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By our reckoning, there are probably five sorts of people who might get Heath Ledger's Joker tattooed on their arm:
-Christopher Nolan obsessives
-Anarchists who 'want to watch the world burn'
-Emos, for whom life only make sense when taken as a joke
-Tormented types who see the tragic actor as a role model
We wouldn't think to put a guy in pink tights dancing The Nutcracker in that list. And yet, Sergei Polunin, the man who made ballet hip, has proved us wrong. And yes, come to think of it, his personality type probably does fit into at least one of the above categories.
Seregi Polunin is the subject of Dancer, a biographical documentary directed by Steven Castor (James Blunt: Return to Kosovo). Artists rarely get the biopic treatment until they are dead or dying. ButPolunin's life has been much like his dancing style: hard, spectacular and ephemeral. So ephemeral, in fact, that now, at the age of just 27, he is already considered to have retired from the upper echelons of the ballet world.
From Valerie Lawson's Dancelines
'I WANT TO GET SLIMMER SO PEOPLE ENJOY WATCHING ME'
Polunin was just nine when, after securing second place in Ukraine's National Ballet Competition, he said the following:
'I want a more beautiful figure. I want to get slimmer so people enjoy watching me. I want to be the best, so everyone will remember me.'
If someone had told that boy he would achieve all he dreamed of only to give it all up after a few years, he probably wouldn't have believed them. Polunin, who grew up carrying the hopes and aspirations of his poverty-stricken family on his shoulders, seemed sure from a young age that he was destined for greatness.
But his parents did not think to ask him whether he wanted greatness. Nor did they warn him about the potential dangers of his chosen path, or tell him that he would have to practice ten hours a day, six days a week, in his quest to be the best. Polunin's path seems to have been preordained from an early age. He was the best gymnast in his class and his teacher said that he should become a ballet dancer. As soon as Polunin's mother realised how much talent her son had, she became determined to make him a star.
Polunin went along with his mother's plans, in part because he enjoyed dancing, but also because he wanted to help his family out of poverty. It didn't matter how hard he had to work. And it didn't matter if his father had to travel to Portugal and his grandmother to Greece to pay for him to study at the ballet school in Kiev. The family invested everything in Polunin. Because that's how stars are born.
His family was right to believe in his potential. Their son was a rough diamond which they were helping to polish. At 13, Polunin won a place at the Royal Ballet School, moving to London. At first he flourished there. He was determined to succeed and provide for his family and bring them back together.
But his parents' forced separation took its toll, and when Polunin was 15 they got divorced. Polunin continued to make excellent progress in his career, but cracks were starting to appear in other aspects of his life.
Polunin was spending his vulnerable teenage years in a foreign country, far from his family, driven by anger and competitiveness. His tattoos were little acts of rebellion for a lost childhood that he would never get back. After his parents divorced, he decided he wanted little to do with them. He blamed his mother in particular for forcing him into a career he had never chosen. He told her not to come and see him perform.
And yet, as a dancer, he had broken one of the most impressive records in the industry: at just 19 years of age he was the youngest principal dancer in the history of the Royal London Ballet.
Polunin was already being lauded as the most promising young dancer of recent times. He was a star. He was even popular among preteens – a demographic not know for their interest in classical dance – who would queue up to have their photos taken with him. He had single-handedly turned a high-culture discipline into something cool and sexy that appealed to young people.
'I ALWAYS HOPED I WOULD BE INJURED SO I DIDN'T HAVE TO DANCE ANYMORE'
Baby-faced Polunin had London at his feet, but he continued his dalliance with drugs. He took Nurofen to get through his performances, seemingly unconcerned with how it might affect him in the long run:
'It gives me energy. I take it all the time. I heard they made it for the US army. It's such a fix, I don't even remember the performance afterwards.'
He was the best in the world, but Polunin but didn't fit the archetype of a Royal Ballet dancer. He wanted to dance but he needed to live. Then one day, just two years after becoming the company's principal dancer, he walked out of rehearsals and never returned.
Polunin was still just 22 and not quite ready to give up dancing yet. He decided to start again and have a little fun along the way. He took part in a dance competition on Russian TV, which –unsurprisingly – he won by a wide margin.
A new chance in a new country. Was that what Polunin needed? It turned out not to be the answer he'd been searching for. For the first time in his life, he began wondering whether the problem was not just the hard work or the pressure, but ballet itself.
'I didn't choose ballet. It was my mum's choice. I always hoped I would be injured so I didn't have to dance anymore.'
Perhaps driven by this sense of resentment, Polunin self-harmed, suffering some serious injuries in apparent suicide attempts. But somewhere deep within, Polunin found the strength to pull himself out of his self-destructive spiral. In this he was encouraged by friends and artistic collaborators. If he was going to leave ballet behind for good, he decided, he would so in style.
Polunin worked with photographer David LaChapelle and choreographer Jade Hale-Christofi. Together, they filmed the most impressive swan song ever seen in the history of dance: Take Me to Church.
The video quickly became a YouTube sensation – 20 million clicks and counting – proving to Polunin that he was far from alone, that he was loved, and that he was an inspiration to budding dancers all over the world. Motivated by the video's rapturous reception, Polunin decided to return to ballet. But this time he would do it on his terms: when he wanted, how he wanted, and with his family sitting in the front row.
Now, Polunin has found a new love and ally: Natalia Osipova, a Russian ballerina, who he met shortly after filming for the biopic ended. Polunin claims that Osipova has changed his life and helped him learn to love ballet again.
'I would lie if I say I don't love dancing. It fulfills me more than anything. When I jump, when I'm in the air... it's who I am.'
It's no longer the Joker tattoo that he feels most closely represents him now, but a newer one on his chest: three scars symbolising the three claws that have marked his life.
Those of his mother, who pushed him to become the best and forced him to carry the aspirations of his family on his young shoulders.
Those of his father, who spent six long years away from his son.
And those of ballet itself: a bittersweet discipline that can raise its stars to the heights of exultation as often as it plunges them into the depths of despair.