Dancing with demons: ballet star Polunin bares all

Dario THUBURN
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Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin attends the premier of the film "Dancer" in central London on March 2, 2017

Sergei Polunin, the ballet star with a bad boy reputation, told AFP the rough and tumble of his career was part of growing up as he presented "Dancer", a searingly honest film about his life.

"You always have a good angel and a bad angel," said the Ukraine-born 27-year-old, who walked away from one of the most coveted jobs in the ballet world -- principal at Britain's Royal Ballet -- in 2012.

"I was very hasty. I didn't see anything clearly," the soft-spoken Polunin, whose body is covered in tattoos and scars, said about that period of his life.

"I had a chance to learn, to mature. Now I start to see things clearer," the star, dressed in a black T-shirt and trousers, said Thursday before the film premiere and a performance at London's Palladium theatre.

Polunin is regarded as one of the most talented dancers of his generation and is known for his impeccable classical technique, as well as astounding jumps and a natural gift for acting.

His video for Irish musician Hozier's "Take Me to Church", which Polunin made in 2015 with the artist David LaChapelle, went viral with more than 18 million views.

But he is highly critical of the ballet world, particularly of restrictive contracts for dancers.

"I would love for dancers to be treated better and for dancers to have support, for dancers to have managers, agents. This is the only art form that does not have a proper support system," he told AFP.

One of the emotional highlights of the film is a scene in which, after quitting the Royal Ballet he is seen taking his clothes off outside his London home and rolling around in the snow outside.

"I feel like that was the ultimate expression of freedom," said director Steve Cantor.

Polunin caused a sensation when he left the Royal Ballet just days before a new production.

There was talk of a bad attitude, depression, a row with a top ballerina, and for several months Polunin appeared to have retreated to the wilderness.

He had joined it in 2007 from the Royal Ballet School and became principal in 2010 when he was only 19, making him the youngest male dancer to get the job.

- Pushing to the limits -

The film traces his career back to when he began dancing aged just three in the city of Kherson in Ukraine, which was then still part of the Soviet Union.

It charts his rise from humble beginnings, highlighting in particular the sacrifices his family made to further his career.

His father went to work in Portugal and his grandmother went to Greece to put Polunin through ballet school in Kiev, where he lived with his mother.

Asked why he agreed to make the film, Polunin said: "It's important not to forget what parents did for you, what friends are. It's a good reminder."

For artists, he said the film's message was "to move forward and not to be scared, not to be lazy".

When Polunin re-emerged after quitting the Royal Ballet, he caused another surprise by joining Moscow's Stanislavsky Musical Theatre, a company previously overshadowed by the iconic ballet of the Bolshoi Theatre just down the road.

He electrified audiences and thanks to him the Stanislavsky ballet company has achieved a new prominence in Moscow and tickets for its performances have become as in-demand as those for the Bolshoi.

LaChapelle said Polunin's style could help open up ballet to popular culture and wider audiences.

"He's a classical dancer but within that framework of classical dance he pushes it to the limits," he said.

"He dances like his life depends on it and you see that, you feel that passion when you watch him dance.

"And I think everyone can relate to that."

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