I was initially excited to see ballet hitting the mainstream media but unfortunately, this time, it was for the wrong reasons. The ballet community awoke on Tuesday with a warm glow after a successful National Dance Awards and its’ celebration of the best in dance and satisfied that controversy had been avoided and the best people walked away with awards. Unfortunately these feelings did not last long as the astonishing bombshell that Sergei Polunin was to leave the Royal Ballet with immediate effect was dropped without any warning signs. Everyone had been in rehearsals for a ballet opening the next week where Sergei was scheduled to be taking the lead role. It is rare that ballet makes mainstream headlines and there were reports on BBC News at 10 and the Channel 4 Evening News as well as front pages of leading broad-sheets. The little segments showed Sergei in his stunning gloriousness in the recent Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a role that was created on him and the first full-length narrative ballet that the Royal Ballet had commissioned in 20 years. This move has added poignancy with it being Dame Monica Mason’s last season in charge and may taint what should have been a nostalgic but successful season and with a great legacy in place of young talented dancers. I don’t think there is much I can add to this saga but it caused me to think more deeply about the pressures that are heaped upon our young starlets, especially in the world of ballet. As we all know, Black Swan has been the most high profile ballet-related film for years and provided a reference point for the non-initiated to what is thought to be like to be a professional dancer, however, the initiated know that this is not the truth or at the very least, provided a much heightened view of every problem a dancer with a damaged psyche could possibly face. To some, the saga with Sergei Polunin, helps to reinforce this view-point, although, the real world is far from that of Hollywood and I’m sure young dancers are nurtured and they are also growing up in a media-savvy world, so they have not had to adapt, like others in the public eye and dancers, due to their somewhat niche status do not live under the full glare of the media the way, say, film stars or Premiership footballers.
Dancers, or in fact anyone who wants to make it to the top of their profession and is gifted or in another light, cursed, with an extraordinary gift, must dedicate their life to it. A professional dancers’ life is lived largely within the confines of a training room. We can only imagine what it is like to undergo years of instruction, being yelled at and as Sergei grew up in the Ukraine, the Russian teachers are renowned for being quite brutal, if anyone heard Vadim Muntagirov, another dancer that seems to be naturally gifted and ahead of his time, telling us on Agony and Ecstasy, the mild brutality of his teachers, to get the best out of their dancers, or break the spirit of those that weren’t strong enough.
We are constantly amazed by someone that can do something so perfect, so young and a lot of talent is innate but not necessarily the mentality to handle the talent, like the body is maybe too big for the mind, whereas most of can only dream of being that talented. It is nothing new to see someone abusing their talent, or is seen not to appreciate their God-given abilities. The age-old question is why this happens and what can we do to stop this situation happening again in the future. It is not as if the ballet world is not full of prodigious talents who have had their difficulties. Has the road to the top been too quick and without a lot of the obstacles in his way that there have been with many other talents? I am aware of overcoming illness in Sergei’s early life but since he was plucked from School in the Ukraine and spotted and arrived at the Royal Ballet, his ballet career has gone into the stratosphere with critics drooling and not able to find fault, which cannot often be said of anyone, even the greatest dancers. He had it all, so why does he seem to have imploded and is the answer in his many tweets, which point to the need to shock and rebel. We sympathise with anyone who is under such a spotlight, although, the pressure for Sergei was probably only beginning to start and the spotlight of the Alice production was largely on his co-stars’ shoulders, Lauren Cuthbertson and especially young but experienced choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, who was himself part of the Ballet Boys, so you would think the knowledge and mentoring is there for young dancers and the experience to help them on with their mental development into a top-level dancer is within companies, especially as most staff have been there themselves but then that is the arrogance of youth that no-one ever experiences what they are experiencing. The timing of the decision is particularly strange with Wayne McGregor also on the staff as Resident Choreographer and if Sergei’s wish to leave was motivated by the confines of classical ballet, you would have thought that with Wayne McGregor on the staff, an amazing opportunity for Sergei.
Ballet is, by its’ nature, a controlled art-form and individual expression is possible within parameters of a role, in its’ interpretation. Ballet is highly disciplined, basically from the cradle to the end of a very short, adult career. It is very possible that ballet doesn’t suit every mentality and maybe, going forward, needs to expand more to embrace the mavericks, which there will always be some and sometimes we need the mavericks to make our worlds more exciting and less predictable. Although, it isn’t as if ballet hasn’t changed immeasurably with lots of new choreography and even the Royal Ballet have introduced more modern dance but I suppose once you get to Principal status, the audience are absolutely greedy to see you in the classic roles but maybe then, this was too quick for Sergei as he had years to be seen in these roles. A Guardian article questioning whether there is a growing problem with anorexia, ended with posing the question and one that has always astounded me and that is the lack of pay for professional dancers, which, if you take into consideration, the hours of practice and performance they put in, is well below the minimum wage and this is a campaign that I would certainly be willing to support for better pay and recognition for dancers. This is maybe another element into Sergei’s dissatisfaction, although wages at the Royal Ballet are much better than at most other companies and that is why they want to protect and nurture their product and not let them guest at other companies too much, especially not in the early stages of their careers and especially as the Royal Ballet had spotted Sergei when he was still at School, he was very much theirs, at least in the early days of their careers.
Whatever Sergei chooses to do in the future, we hope that it will be something that he loves and brings him joy and happiness. Most ballet fans would hope that this is a minor blip and small act of rebellion and that he can find peace with himself and his talent and that he can sometime, re-enter the world of ballet and be as sensational as his early career promises. I hope that this has brought an understanding of how the psyche is sometimes more fragile than the body, although, it will be a long time before we really know what happened and can only surmise as to the reasons for this sudden departure which has been nearly as sensational as his career. I hope that we can protect our young stars better in the future and not put so much pressure on ones so young.