Wednesday, 25 January 2012

THE NEW NUREYEV: ALL DANCED OUT

Sergei Polunin, the youngest dancer ever to become a principal at the Royal Ballet, has resigned, sensationally, less than two years after his promotion.  While rumours suggest that he felt 'constrained' by the regime at the Royal Opera House, that he 'wants to make big money' from dancing around the world, and that he yearns to do something completely different - perhaps even open a tattoo parlour - insiders suggest that he is simply burned out, and has had enough.

I spent time in London with the boy tipped to be the New Nureyev when he was on the brink of superstardom and had the whole world at his feet. I also travelled to Cuba with him and the Royal Ballet, for the Company's historic visit:  the first by a foreign ballet company in 40 years. Anything could have happened in the following two years. It did.

The sinewy figure in sweats striding backstage where legends are made was not instantly recognisable as a modern Czar of classical ballet. To the naked eye, he was just a young dancer who had put in a hard day at the barre. Bereft of tunic, tights, wig and greasepaint, hair flopping like a damp flannel, there was little about the Royal Ballet’s new soloist to suggest a superstar.

This, however, is the company’s expectation of Sergei Polunin, the gobsmacking teenager who has taken Covent Garden by storm. His promotion, which led to him dancing not one but an unprecedented two leads this season - as the Prince in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Solor in La Bayadere - has caused a sensation. In scenes rarely witnessed inside the Opera House, audiences erupted like rock fans as he took his bows. Polunin, 19, has no B-plan. Having won the Prix de Lausanne at 13, the world’s largest student ballet competition Youth America Grand Prix in New York at 16, and having been named Young British Dancer Of The Year in 2007, he could be forgiven for starting to strut in Nureyev’s footsteps. He has eaten, slept and dreamt of nothing else since he was a little boy. In the quest to realise his far-fetched ambition, the sacrifices made by Sergei and his family have been mind-boggling. We meet in a bare-bulbed dressing room in the bowels of the Opera House. Sergei lands, legs akimbo, palming sweat from his neck. The physical similarities between him and the young Nureyev are obvious: Slavic mien, tall, strong, not a scraping of fat. His grey-green eyes lend steely appeal to a puzzled, slant-smiled face. But it is perhaps a tad early to predict whether Polunin will metamorphose into a modern version of the Siberian sex god.

‘The New Nureyev’ is quite a title to live down, as well as up to. The original, who died from Aids-related illness in 1993, lived a headstrong and impulsive life built as much on mythology as fact. His claim to have been born feet-first, of peasant stock, on a Trans-Siberian train turned out to be fairytale; affairs with male and female celebrities including Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Queen’s Freddie Mercury were indulged in while protesting that he despised fame and was naturally reclusive. He was predominantly homosexual at a time when it was illegal (exposure could have killed his career). He was also a problem to the Communist regime of the former USSR. It was when the Kirov Ballet toured in France in 1962 that 24 year-old Rudolf confounded the KGB and defected to the West. Shaking off death threats, he went on to dance for years with Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn at Covent Garden, in a celebrated mutton-lamb pairing which began when she was 43 and pondering retirement. Their partnership remains the most legendary in ballet history. Having danced all over the world, Nureyev became Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and accepted Austrian citizenship in 1982. Only decades later, when his mother was dying of cancer, did he win permission from Mikhail Gorbachev to return home. He died in Paris aged 54, where he is buried in a Russian cemetery.Post-fall of Communism and independence of the former Soviet Union’s states, Sergei travelled here without restriction on a Ukrainian passport. He enjoys his self-imposed exile to the hilt. Having been born in poverty in Kherson, Southern Ukraine - a large ship-building port on the Black Sea, birthplace of Bolshevik Leon Trotsky - he saw obvious advantages to making London his home, and has settled in the suburbs.

‘I live in Orpington, Kent, near the railway station, where I lodge with one of the dancers from this company and her husband’, he reveals in decent English with a dash of accent.
‘Not grand, but it feels like home. I’m very comfortable. The only thing I don’t really like is the food. I do miss what I used to eat in Ukraine - sausages, smoked meats, smoked fish, a lot of cabbage - which I don’t believe the British find appealing! But the things we like most are the things we grew up eating. There is nothing here like the dishes my mother and grandmother used to make.’

For love of their only child and determined to support his calling, Sergei’s parents have long lived and worked apart.
‘My father, Vladimir, works in Portugal. He did many different jobs in Khershon – factory worker, labourer – but went there to work as a builder and send money to pay for my studies. I haven’t seen him for two years, although I speak to him every couple of weeks. My mother Halina now works in the theatre, making costumes. Even my Grandmother left Ukraine to find work, so that she could send money for me. She went to Greece to look after a rich lady. I don’t know when my family will be together again.’
From the age of six, Sergei was independent, travelling to and from school alone by bus.
‘When I wasn’t at school, I’d play in the streets. There wasn’t really anything else to do. No cinema, no pop music. I wasn’t aware of any Western stars of the Nineties. Then I got involved in gymnastics, joined a sports club. I respond well to discipline. I like exact ways of doing things, to be told and shown’.
It was his mother who first aroused Sergei’s interest in ballet:
‘Which was strange, as she didn’t even like ballet! She took me to a small local school which she knew sent pupils on to the school in Kiev. A light came on in my head. I was naturally good, the best in my class, and knew immediately what I wanted to do. When I was nine, my mother and I moved to Kiev for me to attend the ballet school. Very exciting for me, very difficult for her. She had to leave her friends and the life she knew. But she was determined to give me the opportunity. I knew that, to be successful, I would have to move again, keep on moving. The next stop was Leningrad’ (now St. Petersburg).
It was again his mother’s idea to try for the Royal Ballet School.
‘We filled in the application form and filmed the video – you have to send one of yourself dancing. Then they invited me over to audition. Suddenly I am 13 years old and living away from my parents in a foreign city. Did I miss them? No. Was I homesick? Not a bit. This was my destiny. It was what I had worked so hard to achieve.’
The experience had its downsides, but Sergei kept his cool.
‘I couldn’t speak any English. It took 6 months to learn, just by talking. My teacher was Russian, which helped. Thrown in at the deep end, you have to communicate. It is the best way. I was reading the Harry Potter books in Russian at the time, although I didn’t like the films, and it thrilled me to see so many things here that I had read about in the books. The Royal Ballet School itself, where I lived, seemed to me just like Hogwarts. So magical and surreal. I had the feeling of being in a story and acting my own part. I loved it.’

As for the future, Sergei says, his route is planned.

‘So far, so good. Yes, I am young to be dancing the classic leads, but mentally I am ready. Provided I do not suffer serious injury – I’ve already damaged my shoulder and broken my fifth right metatarsal - I will get stronger, develop greater stamina. This can only come with time and training.
‘My ambition remains to be as good as Rudolf Nureyev. I feel the affinity. His Foundation gave me the scholarship here in 2002. I want to live up to that and be a household name of ballet, just like him’.
To that end, Sergei eschews a ‘normal’ teenage lifestyle – parties, clubbing, drinking, smoking, football, girlfriends – in favour of devotion to his craft. He has time and energy for little else, and hasn’t even been to see Chelsea, the club he follows, at Stamford Bridge. Nonchalant about a spin-off career as heart-throb, he takes the bouquets, billets doux and paraphernalia of fandom in his stride. His one regret is that his mother, astonishingly, has never seen him dance professionally. For her to do that, he says, would be a major effort:
‘She doesn’t speak English, there would be no one to look after her, I would worry more about her than my performance as I danced. It would put me off. Perhaps it is better that my parents don’t come to Covent Garden.’
It is hard to imagine that Halina and Vladimir Polunin, who have parked their own lives, endured a long-distance marriage and worked finger to bone for the cause, can be dreaming night and day about anything else.










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