Picture gallery of Polunin in the comic ballet Coppélia at London's Coliseum 

Bad boy image

It seemed fitting that the bad boy of Russian ballet, Sergei Polunin, opened his first show in London last night by standing on stage smoking a cigarette.

It was not Polunin’s choice to smoke on stage, of course. He was performing French choreographer Roland Petit’s version of Coppélia with the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet.
But the dancer’s reputation as a wild young thing is no fiction.

Polunin famously left London in April just before the first night of the Peter Schaufuss production of Midnight Express, and earlier, in 2010, he left the Royal Ballet without warning.

He was the youngest principal dancer at Covent Garden at the age of 19, and the pressure on him was not insignificant.

Polunin had talked of taking heroin and performing on cocaine, and even this week gave interviews saying being a ballet dancer was not cool and does not make him enough money.

But despite what he says, Polunin displayed a virtuoso technique and gloriously comedic touches at his comeback performance last night in Coppélia, in which he plays a young man in love.

Self-harm

So is Sergei Polunin now back on the straight and narrow?

I caught up with the dancer backstage at the Coliseum just after his dress rehearsal, and asked him that:

"Well, I hope so, that it won’t happen again.

“I’m a person of instinct, I would say.

“It depends on the day, depends on the situation.

“I’ll take it from that, I don’t have a plan. I live by day by day – I think it’s more interesting.’"

Polunin has also talked of self-harm – of deliberately cutting himself to cope with emotional pain. But that is something he now downplays:

‘”t was taken a little bit wrongly, I would say.

“I like the look of tattoos, of scars, so I just did it for a look.

“It wasn’t self-harming, it was just for a look, you know, for a design, like a scar taken from a film or something.”

Cultural differences

Polunin says that though he enjoys performing, he finds rehearsals boring – perhaps something only a supremely gifted dancer can say.

He also seems more settled in Moscow than he was in London – where not only does he command far higher fees, but ballet is viewed quite differently:

“I think culturally in Russia it’s taken very seriously, politically, for example.

“Bigger audiences come to the ballet, tickets are sold out two months before a show.

“It’s as important as gymnastics, the Olympics, football – in Russia it’s very popular – ballet.”

Everyone in power
Whatever Polunin may think of how his art is seen in the West, the audience last night went wild at the end of the performance, giving him a standing ovation and calling him back on stage repeatedly.

Polunin’s triumphant return to the London stage is the first bit of good news from the world of Russian ballet for some time.

It came in the same week as the head of the Bolshoi Theatre was asked to step down, following a grisly acid attack on the artistic director Sergei Filin early this year.

Filin remains in hospital in Germany where doctors are struggling to save his eyesight.

In Polunin’s view, the problems in the Bolshoi are rooted in the number of different groups vying for power within it:

"At the Bolshoi there are problems because everybody has got power there – there’s not one [source of] power there, but a lot.

“For example, you take a corps de ballet girl into the theatre, she starts to - she becomes the wife of a big politician, [and] she now has a big say.

“The Bolshoi is a country within a country, everybody’s got ambitions, everybody’s young.

“And there are so many different powers within the Bolshoi."

Like clans?

"Basically, yes. So you have to deal with a lot of things, it’s not just one person in charge – it’s so many different voices."

Urin’s plans for Bolshoi

Vladimir Urin is the man who is about to begin work as the new director of the Bolshoi Theatre.

He was in London this week in his current job - as head of the Stanislavsky Ballet.

I asked him what his plans are for the Bolshoi:

"To tell the truth, because I have just joined this theatre, I don’t want to answer this question.

“Please don’t be offended – I have my views, but I don’t understand very well what has led to these problems in the theatre.

“I can only guess.

“Therefore I don’t want to judge now.

“I want to understand why what has been happening has been happening, the reasons behind all this.

“And I very much hope that in future, this kind of thing won’t happen."

I put it to Mr Urin that some at the theatre think that it has become too westernised and modern, and should stick to the classics:

"I wouldn’t say so.

“You can be very contemporary but at the same time still interesting and creative.

“You can keep searching, and this will be interesting to the audience.

“I think the theatre should be diverse: it should have the classics, combined with the great classic heritage of the 20th century, such as Balanchine, John Neumeier, Nacho Duato, [Kenneth] MacMillan.

“This is the classic heritage of the 20th century. Why shouldn’t it be staged? Of course it should.’"

As the current season draws to a close at the Bolshoi, ballet lovers in Moscow and beyond are hoping that Vladimir Urin will usher in a new period of stability at the theatre.

They hope that the Bolshoi will soon be making headlines for its actual performances – and not for violence and scandal.