Thursday, 26 January 2012

An Ukrainian Defection

The normally sedate world of the Royal Ballet was plunged into chaos this week when their star performer, Sergei Polunin, declared his intention to leave the renowned dance company with immediate effect.

The surprise announcement, which sent shockwaves through the ballet world (not least because mid-season departures are virtually unheard of), came after Polunin handed his resignation to Dame Monica Mason, the company’s director, on Tuesday afternoon.

"This has obviously come as a huge shock”, Mason said. “Sergei is a wonderful dancer and I have enjoyed watching him tremendously, both on stage and in the studio, over the past few years. I wish him every success in the future."

At just 22, Polunin was the Royal Ballet’s youngest-ever principal dancer and his prodigious talent had led to constant comparisons to Nureyev and Baryshnikov – but his abrupt departure has left many wondering whether he buckled under the immense weight of expectation.

Certainly, there have been clues to the dancer’s unravelling in his recent Twitter feed. On one occasion, he posted a picture of himself, beer in hand, at 9.30am, while in another he jokingly asks his followers for advice on where to buy heroin – hardly the sort of behaviour one would expect from a performer of Polunin’s calibre.

However, a quick study of Polunin’s background reveals the extent to which he was pressurized into ballet, and goes a long way towards explaining his ‘shock’ resignation.

Growing up in the Ukraine, the young Sergei was pushed into auditioning for the State Ballet in Kiev by an overbearing mother, who saw in her son a chance to lift the family out of extreme poverty. After training in Kiev, he then came to Britain to join the Royal Ballet at the tender age of 13.

In an interview with The Guardian last year, he said, "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."

Given this background, his recent actions become understandable – they could easily be interpreted as an act of rebellion against the enormous constraints placed on him from a very young age. However, whatever his reasons, let’s just hope that this crisis is short-lived and Polunin finds the will to return to dancing – because if he were to hang up his ballet shoes for good, the world would be a much poorer place indeed.

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