Sergei Polunin: In the shackles of his own talent
The biographical documentary “Dancer” is not only a story about the life of ballet dancer Sergei Polunin but also a tale about the price of success and one’s endless strife for more. Who hasn’t dreamt of having a talent that will fascinate people? When I started playing tennis as a 6-year-old, I dreamt of becoming a world No.1, the next Martina Hingis. That never happened… I always thought it’d be amazing to be great at something that will make you famous and successful. Seeing the story of Polunin made me realise that you need a lot more than a strong desire to achieve something. It’s talent. And you’re born with it. When you’ve got that talent though, you can’t escape from it. Even when it brings joy to other people, it might make you miserable.
As a young boy, Sergei was a shining gymnast star in his hometown of Kherson in the then Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic. His mum enrolls him in a ballet school in Kiev at the age of 8-9 because that’s where she sees he could have a bright future. In order to pay for his tuition, his dad and grandmother move abroad to Greece and Portugal to work. This whole family set up – mum raising her kid and pushing him to realise his full potential, while dad and grandparent are working abroad to send back money – is the young boy’s recipe for success. And it works – at the age of 13, he’s admitted to the British Royal Ballet School, selected out of thousands of talented kids. Sergei knows what’s taken for his family to sustain him up to this point and trains really hard, with his whole heart and soul, to always be the best, and so to justify all the sacrifices of his family (including the divorce of his own parents). His efforts truly pay off when at the age of 19 he becomes the youngest ever principal dancer with the British Royal Ballet. This is a tremendous success and testament to his incredible talent, hard work and even sense of guilt. He never lets his family watch him perform at the Royal Ballet because he feels too much pressure.
Polunin can’t however bear the limitations that ballet puts on him. He’s reached the peak too young to aim for anything bigger and better – when you reach the top, where do you go next? The pressure is immense and Polunin turns into the ‘bad boy of ballet’ – as the British media loves referring to him as. He covers his body with tattoos, openly uses drugs, and suffers from depression. He ultimately quits the Royal Ballet only after two years as a principal. A few years later, he records his (so he thought then) farewell dance to his fans with a performance at a beach house to the song Take Me to Church by Hozier. Sergei wishes to unshackle himself from the chains of ballet but cannot escape his talent. The video has already got over 18,000,000 views on YouTube! His fans love him and he can’t abandon them. Now, Polunin performs in collaboration with contemporary dancers and tries to bring novelty into classic ballet.
I’m particularly fascinated by his story because from afar he seems like the luckiest man – young, talented, successful, and loved by millions of fans. When you watch his ballet performances, you can’t help but think that he has a gift from God because there is no other way to explain his genius. However, with his dance to Hozier, his distress really comes to the fore. With his tattoo-covered body, Polunin seems like a rebel trapped in the body of a classic ballet dancer, who can’t escape from his talent. He is a ballet dancer and he has to dance. His story also strikes me as the embodiment of people’s inability to reach perfect contentment. Dissatisfaction with your own accomplishments, no matter how big and significant they are, is the ultimate recipe for unhappiness. We always want something more. Even if you’re the best ballet dancer in the world and millions of people love you, that’s not enough… We always ask ourselves – so what, and what’s next?
When I was looking for photos of Polunin to include in my blog post, I came across amazingly beautiful shots of him dancing and I couldn’t believe that this image of perfection can hold so much pain and distress within. The movie “Dancer” seems to be a huge success though and I hope this makes Sergei happy!