Polunin Walks

Will we see this again? Sergei Polunin with Tamara Rojo Photo Tristram Kenton

Friday 27 January 2012

The dance world is mystified at the resignation, with immediate effect, of the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal and most anticipated future star, Sergei Polunin.

Polunin’s story, born to a poor background in the Ukraine, his family enduring great sacrifice to secure him a better life, hints at the pressure and expectation placed upon him. Once Polunin’s talent was recognised, his life as a ballet dancer appeared to proceed without difficulty – a scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School, winner of the Prix de Lausanne, Young British Dancer of the Year, a place with the Royal Ballet and promotion to Principal Dancer at the age of 19 – the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal. Such quick succession is rare. For most professional dancers progression is not quite so automatic, a labour of love, dedication and drive, each knock toughening them up, increasing their appetite to succeed.

If Polunin ‘no longer wants to dance’, as has been reported, the signs were few but nevertheless suggestive. Past comments by Polunin “I would have liked to behave badly, to play football. I loved sport. But all my family were working for me to succeed. My mother had moved to Kiev to be with me. There was no chance of me failing” (The Guardian) provide an insight into his current thinking.

Every so often someone in possession of ‘God-given’ talent quits and walks away from it all. Shocking everyone, except of course the decision-maker whose ‘forbidden thought’ takes hold and grows until there appears to be no alternative but to act, even if it causes complete disarray. In this case, Polunin was scheduled to appear in the lead male role on the opening night of the Royal Ballet’s production of The Dream on Wednesday 1 February. To walk away a week before the opening night, to leave a partner in the lurch, and leave an audience baffled is upon first judgement, selfish, immature, disappointing. On reflection, it signals perhaps, the strength of feeling he has and will have been struggling with for who knows how long. The nature of the resignation, out of the blue, unexpected, ‘shocking’ Covent Garden and colleagues and with no apparent back-up plan suggests he may not have been able to carry on living a life for everyone around him, but a life which seemed at that point, to hold no meaning for him.

A dancer simply cannot dance, cannot do class, cannot look their partners in the eye, if they lose their love and dedication to the art. It is simply not possible to function as a dancer, so demanding is the art, if this is the case.

So how should great talent be nurtured? It can’t be ignored, it can’t be told to fit in, it can’t be taken for granted. It has to be celebrated, it has to be promoted and it has to be challenged, and that is what both the Royal Ballet School and the Company appear to have given him.  The problem with great talent is sometimes the obvious goal is achieved fairly predictably, even easily. What has Polunin had to fight for? Awards, a place with the Company, the highest rank, the best roles? None of it – it was all a matter of time. So really what is he fighting for? An independent life, the carefree wanderings and discoveries he may have missed as a teenager, mistakes which affect no one? All this he arguably hasn’t had a chance at – and that provides him with something to focus on, something to fight against.

The signals suggest he needs time to enjoy the rebel within, to make mistakes without the world watching. To binge in whatever form, without having the pressure of a rehearsal or performance lurking. It might take some time away from ballet to explore, to pursue other interests and just hopefully the ‘pull’ with start to re-grow, where waking up and doing a ballet class will be motivational to him again. Where that incessant need dancers have, sprouts within him again – to perfect the ‘imperfectable’.

I only hope that he is going to dance somewhere else or may, in the future, dance somewhere else. To lose his talent completely, is a set back to the progression of the art form. At least when Viviana Durante left the Royal Ballet, she continued to dance. Above all, in his own time, I hope that is what Polunin decides to do.

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