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“I could have been an even better dancer if I hadn’t spent every night in clubs taking so much coke.” Encounter with Sergei Polunin

 

Encounter with Sergei Polunin, prodigious dancer who’s spent many years hell bent on his own destruction, addicted to drugs and self-harm. A flaw noticed by Mickey Rourke who became his mentor when the young dancer left ballet to conquer Hollywood.

Photos by Jacob Sutton

A prodigious dancer aged 26 seen as the natural heir to Nureyev and Baryshnikov, Sergei Polunin spent many years hell bent on his own destruction, addicted to drugs and self-harm. A flaw noticed by Micky Rourke who became his mentor when the young dancer left ballet to conquer Hollywood.

 

The 3 Mills Studios in East London look like their Hollywood equivalents, Fox and Paramount, vast hangars lined up geometrically and separated by roads populated with technicians, extras in glittering costumes and other props in hurry. Inside set 11, Sergei Polunin has not yet started filming. But it won’t be long seeing the enthusiasm with which he describes his future career. He’s been thinking about becoming an actor for a while now, but “as long as you have commitments, a professional situation, links with another trade, your mind isn’t free enough to devote itself fully elsewhere”, he explains sprawling half naked in an armchair. 

Early summer he picked up his telephone and told Igor Zelensky, director of the Stanislavsky Music Theatre in Moscow, but also his coach and mentor, that he was leaving the world of dance for good. 

When you find out that Polunin is on a par with Nureyev and Baryshnikov, in other words the most important dancer to burst into the scene in the last 30 years, you can’t help but wonder why he’s stopping and not just branching out within his domain. He says that dance no longer excites him. “Frankly it would take something really special to make me go back again. Of course rhyme and reason say I should continue but that’s just how I am: I burn bridges, I like fighting, having goals. I wanted to be the best gymnast, the best dancer, and now I want to be the best actor. And I’m young, I have to try out different things while it’s still possible. I never really thought being a dancer was the right job for a man. Boxer, soldier, footballer, yes, those are jobs for men. The only thing I ever liked in dance was being able to jump high in the air and playing roles. And if you like playing roles, then you may as well become an actor. I’ve already had propositions, but I don’t want to be a dancer who acts, I want to act seriously, to find a school in England or the US, and really prepare myself in this craft for two or three years.” 

The fact that Sergei Polunin met Mickey Rourke and formed an instant bromance - to the extent that the dancer actually lodges at the actor’s home in Los Angeles - has clearly had an effect on his decision. “I always loved the movies, actors like Sylvester Stallone and Micky Rourke. I love films like Basic Instinct, 9 1/2 Weeks, and  Man on Fire with Denzel Washington.” His first project is a documentary about himself by David LaChapelle. Filming will take place this Autumn in Los Angeles as well as Hawaii, where the photographer owns a house. “I’m very excited about it because we’re going to film outdoors, in the depths of forests and waterfalls. That’s why I’m still in training because I’m going to dance one last time in this film. There’ll probably be a Russell Maliphant choreography to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune, revisited by a DJ. And then an improvised solo in a church: if it’s going to be my last ever dance, I want it to be right.

As for Micky Rourke, he cites him as a great source of inspiration: He’s a real man; he’s taken a lot of drugs and really lived. He’s a boxer as much as an actor and I like that. We work out and do martial arts together. He wrote me a letter saying that I didn’t need to lead a life of excess, that it was a waste of energy. For years people would lecture me and I’d answer them by saying, ‘Yeah sure, I’ll think about it.’ But I had neither the will power nor desire to ask myself those sorts of questions. But when it’s a guy like Mickey Rourke who says that, of course I’m gonna listen. I could have been an even better dancer if I hadn’t spent every night in clubs taking so much coke. Mickey showed me how that’s a dead-end street and that it always goes bad, you end up a wreck. Thanks to him I feel better and I know I will never touch that shit again. All my life I used my muscles, I hated people who sat down to write. Now I’ve got my brain back again, I’ve understood that it’s time to read books and learn.”

 

We ask him about his scars, particularly the one down his life side that looks like a bear or feline has mauled him. “Oh that’s an old tattoo I didn’t like anymore so I had the colours rubbed off, but I’ve got lots of other scars. Look at this one, that was done with acid. I poured acid on my skin and then rinsed it with water 10 seconds later. It’s not easy to do scars, harder than you think,” he tells us with a wry smile. The reason the young man inflicts such treatment on himself is because he finds them, “very beautiful. A man should always have scars, on the face for example. I could have been a roman gladiator or native Indian in a former life. And as for tattoos they are so romantic, it instantly makes me think of prison: and what’s more upsetting than the world of prison! All these men who spend their days and their nights reading and who come out so intelligent.”

 

He explains another motivation behind his change of profession is the prospect of earning big bucks “For sure, you shouldn’t focus on money when you’re young, you have to discover life and who you really are. On that subject I know it was good to grow up in modest circumstances. But as soon as I started earning money, I helped my parents, my grandparents, my friends back in Ukraine and I realised that money disappeared quickly and that I needed to earn more. Not for me, because I need very little myself, just enough to live off and take care of the person I love, but also to help others. In Russia you have multi-billionaires who are richer than certain States, but they don’t give a penny to any charities. They haven’t understood that there is no greater feeling than helping others and doing good around you.” While he waits for the millions his Hollywood career will no doubt bring, he’s taking part in various artistic projects for free, because, “it’s a chance to meet interesting people and to learn new things”.  Yet if you believe his entourage he’s hardly the most accessible man on the planet. He never answers his telephone or emails. “I was on Facebook for a month, but I didn’t meet any interesting girls. Just weird people who wanted to invite me to dinner. It wasn’t my thing. I like having time to myself. I don’t like talking for the sake of it. That’s what makes me I’m happy.”

 

 

By Éric Dahan

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