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Sergei Polunin: I think everybody, all the older ballet generation, should be in jail
Sergei Polunin is covered in tattoos, an eccentric autobiography of sorts inked across the ballet superstar’s body. “I have my teacher, I have my cat, I have Mickey Rourke,” says the Ukraine-born 31-year-old, who made headlines a decade ago by becoming the youngest ever principal at the Royal Ballet – and then, just two years later, by quitting. Tattoos, back then, were an obvious sign of rebellion, along with lots of drinking and drug-taking, and he has accumulated more body art since. His most notorious tattoo now is of Vladimir Putin: a full portrait of the Russian president adorns Polunin’s broad chest. Yet if you really want to know Polunin, the key detail is that he is now removing them all – having looked at them while under the influence of LSD, and realised they meant “absolutely nothing”. “It’s, like, 40 times I’ve been, and the blistering…” he sighs, sitting in the home of one of his powerful friends in one of the wealthiest corners of west London. “And every time I go there” – he means Russia – “and I get a thankful letter from Putin, it’s like: ‘Oh.’” He makes a naughty-schoolboy face, and laughs nervously. “And I’m removing it.” These days, though, he thinks it’s the inside of a person that’s important. “I’m just curious to see who I am.” Who is Sergei Polunin? He has spent a lifetime looking, and even if he found an answer, I’m pretty sure he would immediately ditch it. Pure contradictoriness, a refusal ever to be one thing in one place, is at his heart. Ever since he quit the Royal Ballet in 2012, slightly bored by the achievement of being the best ballet dancer in the world, he has positively rollercoastered about: rehabilitating himself, dance-wise, in Russia, before ditching that too, and encountering a whole other level of fame thanks to the YouTube video he made of himself dancing to Hozier’s song Take Me to Church, a viral phenomenon that now boasts nearly 30 million views. A 2016 film, Dancer, traced his extraordinary trajectory – the huge sacrifices made by his family in the Ukraine to help him fulfil his talent (his father went to Portugal to work, his grandmother to Greece), and the huge cost, as his parents split and Polunin felt ever more responsible and miserable in London. Everyone calls Polunin “the bad boy of ballet”, but he is also something of a little boy lost. If the film hoped to draw a line under all that, Polunin undid it all again a few years ago, with a flurry of furious, erratic, apparently homophobic and sizeist Instagram Stories. Many new admirers cut their ties with him; he had to pay back some £100,000 in advances to those who now deemed him “cancelled”. And here we are, post-pandemic, and he is re-emerging as the happy and responsible father of a baby boy, Mir, born in January last year to Polunin and his partner, ice skater Elena Ilinykh, and with a new book that seems to be intended as a full-stop, a thank-you note and a request for parole. “A big part of creation is destruction,” he tells me today. No kidding.