into the system,” says Polunin. “Johan thinks differently, he is very classical in that he respects the style but he has a different way of thinking about it that’s very modern.”

“It is a challenge to keep classical ballet alive,” says Kobborg. “Contemporary dance has an easier way of communicating with us now, and if we don’t bring a certain amount of contemporary energy into classical dance, it’s just not going to [connect].” In the studio, Kobborg implores his dancers to act like real people, injecting life on to the stage while mastering tricky triplets in detailed footwork.

Despite nearly 20 years between them, Polunin and Kobborg have a joshing, brotherly rapport. “I always really liked Johan,” says Polunin. “I felt support from him, even though I let him down sometimes with his galas,” sheepishly referring to times he didn’t turn up to dance at Kobborg’s shows. “I asked him, why do you still want to work with me?” Now they’re both laughing. “You learn to live with it,” says Kobborg, who clearly values Polunin’s talent. “Sergei can do anything,“ 他说. And Kobborg has had more creative freedom on this project than any he’s worked on. “Hats off to Sergei,“ 他说. “It’s very rare.”

Polunin is on a more even keel now than he was in his 20s. At the Royal Ballet he felt confined by the institution and craved freedom, but when it came he was overwhelmed by it. “I didn’t know how to answer my emails,“ 他说. “I had so much opportunity when I left the Royal, American theatres writing to me, movies, agents: I just didn’t know what to do with it. So I kind of locked myself away for six months, waited till everything was gone and went to Russia.”

He felt lost for a while, overindulged in drinking and drugs to escape responsibility. “Dancers are kids,“ 他说. “You’re well looked after, but you never take responsibility for your own decisions.” He wrote some offensive things on social media. “That’s one regret for sure,“ 他说. “Part of it was arrogance, it was stupid. I tell myself: ‘You’re a penis.’ In a way it was to destroy what I had,“ 他说. An act of self-sabotage.

But these days Polunin shoulders a lot of responsibility, producing up to three shows a year. He’s learning as he goes. “In the past we made so many mistakes,“ 他说. “The first show at Sadler’s Wells we spent so much money. It failed with critics, so you lost the trust of the team, of the sponsors.” But he came back with a second premiere the next year. “You have to come back fast,” he says – or you’ll be soon forgotten. His survival system is based on always going forward. “I have a one-week memory,“ 他说.

He tries not to think about the financial risk. He never borrows money, 和, if they find themselves £10,000 short to pay for a dance floor, he’ll go and do a guest performance to get the funds – his name has global pulling power. Polunin is not short on self-belief but he has a sense of destiny too. His failures could have destroyed him, 他说. “But maybe we’re doing the right thing, because we’re still here. If it’s right, the universe will help us get there.”

Johan Kobborg’s Romeo & Juliet is at the Royal Albert Hall, 伦敦, 上 1 十二月.

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