Intense, charismatic and wildly talented, Sergei Polunin is covered in tattoos, can party like the best of us and is changing the shape of ballet as we know it.
Sergei Polunin is not your typical prim and proper, principal ballet dancer. It’s midnight in Moscow when we speak to him and he’s just finished performing his lead role in the premiere of La Bayadère, a dramatic ballet about love, jealousy, noble warriors and cruel princesses, but he’s about to dance to a different tune, as he gets ready to hit the strip. “I’m a night person, I like night more than day,” he explains, in a seductive Ukrainian drawl, after telling us his usual bedtime is 6am. You’ve probably seen his name in the paper recently, along with the phrase “ballet’s bad boy” and a picture of a skinny but muscular, half naked man with scarification on his chest. The 23-year-old earned his tabloid headline when he dropped out of The Royal Ballet School less than two years after becoming its youngest ever principal dancer at the age of 19; he disappeared just days before the opening night of his London Coliseum show, Midnight Express, and was totally open about dancing on stage while high on cocaine. But, as only the incredibly beautiful and incredibly talented do, he got away with it; the world of showbiz “blasé’d” over those “tombé’s” and welcomed him back. Now he’s part of the Stanislavsky Moscow Music Theatre; his mentor is the Stanislavsky Ballet’s director, Igor Zelensky, and every dancer in the world wants his role. Known for having a strange ambivalence towards the art form he has dedicated his life to so far, Sergei is a dark and brooding mix of beauty, adrenaline, rebelliousness and nonchalance, who has fascinated and enchanted not only the dance stratosphere but the mainstream press and the fashion world too.
“I hate happy ballets. I hate showing happiness in ballet. I think it's very stupid. I like more emotional, sad, maybe evil characters, but definitely not happy ones.”
What do you do for fun, when you're not working?
Drinking! Drinking and smoking, like normal people. Going to restaurants, having a cigarette, having a drink. I spend a lot of time with Igor Zelensky. He's like a father figure, you know. He's lived through everything and he knows what's right and what's wrong. It's nice to have a person you can trust.
Does Igor go out drinking with you?
Not so much, he tells me what's right, I'm the one who goes a bit crazy!
Have you ever gone to work hung over?
If I don't want to, I just don't go in. It's my choice and my director understands me, so it's great. I try to practise as little as possible because it's kind of a waste of time if you're a professional already. Sometimes I only do one rehearsal before the ballet and I'm ready to go. It's a bit unusual because in London, for example, you rehearse for a month, but here in Russia it's much quicker and the result is the same. For La Bayadère the whole company was doing it for probably two months, rehearsing hard. I just did it for a week and it was a big success. I like spontaneity in the performance, so I don't over-rehearse it. I like little surprises. It keeps me interested in the ballet. You give everything to the audience, but you need to keep yourself interested as well because if you don't like what you're doing, then it's hard to keep going.
Do you ever get nervous?
Not anymore. I try to enjoy the show now. You have to live your role, you have to get over it and carry on. It's your life and you have to enjoy it. That way you don't get nervous about steps, you're just living the character.
You mentioned before that you wanted fame because it opens doors. What would you want to do with your fame?
I don't really like my own dancing, so it's very hard for me to stay interested in something I don't really like myself in. I can't watch myself in anything.Film is definitely interesting, but I don't believe in myself [enough] for that. I do get offers and maybe I will get there, but you need to have faith, you need to like yourself doing it. There are so many different things you can do in life; life is interesting in general. Even going into the army… I think that's what men should do, that's how it used to be. But then you have to think, “What will I miss out on if I go there?” While you're young, try a lot. You have to do as many things in life as possible. When you get older you start to get scared of things, you know, you get a family and you start to think more. When you're young everything is open for you.
The fashion world has sort of taken you in, is that something you're interested in?
It's definitely a different world, it's interesting, but you need to have another job. I don't think it's a man's job to do just that. You have to be somebody and then do that on the side. I don't think it's a man's job to just be pretty! I like it when it's a boxer doing fashion, or a footballer, you have to be somebody. A lot of people wouldn't agree with me, but that's what I think.
This is The Collectors Issue of i-D, do you collect anything?
Girls! I'm joking. What else do you collect as a man?!
Have you ever broken anyone's heart?
No, I take care of people and I love people.
Has a girl ever broken your heart?
Yes. In London I was with a really nice girl from my company. You know, you get used to the person... I had to leave London. I did love her.
Do you use that experience when you dance?
Yes, definitely. I think it's very important to use your experiences and it definitely shows on stage, one hundred percent. You imagine different people and it brings different feelings out, so it's important to have as many experiences as possible and then show them to the audience. Giselle was one of the first ballets where I used those feelings. [When you] break up with a girl, for you it's like she's dying, and when she's dying during the ballet, it really helps you to show the right feelings. It probably takes two or three days to get over the emotional bit of ballet.
Do you think it's easier to dance light-hearted ballets like Coppélia?
I hate happy ballets! I hate showing happiness in ballet. I think it's very stupid. I like more emotional, sad, maybe evil characters, but definitely not happy ones. I mean it's a positive energy coming out of me, but it doesn't have to be happy ballet.
If you could dance with any girl in the world, who would you choose?
Madonna! She's interesting... I'm joking, I don't know. I've never met her.
Do you collect anything else?
Yeah, I collect tattoos, I've got probably fifteen or sixteen. The one with the tiger scratches on my chest was the first one. I had the tattoo and it wasn't very good, so I had to cut a little bit of colour off, so it became half scratches, half tattoo. It's like scarring, you just cut it off.
Was it painful?
No, not really.
What's your favourite one?
Probably Igor's face on my shoulder!
What was his reaction to that?
He didn't say anything…
Are you happier now?
Yes, everything's going well. I love Russia. As long as I have Igor Zelensky by my side everything is going well!